By Brian Floca
Richard Jackson/Atheneum. $17.99. Ages 7-10.
Start your steam-powered journey through the pages of this handsome book by slipping off the jacket. Underneath, wrapping around the front and back covers, is a prairie panorama: a herd of bison stretching away to the endless horizon, unintended casualties of the march to progress. As he did in his Sibert Honor book, “Moonshot,” author-illustrator Brian Floca weaves a poetic text and dramatic illustrations into an appealing narrative, providing young readers with both factual information about early train travel and a visceral sense of what it must have been like to climb aboard an iron horse in 1869. On a platform in Omaha, a mother, daughter and son peer anxiously down the track, waiting to begin a trip “through days and nights, / across the wide country, / down to the sea.” Readers quickly encounter the brakeman, fireman, engineer and conductor as the train gets underway with a “CLANG-CLANG . . . HISSSSSSSSS . . . HUFF HUFF HUFF!” Carefully varied perspectives — from spectacular close-ups of wheels meeting tracks to lonely long shots of a toy-size string of cars lost in a vast sea of grass — as well as wildly varying fonts give readers a sense of the thump-and-bump, start-and-stop, rush-and-wait of this week-long excursion. Readers even get a peek at what people read, how they ate and where the “convenience” was located. “Don’t wait for the train to stop — / it’s rude to use the toilet / when the train is sitting at a station.” An extensive author’s note provides context for the amazing track-laying race that shrank the four corners of our young nation. Endpapers jam-packed with information — from reproductions of Union Pacific and Central Pacific advertisements to a cut-away view of the engine’s guts — complete this carefully designed package. End your journey on the platform in Sacramento, where, “thanks to the locomotive,” a father flings wide his arms and gathers in his family.