Locomotive

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Locomotive Book Poster Image
Gorgeous story of train journey is exciting, fact-packed.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Locomotive offers a comprehensive look at steam trains, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the Western expansion of the United States in the late 1800s, and how railroads changed America: "Here covered wagons used to crawl, / foot by foot, mile by mile, / heading into the West. Here the Cheyenne lived / the Omaha and the Arapaho, the Pawnee and Dakota. / And here the bison used to roam, / by the thousands, by the millions. / Now you'd be lucky to see one at all, / now the plains are changed." 

Positive Messages

With vision and energy, people and the government can come together to accomplish great things. Great deeds sometimes come with great risks and danger. Travel is a broadening experience as you encounter different sights, foods, people, and local customs.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The young family that ventures across the country is brave, curious, and open to new experience, willing to take risks to create a new life out West. The men who build the railroad and run the trains risk life and limb (and fingers, in the case of the switchmen) to help people travel across the country. The railroad crews are made up of multiple races and nationalities, including Chinese and African-Americans. 

Violence & Scariness

Depiction of an engine falling off the track ("This wreck here is not our train!"); a locomotive exploding ("KA-BOOM!") when the water level drops too low in the boiler and "the firebox would melt, would buckle, would blow"; mention of switchmen losing fingers when they attach the engine to the train in the railyard ("and here's what they say about switchmen: You can tell that one is new to the job if he still has all his fingers."); mention of how black powder and nitroglycerin "BOOMED!" to create a train tunnel in a mountain. 

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Locomotive is a beautifully illustrated picture book by Brian Floca (MoonshotLightship) that shows kids what it was like to cross the United States on a steam train in 1869, just after the transcontinental railroad was built. With you-are-there excitement, readers follow a family's journey and learn all about steam trains and the building of "a road made for crossing the country, a new road of rails made for people to ride." Locomotive is poetic, thrilling, meticulously researched and ultra-informative -- great for home or the classroom, train fans, history buffs, Wild West lovers, or anyone who enjoys finding out fascinating facts. 

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What's the story?

Three members of a family -- mother, daughter, and younger brother -- board a steam train in Omaha, Neb., in 1869 for a ride on the just-built transcontinental railroad, headed for Sacramento, Calif., where they'll join Dad and continue to San Francisco to start a new life. All the sights and sounds are new to them, just as many of the facts about how the tracks and mountain tunnels were built, the multiethnic crews that built them, and the operation of steam trains may be new to young readers.

Is it any good?

LOCOMOTIVE is a visually dazzling, poetically written, impressively informative picture book. It gives a comprehensive account of what it was like to cross the United States by train in the late 1800s, and is filled with historical facts and detailed watercolor illustrations of everything from how wood and coal fueled the steam engines to how the on-board toilet flushed to what narrow, rickety wooden bridges looked like across steep canyons in the Wild West. Yet by focusing on one family's journey, it becomes a thrilling, relatable human adventure rather than dry textbook material about a long-gone technology. Author-illustrator Brian Floca provides plenty of historical context to underscore what a revelation transcontinental travel was for the people of that era. 

In an earth-toned, pastel palette, Floca effectively varies long shots and closeups and uses large-type, all-capital letters for phrases like, "ALL ABOARD!," "FULL STEAM AHEAD!," and the steam whistle's "lonesome cry," "WHOOOOOOO! WHOOOOO! WHOO," to help build excitement. End papers offer a time line and a map of the transcontinental railroad as well as a diagram and explanation of how steam power works. A long Author's Note gives more information, followed by a list of sources for further research. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about trains. Why are toy train and train stories so popular with kids? What other train stories have you read or seen in movies or on TV?

  • What are some of the things you learned about steam trains and train travel in the 1800s from Locomotive

  • How is train travel different today from it was in the late 1800s, when Locomotive takes place? 

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