Locomotive

locomotive12 268x300 LocomotiveThe first thing you notice about Brian Floca’s Locomotive is its big, bold size and square shape. Jonathan Bean’s Building our House  has a larger-than-average trim size as well, but this is different. This one has a lot more bells and whistles (literally: “CLANG-CLANG CLANG-CLANG” “WHOO-OOOOOO”). This one is in-your-face big; this one has a steam locomotive bearing down on you on the jacket. (The cover underneath is a different story; more later.)

But what do we see when we open the book (skipping the striking, info-packed endpapers for now)? Several pages of small, unassuming, opposite-of-in-your-face images. On the title page, a handful of ordinary nineteenth-century objects: a family photograph, a telegram, a couple of travelers’ railway guide booklets. A page turn reveals a  double-page spread of white space containing one circular vignette of a landscape devoid of people or objects—just a view of train tracks disappearing into the vanishing point, drawing viewers right in. Also? It’s quiet. There’s a lot of space. You can breathe.  The spread gives you room to listen to the simple, poetic opening text: “HERE IS A ROAD / made for crossing the country / a new road of rails / made for people to ride.”

My point is that Floca never takes the obvious route as he tells the story of riding America’s first transcontinental railroad in the summer of 1869. In Kirkus Julie Danielson characterized Locomotive as “both epic and intimate,” and that’s it exactly. This is history, this is travelogue; this is a story of world-changing technology; this is a human story. And how Floca makes it all work will surely be the subject of much discussion amongst Caldecott committee members.

I could talk about this book till the cowcatchers come home—its sense of immediacy, of movement, of history brought to life; its capturing of the expanse, colors, shapes, and even the light of the American Western landscape; its seamlessly incorporated research—but I am going to concentrate on just one point and then shut up and let others talk :).

The obvious choice would have been to make the book ultra horizontal. Trains are long and low; the track is long and straight; the traversed landscape often flat. But from the very start Floca uses both the vertical and horizontal possibilities of his large square trim size, which makes the book so much more dynamic.

For instance, the first full-page illustration in the book shows three men hammering spikes from a ground-level perspective so that the picture is all about the up-and-down movement of the hammers. Look at the man in the forefront of the picture. His hammer is raised so far over his head that it can’t be contained on the page. Vertical. But the composition of the illustration communicates forward motion as well. The lines of the first man’s body angle not just up but to the right; the second man’s hammer points directly to the right. Horizontal.

On the very next spread, look at how the lines in the full-page illustration on the left-hand page draw your eye straight into the picture (train tracks) and then up and to the right and onto the next page (depot roof line) even as the riveted faces of our traveling family telegraph that something really interesting is happening on the right-hand page. And indeed it is, as a series of thumbnail vignettes steam down the page, bringing the locomotive closer and closer to the station and closer and closer to us.  And the onomatopoeia in the bold, design-y text falling off the right edge of the book leads us to turn the page…where Locomotive #23 is revealed in all its glory, and the journey begins.

Do I think the book is perfect? No. The italics in the main text are overkill. And it’s a little odd that when our family of three is finally reunited with husband/father, the text says, “…here with the people / you’ve waited / and wanted / and needed to see.” I understand that the text is speaking universally and inclusively with that “you,” but because by then I’m so invested in the family’s journey and because the illustration shows just one person, the word people strikes an off note. But these are quibbles, and ones primarily with the text. How much does the actual Caldecott committee need to pay attention to such things?

That’s one question. Another is, how will people classify this book? At The Horn Book we ran Sam Bloom’s starred review in the nonfiction section of the magazine. We felt that the family’s story was a stand-in for Everyman’s experience on the transcontinental railroad; this was a nonfiction book about the transcontinental railroad, not historical fiction about particular characters. Do others see it differently? And will it matter to the Caldecott committee? Many biographies have garnered Caldecott honors in the past; fewer works of straight nonfiction have been recognized.

I’ve gone on too long and yet I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of what there is to talk about here. (And speaking of surfaces…. do take off the jacket and look at the cover beneath. A, it gave me shivers, and B, it tells the truth.) This book is a feat, any way you look at it—up, down, and sideways; above and below the surface. Like John Rocco, I’d be very happy to see a shiny sticker on its cover.

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About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is executive editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

Comments

  1. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    That was fun.
    Turning the pages with Martha and thinking about all the choices that Floca made on each rich page. More later.

  2. I agree, Robin. Once I saw this post, I had to run upstairs and get my copy so I could follow along with you, Martha!

    You guys have really chosen two of the best books of the year to lead off with – just outstanding. And I love the fact that you talk about the sense of forward motion in the page turns. This book is paced so, so well. I especially love the transition from the “FULL STEAM AHEAD”/Platte River Valley spread, with the blurred lines showing the speed of the rushing train as we look over the engineer’s shoulders, into the remote view of the locomotive chugging slowly (or so it seems) across The Great Plains. Very cinematic.

    Oh, and I know Martha mentioned the endpapers, but they really are absolutely stunning, both front and back. Check out the way the Union Pacific Railroad handbill (is that the right term?) fits perfectly under the front jacket flap and leads into the front endpapers, and the Central Pacific handbill fits under the back jacket flap… nice bit of framing. Too bad those two weren’t switched to be geographically accurate, or maybe I’m just being a map/cardinal direction nerd? Anyway, I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the endpapers, but I need to stop now. Needless to say, they are worth poring over.

    • Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

      I keep circling back to this book because the train-obsessed boy in my class loves it so much. He knows the names of the trains and loves the history. He is, at the moment, flipping back and forth between Locomotive and How to Train a Train, illustrated by John Rocco. Wait until I add Elisha Cooper’s Train into the mix!

      This reminds me of the year of the penguin books. Or the Darwin book year.

      And the Caldecott committee will have to compare and contrast with them too. Unless it’s going to be an all-train year!

    • Martha V. Parravano says:

      Thank you, Sam, for your comments about the endpapers. They are truly a wonder of design/layout. Especially on the front endpapers, because in order to read them properly you need to start at the top right hand edge and go left, then down, then right again across the bottom of the page. Not a normal way to read a page! and yet having that portrait of Lincoln looking the right direction (that is, looking left) makes it all work.

      I’m also glad you mentioned the illustration where the reader/viewer is practically sitting on the shoulder of the engineer as he looks forward into the Great Basin. Talk about a you-are-there moment!

  3. Martha – I’m right with you as you talk about the vertical -vs- the horizontal, and the amazing use of perspective. Floca never allows the reader to get too comfortable as you move through the book – jumping to different angles, mixing pages of small focused illustrations with full page spreads of just three train wheels. It’s visually jarring, but in a way that builds interest, rather than putting off the reader.

    I also really appreciate Floca’s use of focus with his illustrated people (I’m not sure how to word this correctly). As I go through the book, I feel as if the characters show me where to look next, by how they themselves are looking. In fact, I only count three pages in the entire book in which the characters do not have extremely focused gazes, which draw my eyes along with them. I’m finding it hard to describe, but it’s something I haven’t experienced very often.

    I also agree that it isn’t a perfect book. I feel as if the text is visually trying too hard on many of the pages, and it takes away at times from the expertise of Floca’s illustrations. When his illustrations are so visually complex and interesting, it’s a little disappointing when the text tries to be “cute.” However, overall, it’s a stunning book, and I would love to be a fly on the wall as the committee wrestles over many of the different aspects!

    • Martha V. Parravano says:

      Kevin, I know exactly what you mean about the characters’ focused gazes! The place that most caught my attention is toward the end of the book. The train is approaching the Sierra Nevada (mountains) and the two young people in “our” family are looking out the window, taking in the scenery, enjoying the spruce and pines, the change from the desert landscape, when [page turn] a shadow falls across their window and their faces change, having clearly seen something ominous… and we readers follow their gaze to see the fearsome snow-shed tunnel approaching–which then leads to a darkly glorious double-page spread of the train inside the tunnel.

  4. Dean Schneider says:

    Thanks Martha for such a nice tour through the book. As you say or imply, it’s a testament to the quality of the book that there’s so much to say about it. One thing I especially like about this blog is the links to elsewhere–Julie Danielson, Sam Bloom, John Rocco–that enrich the discussion. I waited until tonight to post when I have the book in front of me.

    I think nonfiction is the right place to go with this title. Having just been on Sibert, I’m jealous of the new committee getting to consider this; I would love to be on the committee all over again!

    I don’t have a problem with the text’s various fonts and huge letters, italics, exclamation points, etc. I wonder if, without the variety of such eye-catching visuals, we’d be saying there was a sameness to the large amount of text. But I do feel this works best when it parallels the action of the train–the close-up of the wheels, the train’s whistle, the arrival of #23 on the first spread–and less well when just announcing “Today’s Menu.” One of the strengths of the text is the vigor of the action verbs, and I see the italics as simply placing emphasis on them. Related to that, I like the urgency of the text: “Full steam ahead again, / westward, westward.”

    And the variety of terrains depicted: the open country, the trestles, canyons, deserts, tunnels. Beautifully done.

    A fun question to ponder is: How will a book about trains fare against equally accomplished works about people, with the power of human personality and connection to pull readers in, such as Radunsky’s ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, about Albert Einstein? Not that it ought to matter, but I wonder.

  5. Oh I just loved this one! I need to go back and reread it but my first impression of it was a sense of wonder. Each page is just beautiful and breathtaking and I love how the various scenes are depicted. Visually I think it’s amazing and beautiful.

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