Take a ride on Floca's railroad

Take a ride on Floca's railroad

Two weeks ago, the American Library Association announced its 2014 youth media award winners. The Caldecott Medal, given to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children, was awarded to Brian Floca.

When you open his large book "Locomotive" (2013, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, written and illustrated by Brian Floca, ages 3-12), you're in for a treat. Readers from preschool through late elementary will find this ride on the new transcontinental railroad engaging and informative.

"Here is a road made for crossing the country, a new road of rails made for people to ride," the book begins. After telling us how the road was built "with a grunt and a heave and a swing," the scene transitions to a family waiting at a depot.

"Here your trip begins Here she comes! See a puff, a smudge, a cloud a storm!" The sketched watercolor illustrations show the engine getting closer, and then a page turn brings us face-to-face with the locomotive in all its glory.

The text, written in second person using a poetic free verse style with liberally changing fonts to denote sounds, is an adventure in itself. "Hear the Hisssssss and the SPIT of the steam! Hear the engine breathe like a beast: HUFF HUFF HUFF!"

You'll meet the crew, see how the steam powers the train and move "Westward, westward" through the prairies, the Great Plains, over rickety bridges to Promontory Summit and on through desert and mountains. A combination of detailed vignette illustrations and beautiful sweeping full-page spreads bring the trip to life.

Tucked in unobtrusively are enough details to keep every reader's interest, including a small script on the bottom of most spreads giving the locations as the train moves on. This expertly crafted book also received a Sibert Honor Award, given to the best nonfiction books.

This year, the American Library Association awarded three Caldecott Honor books, all wordless picture books.

"Flora and the Flamingo" (2013, Chronicle Books, written and illustrated by Molly Idle, ages 2-5) shows a joyous dance and the emerging friendship between a girl and a flamingo.

"Mr. Wuffles!" (2013, Clarion Books, written and illustrated by David Weisner, 4-9) gives the reader a "cat's eye" view when the alien inhabitants of a "toy" spaceship disembark in his home.

My favorite of the honor books is "Journey" (2013, Candlewick Press, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker, ages 4-8). The book begins with a city scene shown in sepia tones, in which a girl sits on her front stoop looking bored. Her red scooter stands out in the otherwise muted illustration.

When the girl uses a red crayon to draw a door, she steps into a magical woods and her journey begins. Drawing a boat, she follows a stream to a castle, spills down a waterfall, draws herself a hot air balloon and continues skyward. There, she sees a bird, drawn in purple, the only other bright color on the page.

The bird is captured by men on a flying machine and put into a golden cage. The girl sets the bird free, is captured, rescued by the bird and follows it back to the city through a purple door. There, the bird reunites with a boy. The boy, using a purple crayon and the girl using her red one, draw wheels to form a bicycle. Off they ride, the bird following.

The lovely watercolor and line drawings are detailed, yet child-like, and the symbolic use of color will be thought-provoking for young readers.

Alice B. McGinty (alicebmcginty.com), is the co-regional adviser of the Illinois Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the award-winning author of more than 40 books for children. She directs a summer writing camp, Words on Fire, for teens, and she tutors school-aged children in writing.

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