We had no idea what we were getting into as a family when Junior showed an interest in trains at 18 months. We’ve played trains, read train books, watched train movies, gone on train rides, toured train museums… at one point, his friends’ parents were keeping train sets at their houses for him to play with when he came to visit. Below, I give you the lowdown on train books that we still like after many, many readings.
At 18 months, Junior could sit still for a short book if we read it in a dynamic manner. “Where’s the freight train? Can you find it?” Byron Barton’s Trains and Donald Crews’ Freight Train (both board books) were perfect for him. Reading books that he was motivated to hear trained him to sit still for reading, while treating each page as a look-and-find kept him interested. If he got rowdy, no worries—both books are board books and can stand up to rough treatment.
By the time he was three, he was able to sit still and listen for longer periods of time, which let us introduce two classics: Choo Choo, by Virginia Lee Burton, and The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. The Little Engine That Could (we’ve read both the classic and the Loren Long versions) works well for this age because you can look-and-find in the pages, “Look! Another train is coming! What kind of train is it? Do you think it will help the toys get over the mountain?” and it also invites kids to join in the reading with its “I think I can. I think I can,” chant. I advise getting the board book on this one because your book will see a lot of use.
Choo Choo is a bit darker—its protagonist, the little engine Choo Choo runs away from her crew and gets into trouble. But have no fear: Choo Choo’s resourceful crew is on the job.
At this age, Dinosaur Train, by John Steven Gurney, and Railroad Hank, by Lisa Moser, were also frequent requests. Dinosaur Train’s hero steps out of his bedroom window one night and onto a train crewed by dinosaurs! I don’t need to say any more, do I? Railroad Hank starts his train up the mountain to cheer up Granny Bett, loading one outlandish passenger or cargo after one another on the way. Silly, silly, silly. This book brightened many interludes on the potty.
At four-and-a-half (and after many train museum visits), he got interested in the technical side of railways. Locomotive, by Brian Floca, integrated technical material perfectly into its strong narrative—a mother with two children, one girl, one boy, traveling to reunite with their father—and combined both with poetic language and amazing illustrations. We’ve spent twenty minutes just perusing the front endpapers and tracing the train’s journey from Omaha to Sacramento on the map. Other technical books I can recommend are Trains and How They Work (Magic Machines), by Clint Twist (fabulous pull-out illustrations that show the interiors of different types of trains) and I Didn't Know That Some Trains Run on Water, by Kate Petty (amazing facts about different train lines around the world).
By this time, we’d spent years with the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise. I was surprised to learn that many of the trains in the Thomas canon are modeled after real trains. Gordon, in real life, was a British Army engine. Spencer is modeled after the Mallard, holder of the world speed record for steam trains. Stephen is modeled on the Rocket, a pioneering early nineteenth-century train. You can read more about the Mallard and the Rocket in DK Eyewitness: Train. We own the hardcover version of Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection (Railway Series), by Wilbert Awdry, but it didn’t see much action. Junior preferred the Thomas annuals, which are issued yearly in the UK and contain familiar stories from the TV series, games, and coloring pages (you can get these on Amazon). If you want to try reading the original stories, take a look at the Thomas the Tank Engine Book Club editions of the series, also available on Amazon, which contain much larger illustrations and a smaller format than the complete collection.
Below are links to more lists of train books—because if your small train enthusiast is like mine, his/her appetite for reading material about trains is boundless.
- 20 of the Best Children’s Books about Trains, from the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database Company
- Kids Book Review Children's Week: Book List: Trains
- Book reviews and activities from the Play Trains blog
- “Whistles in the Distance.” Two children’s train books reviewed for The New York Times by Abby McGanney Nolan
- All Aboard! | Great Books about Trains, chosen by the School Library Journal