20 of the Best Children’s Books about Trains

It seems like there are a million train books out there, but which ones are the most worthwhile? The following is a list of award-winning books (some classic, some new) that feature the captivating power of the mighty locomotive. What are your favorite train books? Let us know in the comments below! 

Contributed by Andy Spinks

book coverLocomotive

Floca, Brian.

Starred Review* Floca follows up the acclaimed Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (2009) with this ebullient, breathtaking look at a family’s 1869 journey from Omaha to Sacramento via the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad. The unnamed family is a launching point for Floca’s irrepressible exploration into, well, everything about early rail travel, from crew responsibilities and machinery specifics to the sensory thrills of a bridge rumbling beneath and the wind blasting into your face. The substantial text is delivered in nonrhyming stanzas as enlightening as they are poetic: the “smoke and cinders, / ash and sweat” of the coal engine and the Great Plains stretching out “empty as an ocean.” Blasting through these artful compositions are the bellows of the conductor (“FULL STEAM AHEAD”) and the scream of the train whistle, so loud that it bleeds off the page: “WHOOOOOOO!” Font styles swap restlessly to best embody each noise (see the blunt, bold “SPIT” versus the ornate, ballooning “HUFF HUFF HUFF”). Just as heart pounding are Floca’s bold, detailed watercolors, which swap massive close-ups of barreling locomotives with sweeping bird’s-eye views that show how even these metal giants were dwarfed by nature. It’s impossible to turn a page without learning something, but it’s these multiple wow moments that will knock readers from their chairs. Fantastic opening and closing notes make this the book for young train enthusiasts. Grades K-3. REVIEWER: Daniel Kraus (Booklist). ISBN(s) : 9781416994152, 1416994157, 9781442485228, 1442485221.

(Additional reviews and award info available on CLCD.)

Book CoverSteam Train, Dream Train

Rinker, Sherri Duskey.

Starred Review* Rinker and Lichtenheld hit pay dirt with Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (2011) and follow that success with another rhyming bedtime adventure full of sweet surprise. A train pulls into Nightfalls Station to be loaded with cargo, and page by page, different animals stock a series of cars, each with items suited to their species (rabbits load pogo sticks, polar bears load ice cream). When the cargo is complete, the train departs, and we see it circling the floor at the foot of a child’s bed in a pool of moonlight. The romantic rhyming text (“Through the darkness, clickety-clack . . . / coming closer, down the track . . . / hold your breath so you can hear / huffing, chuffing drawing near”) never refers to the animals by name, allowing the audience to make the clever matches on their own. The different train cars, with the technical name for each given in slightly bolded typeface, add special appeal for young railroad aficionados. Working in vivid oil pastels on dark gray paper, Lichtenheld captures the luminous magic of dreams set against the endless dark of nighttime, while also adding a touch of comedy with his grinning, cartoony animal characters. Kids will clamor for this one at bedtime and storytime alike. Preschool-Kindergarten. REVIEWER: Thom Barthelmess (Booklist). ISBN(s) : 9781452109206

(Additional reviews and award info available on CLCD.)

book coverJohn Blair And The Great Hinckley Fire

Nobisso, Josephine.

This poignant picture book tells the story of John Wesley Blair, a brave African-American train porter, who used his courage and kindness to help people survive a terrible firestorm near Hinkley, Minnesota in 1894. On the ill-fated September morning, ominous clouds of smoke filled the sky surrounding the train station, where The Limited, Train No. 4 was waiting for passengers to board. When the locomotive was ready, it proceeded down the tracks and soon encountered heavy smoke and blazing flames. Unbelievably, the conductor sped forward and everyone onboard safely escaped the damaging fires. As the train chugged along, its crew and passengers came across hundreds of burned and exhausted people from nearby towns, who were looking for someone to rescue them from the devastating inferno that engulfed the area straight down the tracks. After the new passengers crowded into the train’s cars, the engineer reversed directions and headed back, but soon, a fireball engulfed the train and sent smoke and fire everywhere. John instructed everyone to get down, used the fire extinguisher to douse passengers’ clothing and distributed water and wet towels. When the train finally reached the swamp area, the passengers jumped into the stagnant water and stayed there until the wind-borne blazes diminished. This amazing tale springs to life with Nobisso’s descriptive passages and Rose’s expressive watercolor paintings. Perfect for multicultural or historical studies in elementary classrooms, this almost forgotten story will introduce young readers to a remarkably courageous African-American hero. 2000, Houghton Mifflin, $16.00. Ages 6 to 9. REVIEWER: Debra Briatico (Children’s Literature). ISBN(s): 0618015604, 9780618015603

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverFreedom Train

Coleman, Evelyn

Clyde Thomason, whose brother is one of the guards on the Freedom Train, has been selected to recite the Freedom Pledge when the train passes through Atlanta, Georgia. Clyde has a stuttering problem that occurs when he becomes nervous. Because of this problem, he doesn’t want to accept the honor. Phillip Granger, the class bully, always picks on Clyde. Through a series of incidents, Clyde makes new friends who give him the courage to stand up to Phillip and accept the honored position his teacher, Miss Fowler, has requested he perform. This entertaining and touching story is based on the real Freedom Train that traveled across the United States during the 1940s. It was a time that allowed ordinary citizens to observe the actual documents which are held so dearly by all Americans. This is an excellent book that will be an asset to an American history collection. Fiction. Grades 3-6. 2008, McElderry Books, 140p., $15.99. Ages 8 to 12. REVIEWER: Dawn Cobb (The Lorgnette – Heart of Texas Reviews). ISBN(s): 9780689847165, 0689847165

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverDinosaur Train

Gurney, John Steven

Jesse takes a fanciful ride on a train full of dinosaurs in a daydream inspired by his favorite interests: “Trains and dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and trains.” Jesse climbs aboard the train on a huge, spiked tail (the tail belongs to a giant purple engineer, appropriately clad in overalls and cap). The passengers on the train would be right at home on Amtrak (the little old lady, the conductor in uniform and spectacles, business folk reading the paper, and travelers in jeans and T-shirts), except for the fact that they happen to be dinosaurs of all sizes and colors, their long necks and tails poking from every open window. When the train goes through a tunnel, they all must duck, and when they rush to one side to check out a volcano, they tip over the train. The Day-Glo bright colors, very simple text and the dinos’ hilariously goofy facial expressions will attract many young train and dinosaur aficionados; they’ll appeal to plenty of other picture-book fans, too. Category: Books for the Young–Fiction. 2002, HarperCollins, $14.99, $16.89. PreS-Gr. 1. REVIEWER: Diane Foote (Booklist). ISBN(s): 0060292458, 0060292466, 9780060292454, 9780060292461

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverTrainstop

Lehman, Barbara

A little girl takes a fantastical train trip in this wordless outing from the creator of other such cozily surreal offerings as The Red Book (2004) and Rainstorm (2007). Gray city yields to perfect green countryside, the magical transition signaled by a four-panel sequence that finds the girl looking out the window at the passing city and the black blur of a tunnel and then, looking back in from the outside, her delighted face. A signalman stops the train, and she alights into a landscape inhabited by wee, toy-sized people. Lehman employs the visual language of serial storytelling in masterly fashion, framing her initial panels within the curvature of the train window; as the adventure expands, scenes outside the train appear within square panels or bleed to the edges of the page, allowing the protagonist and her teensy new friends limitless freedom. After rescuing a Lilliputian pilot from a tree, the little girl re-boards the train and heads back to the city to which comes unexpected color with the gift of a tiny tree, delivered by a familiar toy plane. Comfortably mind-bending. 2008, Houghton Mifflin, 32p, $16.00. Category: Picture book. Ages 4 to 8. REVIEWER: Kirkus. ISBN(s): 9780618756407,

(Additional reviews and award info available on CLCD.)

book coverEngineer Ari And The Sukkah Express

Cohen, Deborah Bodin

Put a picture of a train on the cover of a book, and you can be sure it will be picked up by pre-school boys. Add an entertaining story of friendship and tradition, and the story will become integral to religious school story times about the Jewish fall holiday of Sukkot. Loosely based on the historic arrival of train travel to Jaffa, Israel in 1892, this story involves a friendly train engineer who wants to share his Sukkot celebration with all of his friends along his train route. The construction of Engineer Ari’s sukkah is vaguely reminiscent of the Little Red Hen as Ari collects the wood, palm fronds, and traditional fruits to decorate the ceremonial booth. The requirements of sukkah building are worked into the tale (the roof should be “Thick enough to keep out the rain, but thin enough to see the stars”), and Ari’s friends’ Hebrew names reflect the composition of the building materials. Ari’s ingenious way of sharing his sukkah by loading it onto the train will delight young listeners. Cartoon-like illustrations are bright and big, perfect for story sharing, and a glossary of Hebrew words related to the holiday is included. A counting game is worked into the story to keep children’s attention throughout the tale. This is a bright, happy story perfect for the celebratory spirit of this fall Jewish holiday. 2010, Kar-Ben Publishing, $7.95. Ages 3 to 6. REVIEWER: Lois Rubin Gross (Children’s Literature). ISBN(s): 9780761351269, 0761351264

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

Langston’s Train Ridebook cover

Burleigh, Robert.

Most biographies cover years in a person’s life. This one focuses on only a couple of hours from of the life of Langston Hughes — but it’s a couple of life-changing hours! As a teenager, Mr. Hughes rode a train to Mexico to meet his father, who had deserted him years earlier. He wrote what would become a very famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” on that train, and gained a lot of confidence in his talents, too. Mr. Hughes grew up to be one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Category: Adventure; African-American; Biographies; Historical; Multicultural; Non-Fiction; Read Aloud. Grade Level: Primary (K-3rd grade); Intermediate (4th-6th grade). 2004, Orchard Books. Ages 5 to 12. REVIEWER: Teresa (Bookhive). ISBN(s): 0439352398, 9780439352390

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book coverShark Vs. Train

Barton, Chris

Celebrating the competitive spirit of imagination at its silliest extreme, two children contemplate a face-off between favorite toys a shark and a train in a wide range of scenarios. In some, one toy or the other boasts an obvious advantage: shark aces the high-dive jump, while train’s flame-belching smokestack gives him an edge in the burping contest. Other times they share equally in success or failure their lack of thumbs prevents either from video game prowess. Competition in a range of venues trick-or-treating, performing in a piano recital, sword fighting on a tightrope continues, until a call to lunchtime sends both children running off, and their favorite toys are tossed aside without ceremony until the next play time. The ridiculous contests and their visual depiction invite young readers to contemplate additional head-to-head battles between these two heroes, or other champions of their own choosing. CCBC Category: Picture Books for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers. 2010, Little, Brown, 32 pages, $16.99. Ages 3-6. REVIEWER: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices). ISBN(s): 9780316007627, 0316007625

(Additional reviews and award info available on CLCD.)

book cover
(Disney Publishing)

Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo

Lewis, Kevin

A lot of preschoolers will love this bright picture book about a day in the life of a busy freight train. The lively rhyming text relates the day’s activities from morning (“Sun’s up! / Morning’s here / Up and at ’em, engineer”) to night. A cast of colorful toy characters load the freight for a journey to the city. Then off the train goes, through mountains and valleys, into tunnels and across bridges, until it reaches its destination, and it’s time to unload: “Boxcars empty / One by one / Sun is setting / Job well done.” Kirk’s color-saturated pictures are a feast for the eyes, with many wonderful details for little ones to explore. The train, toys, and landscape are depicted close-up and life-size until the final double-page spread, which pulls back to an overhead perspective showing a young African American boy asleep, the floor around his bed filled with winding train tracks and the now-familiar toys and scenery. A surefire hit with budding engineers. Category: For the Young. 1999, Hyperion, $14.99 and $15.49. Ages 2-5. REVIEWER: Lauren Peterson (Booklist). ISBN(s): 0786804297, 0786823798, 9780786804290, 9780786823796

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverFreight Train

Crews, Donald

This colorful book doubles as a lesson about train cars. Readers learn the name of the cars by starting at the end with the red caboose and finishing up with the black steam engine. In between, other cars are named and have their own unique, bold colors. But this isn’t a stationary train, but a moving one, whose form becomes blurry as it increases speed. Children will feel the excitement and energy as the train moves through tunnels, by cities, and over trestles. A great book for learning and fun. Category: Award Books; Classics; Concept. Grade Level: Toddlers; Preschool. 1978, Greenwillow Books. Ages 1 to 5. REVIEWER: Jeanenne (BookHive). ISBN(s): 068880165X, 9780688801656

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverHow To Train A Train

Eaton, Jason Carter

Starred Review* As it turns out, a train is not so very different from a dog at least in the way you train it. Our young narrator, outfitted in pith helmet and khakis, sets the tone: “So you want a pet train? Well, of course you do!” He begins at the beginning, showing readers how to find trains (“early steam engines pretty much just sit in a museum”); how to capture a train (smoke signals seem to be the best method); and what to name it (a gallery of pictures shows Smokey, Sir Chugsalot, et al.). Once a train gets home, it can be soothed by reading aloud and sent to sleepy town by listening to clickity-clack music. And oh the fun to be had as you teach your new train to fetch or rollover. Eaton’s tongue-in-cheek and eminently enjoyable text is matched by Rocco’s smooth and sleek artwork laced with whimsy. A simple sentence like “How does it feel about tunnels and bridges?” results in a cleverly angled spread of a boy pulling his nervous train over a wooden bridge. Despite the human (or is it canine?) sensibility with which the trains are invested, they also seem like real mechanical objects sturdy, strong, and powerful. Often they’re set against serene skies with blues and golds that could have come from the brush of Maxfield Parrish. This will get kids rolling. Preschool-Grade 2. REVIEWER: Ilene Cooper (Booklist). ISBN(s): 9780763663070, 0763663077

(Additional reviews and award info available on CLCD.)

book cover
(Loren Long)

The Little Engine That Could

Piper, Watty

A genuine meme came into the language from this beloved story, now reaching its fourth generation of children. It’s still an enchanting tale of a little train filled with toys, books, fruit, milk and treats for “all those good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain.” Long has enriched this new edition with bountiful illustrations that take their palette and inspiration from the original, but are greatly enhanced by imagination and inventiveness, to say nothing of glorious printing. The colors are warmer, richer and fuller, without the dry clear crispness of the first edition. The oversized format allows Long to fill the pages and the imagination with magic like two double-page spreads of toys and treats floating in the air and brilliant perspectives that set the scenes. The trains are curvier, their faces more organic. There is real movement in the rounded lines of the roads and rails as well as the struggle to reach the top. Not a replacement, surely, but a companion, this will travel proudly next to the one that first thought it could. 2005, Philomel, 48p, $17.99. Category: Picture book. Ages 3 to 7. Starred Review. REVIEWER: Kirkus. ISBN(s): 0399244670, 9780399244674.

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverThe Polar Express

Van Allsburg, Chris

A young man tells a story of his childhood and how his belief in Santa comes to life one snowy Christmas Eve. Although his friends tell him “there is no Santa,” he still believes he will hear the bells of Santa’s sleigh. Those beliefs come true when the Polar Express takes him to the North Pole. When they come to the North Pole, Santa chooses the protagonist to be the recipient of the first gift of Christmas. The boy wants something small and meaningful: a bell from Santa’s sleigh. The bell symbolizes the belief in Santa and the spirit of Christmas, and only those who believe can hear the magical sound of the bell. The thrilling story along with detailed and colorful illustrations can make anyone believe in the spirit of Christmas. This twentieth anniversary edition includes illustrations that are filled with amazing contrasts of light and dark, making the pictures feel alive. The detailed words and artwork on every page, make readers feel as if they also are living the dreams of the little boy. 2005 (orig. 1985), Houghton Mifflin, $35.00. Ages 5 to 10. REVIEWER: Liz Martin (Children’s Literature). ISBN(s): 061861169X, 9780618611690.

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverI Dream Of Trains

Johnson, Angela

In 1900, an African American Mississippi boy dreams of leaving, of being somewhere else, as he picks cotton with his family. Evoking this feeling is the lonesome and exciting passage of Casey Jones, Sim Webb, and their locomotive that frequently passes by the farm. While he works, the boy imagines driving the train and blowing the whistle. One April day, he learns of Casey’s death, and he and his father walk to the place where the wrecked train came to rest and Casey was found still holding the brake. Papa explains to the grieving boy that there will be other trains, and other places the boy will see. The boy continues dreaming and as the last picture reveals, he will head out to find “my place in the big wide world.” While the publisher suggests this book for five-to-seven-year-olds, it will take some adult patience and maturity to help children understand all that Johnson has aimed for. This is especially true for those who developmentally can’t imagine ever leaving their families to adventure. An author’s note explains how Casey’s black assistant, Webb, was undoubtedly an inspiration to African Americans who were looking to leave the South for better jobs during the ensuing Great Migration. Long’s richly tinted acrylic illustrations lushly depict the scenery in summer and winter, show the rushing train from a variety of perspectives, and dramatically place the people and action on the page. The inviting deep color has the texture of pastels lavishly used. Without the author’s note, the story is enigmatic rather than expository, but with it, the book evokes a coming change and the boy’s anticipation. In the final illustration, two smoky question marks curl from the smokestacks of the departing train as the now-adult boy leaves, as if to ask: what will happen next? What does the future hold? 2003, Simon & Schuster, $16.95. Ages 8 to 11. REVIEWER: Susan Hepler, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature).  ISBN(s): 0689826095,  9780689826092.

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverThe Prairie Train

O’Flatharta, Antoine

As young Conor travels across the American prairie by train, he clutches the toy boat given to him by his grandfather in Ireland just as the boy’s family set sail for America. Then the boat falls from the train and is lost. Homesick and saddened by his loss, Conor falls asleep to dream the train has turned into a boat that takes him back to his grandfather. The old man wisely reminds Conor that the same moon shines on everyone, be they in Connemora or California. Conor wakes up, consoled and eager to move forward into his new life. The rich earth tones of Eric Rohman’s illustrations and the cadenced text of Irish playwright O’Flatharta work together very effectively to capture the dream state of the story and to convey the ambivalence many immigrants feel–torn between the sadness of leaving behind all they know and love and the hope for a better future. This book would be valuable resource for a social studies unit on immigration, as well as a moving testimony for families whose ancestors shared Conor’s experience. 2005 (orig. 1999), Dell Dragonfly/Random House, $16.95 and $6.99. Ages 5 to 10. REVIEWER: Mary Hynes-Berry (Children’s Literature). ISBN(s): 9780517709887,  0517709880, 0116172339845, 5177098857733

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverThis Train

Collicutt, Paul

The trains in this book are yellow, red, long, short, old, new, going up hill, going down hill, in the country, in the city, on a bridge, in a tunnel, and various other descriptions, finally ending at the station ready for boarding. Every sentence begins, “This train is…” Collicutt’s simple text is perfect for an early reader, although possibly a little too repetitive. The type on every page is in a large black font with the words running across the bottom on a white background, which helps beginning readers. Collicutt’s paintings give the feel of illustrations from the 1940’s or 50’s. However, unlike the illustrations of yesterday, his colors are bright, almost garish, and certainly exciting. He captures the motion of these huge locomotives. The end papers are illustrated with 16 different trains and Collicutt has them all labeled with the official name and county of origin. 1999, Farrar Straus Giroux, $15.00. Ages 2 to 6. REVIEWER: Sally J. K. Davies (Children’s Literature). ISBN(s): 0374374937, 9780374374938

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book cover

Train Song

Siebert, Diane

Out in back/railroad track/clickety-clack/clickety-clack” begins this evocation of the railroad’s sights and sounds. Siebert pieces together euphonious destinations (“Dallas/Fort Worth/Abilene”), cargoes (“tank cars hauling gasoline/diesel oil and kerosene/thirty hoppers in a row/hauling spuds from Idaho”), personnel, and typical experiences, neatly mimicking the train’s changing tempo in her rhythmic verse. Wimmer’s picture book debut is outstanding: combining close-ups of the trains with panoramic landscapes, his well. designed paintings celebrate the railroad’s power and excitement. A handsome tribute. 1990, Crowell, $14.95; PLB $14.89. REVIEWER: Kirkus. ISBN(s): 0690047282, 0690047266, 9780690047288, 9780690047264

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverRailroad John And The Red Rock Run

Crunk, Tony

Author Crunk has written an entertaining, funny book about Lonesome Bob and Granny Apple Fritter who board Railroad John’s train for a trip to Red Rock, where Lonesome Bob will marry Wildcat Annie. He must be there by 2:00 p.m. sharp because Wildcat Annie waits for no one. Railroad John guarantees that the train will arrive on time because he has never been late once in forty years. But along the way, unforeseen things happen. Bad Bill stops the train and asks for coal for his fire-breathing palomino. Now the train will not run, but Granny’s Apple Fritter Chili-Pepper Corn Pone Muffins save the day. They are placed in the train’s firebox and everyone is on their way again. Next, the bridge up ahead is washed out, but the train is saved by Lonesome Bob’s guitar-box strings lasso. The train is late by twenty-two minutes, but Railroad John says he will make up the time. The adventure goes on with a swirling, swooping storm that lifts up the train and sets it down at the Red Rock station at 1:59. Lonesome Bob makes it on time, but Wildcat Annie is nowhere to be seen. All ends well when Annie rides up on her horse, carrying the coal Bad Bill stole, and then she weds Lonesome Bob. The illustrations are done in tones of brown, cream and white. They are life-like, detailed, and wonderful. 2006, Peachtree Publishers, $16.95. Ages 7 to 10. REVIEWER: Della A. Yannuzzi (Children’s Literature). ISBN(s): 1561453633, 9781561453634

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)

book coverCrossing

Booth, Phillip

This is a superbly illustrated large format picture book which celebrates in counting-rhyme verse the passage of an old American goods train through a level crossing. Booth’s splendidly rhythmic poem, depicting all the different types of box car as the count progresses, was written in 1953. Ibatoulline’s almost hyper-realistic paintings touchingly recreate the characters, costume and cultural objects of that time. They reflect the simple, dramatic vividness of the text. You can almost hear the thunderous approach of the steam engine, the metallic chant as the great procession goes by, and the slow fade-out as it vanishes into the distance. The title of the book is printed on a gate barrier, and even the end papers, painted to resemble rusting metal, are fascinating. Very highly recommended (and not just for rail enthusiasts) as a counting book, a storybook, an historical source book and a great visual treat. Category: Under 5s Pre-School/ Nursery/ Infant. Rating: ***** (Unmissable). Candlewick Press, 40pp, 10.99 hbk. Ages 0 to 4. REVIEWER: George Hunt (Books for Keeps) . ISBN(s): 0763614203, 9780763614201,  0077539379846

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading level info available on CLCD.)


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