To say that author/illustrator Brian Floca’s newest picture book, Locomotive, is well-researched is an understatement. His research spanned multiple years and involved driving the route of the first transcontinental railroad, a trip he describes as “invaluable.”
Why such a journey? Locomotive is an intricately detailed, 64-page book about America’s “iron horses” that rode the transcontinental railroad—the great trains of 1869, when “the world [was] speeding up,” that took Americans on the “new road of rails” made for crossing the country. It’s a book Floca makes both epic and intimate. His talent for such feats in nonfiction is why he’s claimed a Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal Honor award more than once (Lightship; Moonshot:The Flight of Apollo 11; Ballet for Martha:Making Appalachian Spring).
Through vivid, carefully crafted free verse, Floca frames the story in this large-trim book with a family traveling to California. It is with them that readers take this exhilarating ride, while learning all about the Union Pacific, the Central Pacific and the spike made of gold that once joined them.
This engaging, highly approachable piece of nonfiction comes on the heels of Moonshot, Floca’s masterful 2009 picture book about the flight of Apollo 11. Locomotive, Floca says, began as a much simpler book, one meant to be a change of pace from the complexities of Moonshot and one that would simply show a locomotive going from point A to point B, while also depicting how these machines worked.
“But then,” he explains, “once I shifted the book from a generic look at a steam locomotive to a book that was interested in the transcontinental railroad, I realized that, as complicated as bits of Moonshot were, there was also something contained about that story. There was nothing contained about the transcontinental railroad, though. It sprawls. It's history, it's engineering, it's the landscape, it's the West!”
After researching photos of the railroad and squinting and scrounging, as he puts it, for even more details, the sheer amount of work necessary to do justice to the story began to sink in. Wondering if he’d get to the bottom of his research, he decided to drive the route, and it “opened everything up again. On and on it all went.” Thus, a 48-page book grew into a 64-page one.
“The more I learned about how the machines worked, the more interesting they became to me—in the same way that a puzzle can become more interesting as you begin to solve it. And the more I thought about and read about and then saw the landscape through which the transcontinental line traveled, the more amazed I became. Some of that landscape is beautiful and frightening in its openness, emptiness, grandeur. I remember cruising along state Route 233 in Nevada, absolutely alone, and imagining what it would have been like to be out there, building that line in 1869.”
Channeling those experiences into this story, written in a direct and immediate second-person voice, Floca captures the poetry of the locomotives and the astonishment of that first adventure:
The iron horse, the great machine!
Fifty feet and forty tons,
wheels spinning, rods swinging,
motion within motion, running down the track!…
She pulls her tender and train behind her,
she rolls up close, to where you wait,
all heat and smoke and noise…
Hear the engine breathe like a beast…
“I don't know if all of my research marks me as dedicated or just disorganized,” Floca jokes. Either way, the results are impressive.
With spot-on pacing, Floca brings to life the sounds and sights of the journey, detailing the job of each crew member; chronicling the mighty sounds of the locomotive (displayed via various dramatic typefaces; describing the sights from the window (“the country opens, / opens wide, / empty as an ocean”); noting the thrills (passing through a mountain summit in the Sierras), challenges (cramped quarters at bedtime) and dangers (crossing “rickety” trestles); and plenty more.
Even the endpapers are elegantly designed and filled with detailed information about the locomotives. There are maps, background information, a diagram of the machine itself and an explanation of steam power. It’s a lot of information but never overwhelming. Clearly, a smart design team took on this extraordinary book, working with Floca to lay out the information in a clear and accessible manner.
Floca decided to frame the story with a family traveling to California when it became clear to him that telling the story through one crew, as they traveled the route, possessed a fundamental flaw: A single engine with one crew would not have gone the entire distance in 1869. “It's naturally a less contained story,” Floca says. “It’s a book with bits and pieces and asides and a little bit of (I hope) appealing sprawl. And I hope in the end that this change became something good about the book.”
Indeed, readers identify with the family and vicariously experience the thrill of the ride. Our eyes get wide, just as theirs do, as the conductor walking down the aisle calls “tickets!” right after the train “gives the cars a jerk and a tug,” pulling out from the station. Perhaps we also utter a quick prayer with them, as they cross rickety Dale Creek Bridge. We sense the tension and wonder as they pass through the long, dark “shadowy sheds” of Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada range. And we feel the joy as we meet up with the family at journey’s end and reach “new cities, new towns beyond mountains. On the Pacific, by that new sea…a new place to call home.”
What Floca hopes is “appealing sprawl” works on every possible level.
“So much of all that time period in history,” Floca adds, “comes down to us in posed, sometimes-stiff, always-still, black-and-white pictures, but the period and its inventions would amaze any age with their color, motion and vitality. Getting a feel for that and getting to write and paint about it—it was a great experience.”
Julie Danielson conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.