April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

All Aboard! | Great Books about Trains

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It’s been a banner year for books about railroad trains, a topic that remains perennially popular with young readers. Featuring newer titles worthy of a hardy “woo woo” and a smattering of old favorites, these selections will captivate transportation buffs. There’s something for every would-be engineer, whether they prefer their tales based in history, brimming with the wonders of modern-day machinery, or inspired by rail-riding flights of fancy.

All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine.
By Monica Kulling. illus. by Bill Slavin. Tundra. 2010.
Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-88776-945-0; pap. $7.95.
ISBN 978-1-77049-514-2. K–Gr 3.

Born the son of former slaves in 1844, 16-year-old Elijah traveled to Scotland to study mechanical engineering before moving to Michigan in 1866. Despite his qualifications, the only railroad job he could find was shoveling coal into the firebox. The work was “hot, hard” and hazardous, but Elijah’s “mind sparked with ideas,” and before long, he designed—and patented—an engine-lubricating oil cup that would greatly increase safety and efficiency, the first of many revolutionary inventions. A satisfying true tale of perseverance, innovation, and “fire-breathing” locomotives.

Down by the Station. By Will Hillenbrand. illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 1999. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-15-201804-7; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-15216-790-5. PreS–Gr 1.

In this effervescent version of a traditional song, a zoo train stops at various enclosures to collect a menagerie of rambunctious baby animals. Hillenbrand adds appropriate sounds to the familiar “Puff, puff,/Toot, toot” refrain, encouraging youngsters to chime in with a flamingo chick’s “Peep, peep” and tiger cub’s “Mew, mew.” The passengers are heading to the children’s zoo of course, to meet up with a busload of eager youngsters. Vibrant mixed-media illustrations depict the doings of the mischievous critters, expanding upon the lyrics with fun-to-follow visual storylines. A charming choice for singing together, poring over, and enjoying again and again.

Freight Train. By Donald Crews. illus. by author. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 1978. Tr $16.99.
ISBN 978-0-68880-165-6; pap. $7.99
ISBN 978-0-688-11701-6; Board $7.99.
ISBN 978-0-68814-900-0; ebook $6.99.
ISBN 978-0-06212-047-2. PreS–Gr 1.

From red caboose to purple box car, cleanly designed pages depict a lineup of monochromatic rail cars pulled by a coal-black steam engine. Excitement builds to a crescendo as the train bursts into motion—colors blurred and smoke trailing backward—until it is “Going, going…gone,” and only a wisp of gray remains. Perfect pacing, simple text, and bold images make this the gold standard of train titles.

How to Train a Train. By Jason Carter Eaton. illus. by John Rocco. Candlewick. 2013. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6307-0. PreS–Gr 1.

Declaring that “Trains make awesome pets,” a pith-helmeted youngster instructs readers on how they can be tracked (freight trains live in the countryside while monorails dwell in cities), caught (perhaps using coal bait and “Chugga-chugga” call), named (examples include Picklepuss and Smokey), and cared for (trains like to be read to and can even learn a few tricks). Deftly personified, Rocco’s large-size locomotives are as endearing as any pooch as they romp, relax, and revel in their new friends’ affection. The tongue-in-cheek telling, exuberant artwork, and jaunty juxtapositioning of themes make for a read-it-again delight.

I’m Fast! By Kate McMullan. illus. by Jim McMullan. HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray. 2012. PLB $17.89.
ISBN 978-0-06-192086-8; Tr $16.99.
ISBN 978-0-06-192085-1. PreS–Gr 2.

“Ready? Set? Roll!” The race is on as a freight-hauling train and a speedy red roadster go grill to grill to see which will be the first one to make it to Chicago. The mighty engine’s brusque and bodacious narrative describes how cargo is loaded and carried, challenges are met and ably overcome, and sportsmanship reigns supreme (the champ offers the exhausted car a ride back to Sacramento on its auto-rack). The broadly stroked watercolors propel the action forward at full throttle, but kids will want to put on the brakes to peruse the train-savvy details and humorous touches.

Locomotive. By Brian Floca. illus. by author. S & S/Atheneum/Richard Jackson Bks. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-9415-2; ebook $12.99.
ISBN 978-1-4424-8522-8. Gr 3–5.

It’s the summer of 1869, and a family from Omaha, Nebraska, embarks on a weeklong trip aboard the just-completed transcontinental railroad to start a new life in California. Floca’s tale seamlessly intertwines historical detail with spirited descriptions of the workings of the mighty iron horse, the passengers’ experiences, and the passing terrain. Filled with clash-clanging sound effects, robust verbs, and burly rhythms, the present-tense prose and dynamic artwork provide an eye-witness perspective. Dramatic and detailed, this book captures the exhilaration of riding the rails and the full-steam-ahead expansion of a young nation.

Railroad Hank. By Lisa Moser. illus. by Benji Davies. Random. 2012. PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-96849-5;
Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-86849-8; ebook $10.99.
ISBN 978-0-375-98121-0. PreS–Gr 2.

Heading up the mountain to cheer up Granny Bett, a kindly engineer stops to chat with several neighbors, each of whom decides to send a gift to raise her spirits. However, Railroad Hank repeatedly misunderstands their offers (frustrated farmers pursue him, exclaiming, “Take the milk! Not the Cows!” or “Take the apples! Not the tree!”), resulting in an unusual load of cargo that explodes from the train and soon has the elderly woman grinning from ear to ear. A folksy and funny telling, ebullient cartoon artwork, and “chugga chugga, woo woo woo!!” refrain make for a rip-snorting read-aloud.

Rattle and Rap. By Susan Steggall. illus. by author. Frances Lincoln. 2009. Tr $15.95.
ISBN 978-1-84507-703-7; pap. $8.95.
ISBN 978-1-84780-127-2. PreS–K.

Colorful, handsomely constructed collage illustrations show a boy and his family boarding a sleek train that bustles through railway crossings and tunnels, hurries over bridges and across the countryside, and finally arrives at their seaside destination, where a loved one waits with open arms. The cadenced text skillfully utilizes snappy phrases, alliteration, and onomatopoeia to evoke the sounds of and thrills of the journey. A read-together treat for both eyes and ears.

Steam Train, Dream Train. By Sherri Duskey Rinker. illus. by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4521-0920-6. PreS–K.

With smokestack puffing and brakes squealing, the dream train pulls into a starlit station. Cuddly looking animals stow the cargo, matching specific freight to the appropriate car: a giraffe fills a hopper with bouncy balls, elephants squirt paint from their trunks into tankers, polar bears stuff the reefer car with giant frozen sundaes, and more. Finally finished, the hard-working critters settle into cozy flatbed beds and the train departs for dreamland. Soothing rhymes and softly textured, dusky-hued artwork create a whimsical fantasy.

Train. By Elisha Cooper. illus. by author. Scholastic/Orchard. Oct. 2013. Tr $17.99.
ISBN 978-0-545-38495-7. PreS–Gr 2.

Readers journey from East Coast to West, setting out on a rail-clattering Commuter Train before switching over to a city-spanning Passenger Train, crossing the prairie on a slow-rolling Freight Train, scaling the Rocky Mountains on curve-hugging Overnight Train, and finally arriving at their destination onboard a sleek and silent High-Speed Train. Imbued with crisply described sights, sounds, and smells, the lyrical text hurls the action forward while the precise and elegant watercolor paintings add detail and motion. A spectacular cross-country excursion, perfect for one-on-one sharing.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. One of our readers’ favorite railroad adventures is Timmy and Tammy’s Train of Thought. The energetic illustrations by Heath McPherson bring to life locomotives of all shapes, sizes, and sounds. Youngsters can enjoy identifying real life engines. Plus their parents have told us they’ve had to read this book every day until their copies fell apart… and still did not get tired of it.

  2. Although not strictly a train book, SHARK VS TRAIN is another favorite at our house!