When the Whistle Blows

Book review by
Debra Bogart, Common Sense Media
When the Whistle Blows Book Poster Image
Coming-of-age adventure will especially hook boy readers.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Information about steam trains and the advent of diesel trains, life during the early 1940s in America.

Positive Messages

Close-knit relationships in this 1940s small town revolve around a sense of community where friends look out for each other as if they were family. Jimmy's parents urge their sons to complete their educations. Loyalty, compassion, and courage are core values throughout the book.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jimmy likes danger and mischief, but works hard, stands by his friends, and grows up to be as courageous as his father. The boys in this town have plenty of examples of why they don't want to grow up to become drunks, lazy, or criminal; they also have examples of hardworking, honest men who watch out for those less fortunate and want better lives for their children.


Jimmy gets beaten up by older brothers; a man is shot in a grocery market robbery; a man loses his leg in a train accident and dies; a train engine explodes and men are killed.


"Heck," plus one use of "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Jimmy's dad is a functioning alcoholic; many adult men drink whiskey; teens drink on weekends; adults drink at meetings of the secret society. Jimmy's father tries to quit smoking cigarettes when he develops emphysema. And 12-year-old boys sometimes sneak cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this fast-paced adventure tailor-made for boy readers has some drinking (mostly among the adult males) and a lot of pranking among the kids, especially on Halloween. There is some violence, including a train crash and a parent's death.

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What's the story?

Halloween night, 1943, Jimmy's big brother wakes him up to sneak into a meeting of the Secret Society -- at the funeral home. Jimmy is 12 years old, and he doesn't manage to find out exactly what the Society is until another Halloween night, six years later, after another funeral. Every Halloween in between is a different adventure, from the big football game when he broke his leg to the night a prank went wrong and a sheriff's car got squashed. After the war ends Jimmy grows closer to his dad and wants to work for the railroad just like him, despite his father's insistence that he leave town after high school graduation. Technology brings changes to Jimmy's town and to his family that make him grow up faster than he wants to.

Is it any good?

It's a small-town tale reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, with a historical setting and a mysterious twist. Halloween pranks, steam trains, football, and adventures that harken back to the writing of Mark Twain and Jack London make this a memorable read that will entice even reluctant readers with likeable characters and entertaining exploits centered around family. The unusual narrative structure uses six long chapters, each taking place on a consecutive Halloween, to tell the story of a boy coming of age in post-WWII America when technology is changing life in many ways. Jimmy's dad wants a better life for his sons, one that is safer and more reliable, and a universal story is made new in this rousing version as a boy grows up enough to recognize his father has not only courage and compassion, but real wisdom.

The ending reveals those same qualities in four Irish brothers named Cannon, who immigrated to America on a coffin ship and vowed to help each other. Highly enjoyable fiction based on some real-life events in West Virginia.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about small town life. What are the drawbacks to everyone knowing what is going on with everyone else? What are the benefits?

  • Jimmy's father is very close to his cat, Amos. Do you think this is surprising? How did he show his love for his sons?

  • Jimmy doesn't learn the mystery behind the Secret Society until the very end. In a small town with few secrets, it must have been difficult to keep it a secret. Why was it important that it be kept secret?

  • Halloween was a very big event in 1940s Rowlesburg. Why do you think it is so different today?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love historical and family fiction

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