As in most train books, Elisha Cooper talks about the great size of trains and the sounds they make. But Cooper doesn’t make a big effort to sell the excitement of trains. Rather, he seems to be standing back and observing closely, never giving in to the obvious. This is a book for kids who already like trains and are willing to spend time going over his pictures (some of which are tiny) and words again and again.
The huge lettering on the cover of this book is deceptive, and I’m guessing the marketing department had something to do with it. For me, what sets Cooper apart from other illustrators is his fresh, close observation — and a knowledge that some kids like to watch and watch, learning from observation just as he does. I suspect that’s the kind of kid he was, and that’s who his nonfiction books are for. He is a sketcher at heart and his pencil lines tend to be gestural, leaving gaps between corners. But the watercolor fills in any questions about what he’s showing us.
Remember Cooper’s Ballpark? (Of course the actual Caldecott committee isn’t allowed to consider older books, but we have a little more freedom here.) Instead of selling us on the excitement of the game, we got a look at the grounds crew, the laundry crew, and the concession workers. Yes, the players were there, too, but they were just part of a larger whole. Soon after the game started—you guessed it—there was a rain delay. Now, no one I know would admit to a young child eager to watch his first ballgame that there was a chance he’d have to sit in the rain for a couple of hours waiting for the game to start up again. Trust Cooper. Or rather, Cooper trusts that there are still some kids who are patient and willing to look around them and find interesting details, no matter where they are.
I’m a huge Elisha Cooper fan, maybe partly because I was the kind of kid he’s writing for.
There are two train books getting a lot of attention this year. The other one is by Brian Floca, big and noisy and chockfull of information. Then there is Cooper’s book, which follows five different trains, one by one, as they pass each other. We travel across the U.S. from east to west, tagging along. We don’t learn everything there is to know about each train, though there is a glossary at the end, complete with some Cooper humor embedded in the definitions. Instead, we experience each train in a new way—Cooper’s way. As in Ballpark, he chooses to zoom in on unlikely aspects in each scene. A spread showing a long shot of the Passenger Train above the text has a series of rats or mice running, sitting, scratching their ears, etc., below the text. These represent the “small animals [that] scurry under the tracks.” Likewise, when two girls on the Overnight Train visit the dining car, Cooper shows us vignettes of the waiter as she snaps open a tablecloth, bends to serve coffee, etc.
I have to mention Cooper’s sound effects, too. There are no big WOOOO-WOOOOs or CLATTERCLATTERs here. His text is just as observant and specific as his art. Here’s how he describes the sound of the Passenger Train: “As the train approaches a rail crossing, it sounds like a storm. As the train passes, it sounds like dropped pots and pans. As the train leaves, it sounds like the da dum da dum of a beating heart.” Now that’s observation.
In my experience, the Caldecott Medal rarely goes to quiet, introspective books. Those tend to receive honor awards instead. I wonder if that’s likely to happen here…or will Train‘s large format give Cooper a better chance at being recognized? What do you think?