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Iron Horses

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Welcome aboard! Travel back in time to join the workers of the Union Pacific Railroad as they pounded west and those from the Central Pacific Railroad as they charged east to build the first transcontinental rail line in the United States. They were racing to meet in Utah, and it was high drama all the way. Workers had to burst through rocky outcrops while hanging in baskets and sleep in tents on top of railroad cars or in barracks buried in snow.

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Overview

Welcome aboard! Travel back in time to join the workers of the Union Pacific Railroad as they pounded west and those from the Central Pacific Railroad as they charged east to build the first transcontinental rail line in the United States. They were racing to meet in Utah, and it was high drama all the way. Workers had to burst through rocky outcrops while hanging in baskets and sleep in tents on top of railroad cars or in barracks buried in snow.

Bouncy, short verse highlights the steps it took to finally bring the tracks together, and powerful illustrations capture the landscape and the labor.

Illustrations and simple rhyming text depict the race to construct railroads across the country during the second half of the nineteenth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kay (Gold Fever) tackles another chapter in American history, this time with less success, turning her attention to the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Here the rollicking rhyming quatrains that served the theme of the legendary forty-niners so well in Gold Fever are not as effective in relating the history of the railway. From inception ("Railroad barons,/ Visions, dreams./ Thinking, planning,/ Plotting schemes") to completion ("Joined in Utah,/ End of race./ Ceremony,/ Spikes in place"), the events along the way get cursory treatment. Kay's language and meter create an energy that carries the story forward like a briskly chugging engine ("Piercing whistles,/ Shrieking wheels./ Hot steam hissing,/ High-pitched squeals"), but readers may miss the significance of verses like "Survey parties,/ Canvas tents./ Levels, transits--/ Measurements." McCurdy (The Sailor's Alphabet) fills in many of the gaps with his scratchboard and watercolor illustrations. Their stark beauty has the feeling of old-fashioned woodcuts, their drama heightened by the repetitive use of the color black, which runs through the pages like a visual basso continuo. Whether delineating the peaks of a mountain range, the tall baskets used by Chinese workers to scale stone outcroppings or a trestle bridge crossing a valley, the intricate cross-hatchings and strong linear elements of the artwork echo the ever-expanding line of ties and rails that eventually united East and West. Unfortunately, the book ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Ages 4-8. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature - Heidi Green
This picture book is best described as "poetry in motion," as Verla Kay puts rhyming text to the story of the steam engine's movement across the land. When Congress decided there ought to be a railway spanning the nation, it ignited a race between two powerful railroad companies, each determined to be the best. The Central Pacific Railroad started laying track in the east and the Union Pacific Railroad in the west, and the two were off "thumping, bumping," "clanging, banging" in their race towards Utah. Michael McCurdy's detailed scratchboard and watercolor illustrations are the perfect partner for Kay's text; they are especially breathtaking and indicative of the vast distances covered especially when they span two pages.
School Library Journal
Here Kay transports readers to the 1860s and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. This story, also in verse, is accompanied by scratchboard-and-watercolor illustrations that depict the terrain and the workers and add drama and detail to this exciting tale. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Horn Book Magazine
Huffing, puffing, smoking railroad engines appear majestically in Michael McCurdy's fine scratchboard and watercolor illustrations of the building of the transcontinental railroad. Verla Kay's history lesson is set out in spare lines of verse: "Railroad barons, / Visions, dreams. / Thinking, planning, / Plotting schemes." Most of the book follows the actual labor of constructing the railroad, especially through the challenging Sierra terrain "Rugged mountains, / Giant rifts. / Ragged, jagged, / Rocky cliffs". McCurdy provides fascinating detail and striking, bold vistas, conveying the dramatic scale of the enterprise. Viewers are left to wonder how the huge trestles were set into the landscape, but the Chinese laborers swaying in baskets as they chisel the mountain face, and the tents and barracks buried in snow, tell much about human endurance. Anyone with the least interest in trains will be enthralled with the huge barracks riding on flatcars, the snowplow structure covering the whole engine, and the elegant old passenger trains. As in Kay's first Western saga, Gold Fever rev. 3/99, the verse moves events briskly along, allowing the artist ample space for expanding the account. Kay's text leaves the reader a bit off track at times as she compresses complex information into verse that is minimal to the point of confusion; some points only become clear in the concluding author's note. In collaboration with McCurdy's eloquent illustrations, though, it's a strong, memorable taste of events that will surely enliven many a social studies lesson.
Kirkus Reviews
Kay and McCurdy create a wonder-working setting for their book on the story behind the first transcontinental rail line. Words and image are of equal dramatic value, with McCurdy using his signature scratchboard illustrations washed in color, and Kay picking and choosing her words with such care that every one of them sparkles. The story of the building of the railroad long ago entered the national mythology, so has the stature to wear well this handsome literary coat. As in Gold Fever (1998), Kay provides a verse for every page, bone-clean couplets that drive the story forward: "Survey parties,/Canvas tents./Levels, transits—/Measurements." The blasting of the tunnels is called forth, the erecting of trestles, the Irish and the Chinese, and "Black clouds scuttle,/Billow high./Lightning crackles,/Splitting sky." Railroad barons and politicians lurk in the background, not necessarily sinister, but certainly not as beguiling as the people laying the rails. An author's note makes clear the momentousness of the joining of the lines, which has the ring of a miracle even to modern readers: Crossing the continent went from a journey of six months to a trip of six days. (map) (Picture book. 4-9)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399231193
  • Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1999
  • Pages: 32
  • Age range: 4 - 8 Years
  • Product dimensions: 8.32 (w) x 10.36 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Verla Kay lives in Tekoa, Washington.

Michael McCurdy lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

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