Transportation, Part II: Riding the Rails

Every­one has trains in their lives,”1 main­tains pic­ture book author and illus­tra­tor Don­ald Crews. While few chil­dren have rid­den a pas­sen­ger train, their inter­est is fueled by watch­ing video series, play­ing with train sets, and count­ing train cars at a rail­road cross­ing. The fol­low­ing Calde­cott Award books con­sid­er trains from dif­fer­ent van­tage points, from the out­side or inside, from a real or fan­tas­ti­cal world. Climb aboard!

Freight Train

The vehi­cle is the pro­tag­o­nist in Don­ald Crews’s 1979 Calde­cott Hon­or book Freight Train. Along the bot­tom of the title page and copyright/dedication pages runs an emp­ty train track in neu­tral hues on a stark white back­ground. The first spread pro­nounces, “A train runs across this track.” yet the track remains emp­ty, instill­ing antic­i­pa­tion. A page turn begins a sequence of dou­ble-page spreads as the read­er approach­es the train from the rear: the bright warm col­ors of the last three cars of the track; then the cool col­ors of the next three cars; and in the lead, the black ten­der steam engine, emit­ting smoke. The fol­low­ing spread is a long shot of the entire train, herald­ing its rain­bow of cars.

Freight Train
illus­tra­tion copy­right Daniel Crews, from Freight Train, Green­wil­low, 1978

This per­spec­tive is retained through­out the book as the train speeds for­ward in a blur of col­ors through tun­nels, past cities, and over tres­tles in a well-paced 24-page jour­ney. The last three pages leave read­ers breath­less as the train trav­els in dark­ness, then day­light, before rac­ing off the page – “gone,” leav­ing only wisps of smoke.

In a min­i­mal­is­tic style, the few back­grounds are mut­ed, giv­ing read­ers a sense of place while keep­ing the focus on the train. The com­bi­na­tion of crisp lines and shapes, col­or­ful blur­ring cars, and bil­low­ing black and grey smoke are achieved through pre­sep­a­rat­ed art and air­brush with trans­par­ent dyes.2

Crews’s con­nec­tions to trains run deep. His father worked for the Penn­syl­va­nia Rail­road, which gave the fam­i­ly free pas­sage for their year­ly sum­mer trips from New Jer­sey to his mater­nal grand­par­ents’ farm in Flori­da.3 In fact, the book’s ded­i­ca­tion includes a nod to “the count­less freight trains passed and pass­ing the big house in Cot­ton­dale.” Crews’s per­son­al asso­ci­a­tion with trains, in con­cert with his adept design skills, cre­ate delight in this suc­cess­ful pic­ture book for young children.


Unlike Crews’s con­cep­tu­al train book, Bri­an Floca’s 2014 Calde­cott Award book Loco­mo­tive is infused with his­to­ry, specif­i­cal­ly that of the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road. The sto­ry­line of the pic­ture book is dis­closed on the title page, where a vignette intro­duces a fic­tion­al fam­i­ly. A tele­graph from Papa beck­ons his wife, daugh­ter, and son to trav­el from Oma­ha to join him in Cal­i­for­nia. A fam­i­ly pho­to and two rail­road guides com­plete the tableau.

Before their jour­ney begins, the book opens with an image of the aus­tere land­scape, fol­lowed by a dou­ble-page spread acknowl­edg­ing the work­ers who built the rail­road. On the rec­to, swing­ing ham­mers lead to the page turn.

illustration from Locomotive
illus­tra­tion copy­right Bri­an Flo­ca, from Loco­mo­tive, Atheneum Books for Young Read­ers, 2013

The moth­er and chil­dren wait on the plat­form as the mas­sive train arrives. In text and illus­tra­tions, Flo­ca describes the respon­si­bil­i­ties of the crew mem­bers, as well as pas­sen­ger ameni­ties avail­able on the train, such as a stove for heat and a toi­let. Along the way, the engines and crews are replaced dur­ing the four-day adven­ture. Spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic land­marks sig­nal the train’s west­ward progress, includ­ing Cas­tle Rock in Utah and the Forty Mile Desert in Neva­da. Sacra­men­to marks the end of the train’s jour­ney and the begin­ning of a new one for the reunit­ed fam­i­ly, who con­tin­ue by steam­er to San Francisco.

Flo­ca deft­ly employs ink with water­col­or, acrylic, and gouache in his real­is­tic paint­ings. The images of the train, par­tic­u­lar­ly the immense loco­mo­tives, are sur­pris­ing­ly col­or­ful and ornate. In many spreads, the loco­mo­tive charges direct­ly at read­ers. Night­time scenes mes­mer­ize with the glow of inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or train lamps and star­ry skies.

Page design varies wide­ly from small and large vignettes to full-bleed sin­gle- and dou­ble-page spreads in the large for­mat, 64-page pic­ture book. Bold and var­ied type­faces play an active role in the com­po­si­tion of many illus­tra­tions, often to accen­tu­ate loud noises.

Flo­ca, a col­lege his­to­ry major, admits that the top­ic “sprawls. It’s his­to­ry, it’s engi­neer­ing, it’s the land­scape, it’s the West!”4 He exam­ines these ele­ments in depth in the dense front end­pa­pers which include a repro­duc­tion of a Union Pacif­ic Rail­road adver­tise­ment tout­ing the new­ly com­plet­ed route, topo­graph­i­cal and ele­va­tion maps, and a his­tor­i­cal overview of the rail line. Exten­sive back mat­ter describes the impact of the steam loco­mo­tive and Floca’s sources. Final­ly, back end­pa­pers explain the sci­ence of steam pow­er, com­plete with a detailed cross-sec­tion of a steam engine. A Cen­tral Pacif­ic Rail­road timetable and fare list­ing hides beneath the dust jack­et flap.

The Polar Express

A final pic­ture book takes read­ers on a won­drous win­ter train ride in a con­tem­po­rary children’s clas­sic con­ceived by author-illus­tra­tor Chris Van Alls­burg. In the 1986 Calde­cott Medal book The Polar Express, a boy holds out hope that he will hear the ring­ing Santa’s sleigh bells on Christ­mas Eve. Instead, he hears the hiss­ing and squeak­ing of a train that has stopped in front of his house. In paja­mas, robe, and slip­pers, the child ven­tures out­side, where he is greet­ed by the con­duc­tor of the Polar Express. Nat­u­ral­ly, the boy climbs aboard to embark upon an extra­or­di­nary jour­ney. The long train, filled with chil­dren, trav­els through forests and over moun­tains before it cross­es the polar ice cap to a city at the North Pole.

illustration from The Polar Express
illus­tra­tion copy­right Chris Van Alls­burg, from The Polar Express, Houghton Mif­flin, 1985

Van Allsburg’s framed images cov­er almost an entire dou­ble-page spread, leav­ing room for a nar­row mar­gin of text on the ver­so or rec­to. With­in each illus­tra­tion the artist uses a range of mut­ed blues, tau­pes, reds, and yel­lows, play­ing with dark and light to set the mood, often mag­i­cal but some­times omi­nous. Warm lights from the train win­dows and with­in the city are coun­tered by mys­te­ri­ous shad­ows. Snow and steam enhance the dream­like qual­i­ty of the sto­ry. The artist’s real­is­tic and sur­re­al­is­tic illus­tra­tions are detailed, with lines soft­ened by his use of full-col­or oil pas­tels on pas­tel paper.5

The illus­tra­tor shifts the point of view through­out the book, there­by main­tain­ing visu­al inter­est and cre­at­ing sur­prise. Until the train reach­es its des­ti­na­tion, it remains the focal point, chang­ing in size and loca­tion on each spread. The sequence of scenes at the North Pole are note­wor­thy, with long views and close-ups, look­ing up from below and look­ing down from above. The image of San­ta fly­ing off with his team of rein­deer is dizzy­ing. The artist address­es his cin­e­mat­ic approach to illus­tra­tion: “Because I see the sto­ry unfold as if it were on film, the chal­lenge is decid­ing pre­cise­ly which moment should be illus­trat­ed and from which point of view.”6 Van Allsburg’s entic­ing illus­tra­tions draw read­ers into the tale, a sto­ry that seems improb­a­ble, but just might be true.

In a vari­ety of styles for a wide range of read­ers, these Calde­cott Award books cap­ture the allure of trains through appeal­ing nar­ra­tive and dis­tin­guished artwork.

Picture Books Cited

Crews, Don­ald. Freight Train. New York: Green­wil­low, 1978.

Flo­ca, Bri­an. Loco­mo­tive. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Read­ers, 2013.

Van Alls­burg, Chris. The Polar Express. Boston: Houghton Mif­flin, 1985.

  1. Leonard S. Mar­cus, Pass It Down: Five Pic­ture-Book Fam­i­lies Make Their Mark (New York: Walk­er, 2007), 10.
  2. Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC), The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books (Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017), 127.
  3. Don­ald Crews, “Wilder Medal Accep­tance,” Horn Book Mag­a­zine 91, no. 4 (July 2015): 89.
  4. Julie Daniel­son, “Epic, Inti­mate Loco­mo­tive,” Kirkus Reviews, 16 Sep­tem­ber 2013.
  5. ALSC, The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards, 121.
  6. Chris Van Alls­burg, “Calde­cott Medal Accep­tance,” Horn Book Mag­a­zine 62, no. 4 (July 1986): 423.

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books. Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017.

Crews, Don­ald. “Wilder Medal Accep­tance.” Horn Book Mag­a­zine 91, no. 4 (July 2015): 88 – 94.

Daniel­son, Julie. “Epic, Inti­mate Loco­mo­tive.” Kirkus Reviews. 16 Sep­tem­ber 2013.

Mar­cus, Leonard S. Pass It Down: Five Pic­ture-Book Fam­i­lies Make Their Mark. New York: Walk­er, 2007.

Van Alls­burg, Chris. “Calde­cott Medal Accep­tance.” Horn Book Mag­a­zine 62, no. 4 (July/August 1986): 420 – 24.

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