Back in the last years of the twentieth century I was approached by Ken Geist, then editor at Hyperion Books for Children, who had a manuscript he was hoping I would illustrate. The story was written by first-time author Kevin Lewis. As a child growing up in the rural south, Kevin had dreamed of one day becoming a train engineer. Now he was an editor and an aspiring author, living in New York. The sound of that train whistle and the power of the engine speeding down the track must have left quite a mark on Kevin’s young mind. Trains had a special meaning for him, and in his manuscript, that meaning come across loud and clear.
I had just illustrated a Margaret Wise Brown story called “The Diggers”, which featured a steam engine on many of the spreads, so I was a little reluctant to spend four or five months painting more trains. Trains are hard to draw and paint, with all of the shapes in perspective and hard edges and angles to get right! But reading Kevin’s words, I could see something special in the manuscript. I began thinking about how I might illustrate the story.
With my own three small children and their toys as inspiration, I wondered what it would be like to make the trains in the story toy trains instead of real ones, and all of the places the train passes would be made of things one might find in a child’s bedroom. Cardboard boxes would become cities or mountains, a fish tank would substitute for a river, a valley would be the open space between two stacks of blocks. When the train in the story went into a tunnel, I imagined this could be a brief journey under a child’s bed, because train tracks can go nearly anywhere. I crawled under my son’s bed to see if it looked dark enough for a tunnel under there! It did.
At the end of the story, the train enters the roundhouse, which I saw as the curve of the child’s body as he sleeps in bed, most likely dreaming of trains. And in the final spread the viewer gets a birds-eye view of the little boys room, to see all the places the train has gone, bringing “freight”, or as I painted it, lots of little toys, to the “city”. I imagined what Kevin might have looked like as a little boy, and painted my impression of him sleeping there with all of his toys and trains.
In a picture book, the illustrator’s job is to use his or her drawing skills to depict the story the author has written, but if possible, to add something extra. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think the illustrations in “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo” suggest the endless power of imagination, the idea of dreaming big, with starting wherever you are, and making things happen…creating your own reality. “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo” shows how play, for children, is practice for being a grown-up, when maybe you will really do those things that for now, you can only dream of.
The fact that Hillary Clinton picked this book to read to her granddaughter makes me think of those dimensions of the story that Kevin and I brought to life. The image of a leader who really understands how important our kids are, who cares about learning and literacy and all that good stuff, gives us hope and inspiration to create a great future for the people we care about. It all starts with make-believe, with imagination, with asking, “what if?”
I remember what it was like as a child to hear that distant train whistle, to picture destinations far away, to feel the thrill of possibility of some new place to go, something new to learn, people to meet, and a safe journey back home again. As a grownup I understand that over the years, all kinds of people, from all walks of life, have seen my books and read them to their children. It makes me feel happy when I can put good energy into the world with the work that I do. But I was totally surprised and thrilled to find out, with the rest of America, that “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo” is on Mrs. Clinton’s reading list for Charlotte and Aidan. I am so grateful that I have the chance as a creator of children’s books, to help other people dream and imagine. Thanks to Kevin for writing the words that helped me make my contribution!