Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Alphabet Trains

When I worked as a librarian, one of the most frequent requests was for books about vehicles.  Boys, girls, parents, teachers - they all asked for books about things that go.  As far as we were concerned, there were never enough books to satisfy the need.  And now that I have a little boy (who we call Albert here) in my life, I know that still holds true.  On every trip to the library, we are always scanning the shelves for more books about his biggest loves - vehicles.  This is why one of his favorite books currently is Mighty Dads.  And Albert wants both story and information at the same time, so he can learn more facts while we read.  There are very few books which combine story and fact to his liking,  I am so lucky to count the author of Alphabet Trains as a friend, and even luckier that she created this second book in the series (I reviewed Alphabet Trucks here, another Albert fave.).

Alphabet Trains follows the same general pattern as Alphabet Trucks did.  There is an introductory verse on the first page.  It serves to set up excitement for readers.  They are invited on this train trip.  As the train in the illustration pulls away, a crowd surrounds the train, waving joyfully.  I'll take a quick moment here to note that unlike most of my reviews, where I write about text and illustrations separately, with Alphabet Trains I'll mostly talk about both pieces together.  That is because text and illustration complement each other so seamlessly here.  I am really not sure I could talk about each individually!  So as the train leaves, and everyone waves, we see that the first car of the train is filled with letters,  Here is our first glimpse of the alphabet train.

Each subsequent page includes two rhyming lines about a type of train along with an accompanying illustration.  As he did in Alphabet Trucks, O'Rourke adds the featured letter into its illustration with ingenuity.  In the letter A (for Auto train), the giant racks where passengers load their cars are A's themselves.  On the Pacific Surfliner page, each of the waiting passengers sport a P on their t-shirts.  The text for the letter U is "U is for unit train - one freight to one location.".  And, indeed, the picture shows that the freight on this particular train is all capital U's in a row.  Clever!

It really does seem like a daunting task to come up with twenty-six different types of trains, but Vamos completes the task with grace.  And these trains aren't all passenger trains either.  There isn't an Amtrak or the B&O Railroad, familiar to us from the Monopoly game, listed here.  Instead, types span from the Q subway train (familiar to me from my review of Lost in NYC) to the Hurricane Train in Alaska.  There are bullet trains, top-and-tail trains, and dinky trains.  For young train enthusiasts, this book is a winner - it gives them twenty-six new trains to learn about as well as a catchy way to categorize them all.

There are a couple of new additions to the series in Alphabet Trains that I wanted to mention here.  Alphabet Trains includes international trains as well, which is a great choice.  Trains are trains the world around, but it is how those trains are used in various countries that is so interesting.  For example, the Victoria Express - it travels between Hanoi and Lao Cai, and includes air-conditioned sleeping cars.  These are so necessary in a tropical environment!  There's also the Leonardo Express, in Rome.  It simply moves passengers from the airport to the Central train station, but does it efficiently in thirty minutes.  And finally the Glacier Express (which I have to admit, I believed was here in Montana, in Glacier National Park).  It's actually in Switzerland, and moves at a glacial speed, taking advantage of all the incredible scenery.  Including trains from around the world helps keep the audience for Alphabet Trains entranced.

And I wouldn't know all these facts about these trains if it wasn't for an addition to the book that I love most of all - back matter.  There are two pages packed with facts about each of the trains at the end of the book.  These facts are so useful.  With only two lines of text per train, there isn't much room to identify the train.  The back matter will also appeal to those train enthusiasts who want to know more.  Again, when Albert and I read Alphabet Trains together, it helped us learn more information.  There is no way I would have known all the facts he wanted without those pages.  On the Hurricane train in Alaska, riders must wave a flag to get the train to stop for them.  And they also have to inform the conductor what milepost they want to get off at.  They are equal participants in their train trip!

With so many great changes, though, I am happy to report that some of the things I loved best about Alphabet Trucks is still alive and well in Alphabet Trains.  I've already mentioned how well integrated the text and illustrations are in this title.  But I'd also like to point out what a strong literacy impact these books have.  I mentioned that O'Rourke incorporates the featured letter wherever he can.  But he also uses the letters in different typefaces, both print and cursive, and in capital and small letters.  It is fun to stop and admire each page, noting all the ways that letter has been used or displayed while still depicting the train accurately.

I cannot say enough how great I think these books are.  And while I've focused mostly on younger reader here, this title could be used as an informational book up to fifth grade.  IT can help springboard students into additional reading.  We love Alphabet Trains!  I've heard a rumor that there may be a third book in the alphabet vehicle series... we'll be first in line!

Alphabet Trains.  Samantha R. Vamos; illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke.  Charlesbridge, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review

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