The 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.