“Freight Train”, by Donald Crews

This review was originally written about a month ago. Since then, our copy of Freight Train has joined the reliable standbys. The Offspring also likes to “read” it alone in their carseat.

Wikipedia tells me that Crews’ father was, among other jobs, a railway man. Which (if true) may explain some of the deep knowledge and love that fills this apparently-simple book.

The short version of this review is: This book is awesome, I think everyone should buy it and shelve it next to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s a good foundation for colors, train car names, and American poetry. Oh, and it presents the color black in a positive light, as the color of the steam engine. And is a classic by a Black author.

The long version is going to have a lot of personal tangents and basically boil down to the same thing, with added grumpiness about not knowing about it until recently even though it was published in 1979 and is now an indisputable classic.  (We have the 1996 Greenwillow edition.)  If you want a more on-topic review, there’s a good one over on the School Library Journal site: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2012/05/29/top-100-picture-books-42-freight-train-by-donald-crews/  (Oh, and for the record, to the question posed in Elizabeth Bird’s review, no.  This young parent did not assume the art was computer-generated and am completely unsurprised to hear it’s done with stencils.)

Anyway, yeah, I’d never heard of it. Not while I was growing up. Not as a teenager volunteering at the local library on the weekly Storytime Day and checking out dozens upon dozens of board books for a line of a dozen tired and cranky toddlers and their even more exhausted mother. (Which was before the library adopted an automated filing system, so this involved filing cards for all the normal books. Board books didn’t take the card sleeves well, so they had their own special, obscure, time-consuming process of filing a white card and a yellow card in different places for reasons that doubtless made sense at the time but elude me now. All I remember is fumbling with multi-colored cards while babies cried and their mothers told me, in voices of quiet desperation, that their wasn’t any rush. Also I walked uphill both ways in the snow, etc. etc.)

Back to Freight Train. We had a good children’s section in that library, despite the board book filing system of doom. Freight Train should have been there. This book is awesome, classic, and a vehicle book. (I keep meaning to write a post about board book genres and the Obligatory Vehicle Books. One of these days, one of these days.)  Did I just never notice it on account of not being very vehicle-book-conscious?  It is possible, but I doubt it.  I recognize a lot of other books I might not have been personally interested in from that era of my life.

I first bumped into Freight Train as a Thing That Exists while my wife was pregnant, and I was planning FutureKid’s entire library from birth to age six. Maybe it was through the Amazon “Customers Also Bought” section? Maybe on a list of Caldecott Honor books? Possibly a list somewhere of children’s books by Black authors? At any rate, I agonized over the Look Inside pages and the Amazon reviews, and it got as far as the final Top Ten Board Books I Might Buy list, but not onto the six or so I actually bought at that stage. Turns out I am not hte best at buying vehicle books when I could buy another one with farm animals instead. Oops.

Still, I remembered I had almost bought it, so when I found a copy at our new local library when the Offspring was approaching the first birthday, I checked it out. And fell in love. Head over heels in love.

Mama hadn’t heard of it either, or about the author being Black, or that it had made Top Five Board Books We Almost Bought But Didn’t, and started spontaneously telling me how much she liked it and what a good book it is and how it’s a poem that sounds like a moving train and how she loves that it doesn’t talk down to the reader.

The Offspring likes parts of it. We point at all of those brightly colored cars, and the Offspring is just figuring out pointing, so that part is the best. The trestle illustration is pretty cool, too. The later part of the book isn’t as popular – sometimes for the last pages, the kiddo wanders off or asks to read Kipper’s Book of Weather or Bunny and Me instead. I think it would have been really popular as a very early book, though, back when we were reading Tana Hoban’s Who Are They? a lot – maybe we’ll find out if I’m right about that when/if we have a Kid Two. And I think it will have another spike in popularity in a little bit, like, after the Offspring knows what a train actually is and starts playing with the wooden train set over at my mom’s house.

In the meantime, her Mama and I are learning what all the cars are called (Gondala car? Who knew?) and enjoying the moving-train poem on our own account enough that we’ve got it on order at our local bookshop. (Because of course it wasn’t on the shelf there, either. Special ordering is awesome, though.) The ragged library copy has gone back for other kids to chew on and for more moms and dads to discover.



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