• Happy birthday Ursula K. Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea) and Ann Cameron (The Stories Julian Tells).
  • It’s the birth date of Janet Ahlberg (1944 -1994), Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • It’s also the birth date of Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), who instituted the Nobel Prizes. Read The Man Behind the Peace Prize: Alfred Nobel by Kathy-Jo Wargin, illustrated by Zachary Pullen.
  • Ferdinand Magellan discovers a channel of water between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1520, now known as the Strait of Magellan in South America. Read To The Edge of the World by Michele Torrey and MVP: Magellan Voyage Project by Douglas Evans, illustrated by John Shelley.
  • In 1879 Thomas Edison tests first practical electric lightbulb, which lasts 13.5 hours. Read The Lightbulb by Joseph Wallace, illustrated by Toby Wells.
  • In 1921 President Warren G. Harding delivers a speech against lynching in the southern United States. Read A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy.
  • It’s Babbling Day. It’s also Count Your Buttons Day. Read Corduroy by Don Freeman.

October has been designated National Reading Group Month. Usually, reading groups select novels. But today I recommend an unusual and brilliant work of narrative nonfiction published last month: Brian Floca’s Locomotive.

With a career that began when Brian illustrated books for Avi in the early 1990s, the artist has continued to grow and get better and better with each book. In books like Lightship, Moonshot, and A Ballet for Martha he turned his attention to narrative nonfiction books that relied enormously on illustrations. Following in that tradition, Locomotive focuses on the building of the transcontinental railroad and a very special trip by one of the first passengers on that line.

Brain ingeniously uses every part of the book to extend the story. When readers remove the book jacket, they’ll find buffalo grazing on the plains. The front endpapers provide historical background and a map, while the back endpapers display the parts of a steam locomotive. And on the title page, a telegram sets the emotional content—“All is ready in California. Come West as soon as you are able. Love Papa.”

In this oversized volume, Brian’s illustrations depict the people working on the railroad and the people who ride on it. Readers learn fascinating details about steam power, how the engines were kept running, and services provided by the train. Since the toilets on early trains were only holes in the floor, it was considered rude to use it while the train sat in the station! Bridges, details of the landscape, animals that roam the plains, and the sounds of the steam engine are all integrated into the story as a young girl travels from Omaha to Sacramento. The story concludes with an emotional reunion when she joins her family and heads off to San Francisco for a new life.

Social and natural history, engineering, and science all come together in a sixty-two page feast for the eyes. Printed on a beautiful cream stock, the book design has been executed with great skill from the compelling cover to the bar code on the back cover. If you use Locomotive in a book discussion or just share with a class or family, you might want to combine it with Elisha Cooper’s new book Train—another artistic tour de force.

Everything that Brian Floca has learned, since his years as an art student until today, comes together into a completely satisfying book. Fresh, original, exciting, and informative, Locomotive makes a perfect gift and a perfect choice for a book discussion group.

Here’s a page from Locomotive:




Originally posted October 21, 2013. Updated for .

Tags: History, Science, Technology, Trains, Transportation
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Locomotive


  1. Lori H. says:

    Thanks for the the narrative non-fiction review/suggestion….trying to build up that genre in our Library! This one sounds like a winner.

  2. Helen Frost says:

    I like the regular rhythm of the prose, punctuated by toots and whistles and “All Aboard” calls, like a train ride.

  3. Anita says:

    Helen: Yes, it does have that cadence. This text reads aloud beautifully.

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