Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Apollo 8, and Christmas at the moon

It’s the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to give astronauts a view of the Earth, whole. An interview from earlier this year with historian Robert Poole and astronaut Bill Anders, here, digs into their iconic image of the Earth rising over the face over the moon, and a new video with historian and author Andrew Chaikin, here, gives a new understanding of the taking of the photo. And today is, of course, the perfect day to listen to Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve address from their orbit around the moon, here. It concludes, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Locomotive on lists

The year is closing, which makes this the season for lists. For anyone with a book out, watching these collections of titles trickle out can be as nerve-wracking as rolling over the Dale Creek Bridge, but Locomotive has had a good crossing and found itself in a lot of good company this year, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s included the book in their year-end accounting: 

New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year selection
Wall Street Journal Top 10 Children's Books of 2013 Top 20 Children's Books of 2013
Booklist’s Top of the List pick for Youth Picture Book 2013
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013
School Library Journal Best Books 2013 Nonfiction
 Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of 2013
Horn Book Fanfare selection
NYPL 100 Books for Reading and Sharing 2013 selection
Huffington Post Best Picture Books of 2103 (Best History/Biography)
Shelf Awareness Best Books of 2013
Fuse #8 100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2013 selection

It was a long, often difficult, often fantastic experience making Locomotive — all of which makes this notice all the more rewarding. Thank you to all above.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A new collaboration

A commission and funding from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge made possible the collaboration described in Jan Greenberg and Sandra JordanBallet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Fast forward to today, and the Martha Graham Dance Company is running a Kickstarter campaign to make possible a new collaboration, this time with choreographer Nacho Duato. If the process in Ballet for Martha was interesting to you, then here’s a chance to see something like it from the inside, and for less than it cost Elizabeth Coolidge; for $20 (or more), donors will be able to watch a rehearsal via live streaming video. I feel lucky to have been able to watch the Company rehearse while I was working on Ballet for Martha and am glad to think of other people getting the chance, too. And even if you don’t watch the rehearsal, the campaign still gives those interested the chance to help some great artists create new work. You can take a look at the campaign, including a video that shows more of what this new piece will be about, here.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Locomotive in the New York Times

I’m happy that Locomotive will share a good review in the New York Times Book Review this weekend with Elisha Cooper’s Train and Jason Carter Eaton’s and (former studio mate) John Rocco’s How to Train a Train. The full review for the three books is here. I’m even happier that Locomotive is a selection this year for the Book Review’s annual 10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year. (“Since 1952,” says the Times, “the Book Review has convened an independent panel of judges to select picture books on the basis of artistic merit. Each year, judges choose from among thousands of picture books for what is the only annual award of its kind.”) A slideshow from all ten books is online here

Thank you to the Times, thank you to this year’s Best Illustrated jury, and congratulations to all the other illustrators on the list! It’s an honor to be in their company!

Above, the masthead of the Times as it appeared in the 1860s, the era of Locomotive—back when New York was New-York. (More on that, here.)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Richard Ford, boy fireman

A nice piece by novelist Richard Ford on a summer spent as a fireman, after the days of steam, ran in the New York Times on Sunday. It's online here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Poets and trains

A new Emily Dickinson archive is online today, here. (An article about the archive appears in today’s New York Times, here.) At the archive you can find Dickinson’s poem “I like to see it lap the miles”

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step 

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare 

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill 

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door. 

The poem never says what it” is, but you can guess, I think. Dickinson wrote the poem in or around 1862—by coincidence or not, the year Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. I like to see it lap the miles” and two other poems—Walt Whitman’s poems “To a Locomotive in Winter” and  “Passage to India” are mentioned in the author’s note in Locomotive as examples of the trains once commanding place in the culture. 

(And Boanerges? A surname given by Jesus to James and John in Mark 3:17. It’s Hebrew for Sons of Tumult, says Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but was commonly translated in the Bible as Sons of Thunder, and surely that’s how Dickinson meant to use it. Finally, says Brewer’s, Boanerges was also the nickname given to his Brough motorcycles by T. E. Lawrence—who at one point wrote the Brough company to say that he found the bikes as fast and reliable as express trains. Everything connects!)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Locomotive resources

For teachers and librarians interested in using Locomotive in the classroom, or for readers just interested in digging a little further into the book, a page of Teacher Resources is online from Simon & Schuster, here. These include a (Common Core-friendly) curriculum guide. (The direct link for that PDF is here.) A review and a collection of links, resources, teaching ideas, and other relevant titles is also on the blog The Classroom Bookshelf, in a post by Erika Thulin Dawes, here. Thanks to S&S and the Classroom Bookshelf for the thoughtful attention!

Above: a painting of the train leaving the station. This page eventually became a spread, and so this painting wasn't used.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Shelf Awareness and BCCB stars and reviews

Life on the road touring for Locomotive has me late in posting some review news for the book. First, thank you to Shelf Awareness for a starred review of the book that appeared last month, here. “[R]eaders will want to board this locomotive again and again,” concludes the review. And now I’m happy to see Locomotive on a list, here, of books receiving starred reviews in October’s issue of The Bulletin of the Center for Childrens Books. The BCCB asks, “So, how much do you want to know about America’s first transcontinental railroad? Just the general picture?” In which case a reader might go through the book and simply enjoy the “poetic account” of a family’s trip. Or, “if you’re truly among the nerdiest of train nerds,” you can dig into author’s notes and endpapers and “compare the engines underway in the main text with the innards in the diagram” and so on. The idea that the book can operate on different levels for different readers is one I’m very glad to read. Thanks again, Shelf Awareness, and thank you, BCCB! 

Above: a doubleheader pulling out of Truckee, California. Two engines for two reviews.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Music of the spheres, music of the gears

A friend recently sent me a link to a performance of Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231, popularly regarded as an orchestral homage to the steam locomotive. Listening to Honegger reminded me of Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemins de Fer, a piece of musique concrète—“real” sounds of life, in this case the sounds of locomotives, put together as music. Music evoking machines, and machines evoking music. Evoking? Achieving? You be the judge. An orchestra playing Honegger is on YouTube here, and Schaeffer playing locomotives is here. Happy listening.

Above: a sketch from Locomotive of a musician, maybe, on the Johnson bar.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On with the tour

On rolls the Locomotive book tour. Above is the train that brought me to Washington for the National Book Festival last weekend—very similar to the train that brought me to Philadelphia tonight for some school visits and a store appearance tomorrow. (Thursday the 26th! Towne Book Center! 6:00 P.M.!) There have been a lot of flights up to this point on the book tour, so it’s nice to get some honest train travel in, even if a modern Amtrak engine makes it hard to work an 1869 theme. What else on the tour? I have signed books, I have met great readers, I have met great booksellers, I have been to great stores, and at the National Book Festival I had the privilege of giving a presentation on the National Mall with my parents and some friends in the audience. I have done a lot of school visits, and in doing so have seen a lot of kids sitting on their rears on gym floors. (When did we stop building auditoriums in schools, with stages and seats? I oppose this development.) In small bits of free time I’ve seen music in New Orleans, a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kansas, a county fair in Ohio (horses, rabbits, pigs, roosters), and I’ve been licked on the neck by a ferret in Minneapolis. (Thank you for that, Wild Rumpus.) It has been exhausting and fantastic and the tour is not over yet. (The full schedule is here.) Thank you to everyone who has come by for any part of the tour—from all the friends I was so glad to see at the book launch at BookCourt three weeks ago, on to the nanny and two girls who found themselves rather by accident at a Locomotive reading at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Virginia, this afternoon. One of the girls, dressed all in pink and sparkles, went and found herself a copy of Pinkalicious as soon as I finished talking trains, and then clutched it to her chest like a life preserver. But the kind nanny bought a copy of Locomotive, and so I think the kid may not be out of the woods yet.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book launch, book tour

Here’s a photo (click to enlarge) of Corinne, Utah, on the route of the first transcontinental railroad. This was taken by A. J. Russell sometime between 1864 and 1869 and is online today thanks to Yale’s Beinecke Library. The resolution on the original scan, at the Beinecke web site, here, is so good that you can almost fall into it. Zoom way in, and on the left, just back of CITY BAKERY, there’s a sign, not easily readable, but readable:


Now that is a local, independent bookstore, and local independents are on my mind; last night there was a launch party for Locomotive at BrooklynBookCourt. Thank you to Simon & Schuster for organizing, to BookCourt for hosting, and to everyone who came! It meant a lot to see a lot of familiar faces in the audience. And local independents are also on my mind because as of today I’m off for the next five weeks (!) on a Locomotive book tour that’s going to take me to local independents across the country. This afternoon, the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, North Carolina; tomorrow, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C.; Saturday, Octavia Books in New Orleans, Louisiana; Tuesday, a signing at the Saint Louis Public Library in Saint Louis, Missouri. The tour goes on from there but I’m taking things one step at a time here on the blog. The full tour schedule is here. All wishes for smooth travel currently being accepted. I look forward to sharing Locomotive transcontinentally. I hope I’ll see some of you on the road! 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Locomotive news: Wall Street Journal, Court Street party

“Mr. Floca manages not just to tell the story of one eventful journey but to summon the great rail enterprise as a whole: the sweat, ingenuity and ambition that went into building it, the smells and sounds of it, and the stunning, varied topography those first tracks traversed in the American West. Here young readers will also encounter possibly the most lucid explanation of how steam power works ever to appear in a children’s book.” So concludes Meghan Cox Gurdons review of Locomotive in this weekends Wall Street Journal. Thanks to Ms. Gurdon and the Journal for the review! The full review is online for Journal subscribers here. Tuesday is the book’s publication date. On Wednesday a book party will be thrown at BookCourt on Court Street in Brooklyn. Details are here and here. I hope to see you there!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Trucks, Redux

On almost every trip to the airport that I’ve made for the past eight or nine years, Ive found myself, at one point or another, gazing across the tarmac and thinking longingly of the book Five Trucks, out of print and largely unavailable now for, well, eight or nine years. (Such a moment is sketched out here, and more about Five Trucks is here.) It’s happy news for me, then, that Five Trucks will be coming back into print at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster next year, where it will join the other vehicle books I’ve made over the past few years, The Racecar Alphabet, Lightship, Moonshot, and now Locomotive. Land, sea, air, space, together at last! Here’s a detail from a new cover painting now underway. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A star for Locomotive from the Horn Book Magazine

It’s great to see Locomotive on a list of titles (here) which will be receiving starred reviews in the September/October issue of the Horn Book MagazineI’m happy to say that this is the book’s fifth starred review. Thank you to the Horn Book!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Poppy on a list

It’s great to see Poppy, by Avi, in good company on a list of “100 Must-Reads For Kids 9-14,” from NPR’s Backseat Book Club. The full list is here. Thanks to the Backseat Book Club!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Locomotive on a list

I'm very happy to see Locomotive on an interesting list of interesting books from the always interesting Paul Zelinsky, here. The list places the book in the company of the work of Sergio Ruzzier and others whose books I’ve long enjoyed and admired, and in the company, too, of some work I don’t know but now look forward to checking out. (King Rene’s Book of Love, by the Duke of Anjou and King of Sicily, is now on order.) 

Thank you, Paul and Sergio!

More on Paul is here, and Sergio, here.

Above: through the Great Basin, from Locomotive.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lightships East and West

I was happy to receive an email recently from Seattle’s Northwest Seaport, a maritime heritage organization that owns and is currently restoring Lightship no. 83, today known as the Swiftsure lightship. After restoration work at Lake Union Drydock in Seattle, the ship will be returned to its regular berth at the Historic Ships Wharf at Lake Union Park. An article about the restoration and the ship is here, and the Northwest Seaport’s site is here. Theyre also on Facebook, here. Northwest Seaport will also soon begin a fundraising campaign to boost rehabilitation efforts; theyve recently been awarded $30,000 as seed money by the organization 4Culture (more on them here) and they encourage donations, which can be made here.  

And speaking of lightships and museums, here on the East Coast the South Street Seaport Museum—home to the Ambrose lightship—has been in the news for its tight financial situation, made none the easier by damage inflicted last year by Hurricane Sandy. The Museum is “alive and kicking,” though, to quote yesterday’s status update on their Facebook page. Here’s hoping it stays that way, and if you’ve ever considered joining or donating, now would certainly be a good time. It’s a great museum; the city deserves to have it, and it deserves the city’s support. The Museum’s web site is here, their Facebook page is here, their donation page is here.

Best wishes to these ships, museums, and the dedicated people who keep them literally and figuratively afloat!

Above: the original, unused jacket art for Lightship. I was happy with this painting but I was told, as Chief Brody might have put it, and probably correctly, that I was going to need a bigger boat. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The leaf is on the tree.

Here’s a sketch from this weekend, done at just about the time on Saturday evening that it was becoming pleasant to be sitting outside. So long, heat wave.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas

If summer comes, can spring be far behind? Apparently not; I’ve just received early, unbound copies of Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, a picture book by the amazing Lynne Cox, coming in Spring 2014 from Schwartz & Wade Books. Elizabeth is a southern elephant seal, great of girth, slow of flipper, inclined to nap in city roadways. Complications ensue!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

This traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller

Tomorrow, July 12, is the birthday of Henry David Thoreau. Happy 196, Henry! To mark the occasion, here is a railroad-centric excerpt from chapter 4 of Walden, first published in 1854. This makes for a long blog post, but it’s too good a passage for chopping up. I should also say that I don’t post the excerpt meaning to imply that Thoreau was a fan of the railroad; this is the man who wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” (And see D.B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg for a picture book telling of what Thoreau thought of spending money on a ticket.) Still, even within Thoreau’s critique there’s an evocation of the grandeur of the engines and some marveling at their workings, and the passage presents a vivid contemporary view of the transformative and disruptive power of the railroads. 

“The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard sometimes through the circles of two towns. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay. And here’s your pay for them! screams the countryman’s whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city’s walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woolen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don't know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends! If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer’s fields, then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands and be their escort.

I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular. Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which bugs the earth is but the barb of the spear. The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed. Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital beat in him and get him off. If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early! If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snowshoes, and, with the giant plow, plow a furrow from the mountains to the seaboard, in which the cars, like a following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed. All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber. Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber. If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied!

Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants; this moment stopping at some brilliant station-house in town or city, where a social crowd is gathered, the next in the Dismal Swamp, scaring the owl and fox. The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings. To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case. We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside. (Let that be the name of your engine.) Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward particular points of the compass; yet it interferes with no man’s business, and the children go to school on the other track. We live the steadier for it. We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell. The air is full of invisible bolts. Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.”

Just fifteen years after Walden was published, the first transcontinental railroad was completed; the changes that Thoreau was observing in his corner of New England then reached from coast to coast.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

4th of July

Fireworks on the Hudson. This is the view from the cheap seats.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


For the 150th anniversary of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, here’s a picture from Billy and the Rebel, a Gettysburg story by Deborah Hopkinson that I illustrated that came out in 2005. It was one of two Ready-To-Read Civil War books we did together, the other being From Slave to Soldier

To research the book I visited a Gettysburg reenactment with an old friend who was there doing his own research; with his colleagues, he was there collecting notes, reference images, and sound effects for a computer game. I can’t, in all honesty, say that the battle reenactment was terribly impressive to watch; inevitably, maybe, it just felt so staged. But if one followed a path into the trees at the edge of the field, and then crossed over a small stream, and kept going, one emerged into another field, enclosed and hidden from the rest of the world, and there were the campsites, a neat field of white canvas tents and small fires and men preparing quietly for the day, and 150 years seemed to fall away. It was remarkable and strangely moving. 

An essay by Robert Hicks in the Times today, “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” offers interesting points about the battle and its relevance to modern America. You can read it here

More links: Billy and the Rebel, From Slave to Soldier, and Deborah Hopkinson.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review news and ALA

It was a big day here last week when word of two coming reviews for Locomotive arrived on the same afternoon, one right after the other. 

First, a starred review from Booklist: “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 substantial text is delivered in nonrhyming stanzas as enlightening as they are poetic…. Just as heart pounding are Floca’s bold, detailed watercolors.... 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.” 

Second, a starred review from School Library Journal: “As in Moonshot (2009) and Lightship (2007, both S&S), Floca proves himself masterful with words, art, and ideas. The book’s large format offers space for a robust story in a hefty package of information…. Train buffs and history fans of many ages will find much to savor in this gorgeously rendered and intelligent effort.” 

Thanks to an early Kirkus review, these are the second and third starred reviews for Locomotive. Either of them alone would have made my day. Thank you to Booklist and SLJ!

Next up for Locomotive is ALA in Chicago this coming weekend, where I’m looking forward to sharing the book and some of the process behind it. I’ll be at the Simon & Schuster Original Art Lunch on Sunday, June 30, from 12:00 to 2:00 PM, and signing at the S&S booth (number 2312) from 3:00 to 4:00, also on Sunday. Chicago was a jumping off point from the East to the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and I’m hoping it will be in 2013, too. If you’re going to be at ALA, I hope youll come by and say hello!

EDIT: The date above has been corrected to Sunday, June 30 (not Saturday). 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Return to the ’20s

One weekend almost three years ago I struck out for Governor’s Island with some reading I needed to get through for Locomotive. I figured that if I had to be working on a weekend I might as well be doing it in an appealing setting. But then, while looking for a spot where I could knuckle down in comfort with the research, I came across a Jazz-Age Lawn Party in full swing, if you’ll forgive the expression. Instead of reading I did some drawing (which I posted on the blog, here.) 

The party was on again last weekend — and will be again in August, if you’re interested — and this year I went by on purpose. I’m hoping that one of these years they can combine this thing with a Civil War reenactment and get all the people who like to dress up in period outfits out there on the island together. In the meantime these ’20s-era weekends offer music, dancing, drinks, oysters, people looking better than they usually do, and old automobiles and trucks like this Citroën H van, which I enjoyed sketching.

There is, incidentally, a faded, former Citroën dealership around the corner from my studio in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Citroëns are seldom seen. In a neighborhood full of incongruities, the old dealership still stands out.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

BEA, today!

BookExpo America arrives today. My studio mates Sophie Blackall, Eddie Hemingway, John Bemelmans Marciano, and Sergio Ruzzier are preparing to welcome booksellers to our studio this afternoon. (We have tried to get it clean, but not too clean. We have certainly succeeded with the latter, possibly even the former.)

The other bit of BEA I’ll be taking part in is tonight’s auction of donated children’s book art. (Details here.) Above is the piece I pitched in, a drawing originally done for Locomotive — but then the page ended up needing a different engine, or a different angle, or a different engine from a different angle. I forget the details. Anyway, if you’re attending the auction tonight and your credit is good, this drawing of Union Pacific engine number 119 can be yours. (Click the image above for a closer look.)

And because I’m not above regional pandering in my effort to drum up bidding: visiting Omaha booksellers, here is Omaha’s own Union Pacific! Visiting Californians, here is one of the engines that linked far-away you to the rest of the country (and now you’re stuck with us)! Visiting Utah booksellers, this is one of the two engines that met at the completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. And New Jersey! New Jersey booksellers take note! This mighty engine of the West was built in your backyard by the Rogers Locomotive & Machine Works of Paterson! Happy viewing and bidding and BEA to all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sic transit Brooklyn

We’re expecting guests in the studio next week when BookExpo America is in town and so the last few days I’ve been cleaning. Well, “cleaning” suggests cleanliness, and that’s going too far, but improvement is nevertheless afoot. As part of the process, old piles, old files, old piles of files are being examined. Above is a drawing I came across today (click to enlarge), a location drawing of a junk-strewn vacant lot in Williamsburg, down by the East River. This was done in maybe 2004. Now, in 2013, every Saturday, this site is host to the Smorgasburg outdoor food market. (Here.) Now on this site, you can visit dozens of vendors and then on open green fields with a view of the water and the Manhattan skyline you can sit with your friends and enjoy a foie-gras beignet with Nutella powder, or Tunisian pumpkin stew, or a micro-batch of Kurdish labneh flavored with brined garlic shoots, or what have you. But the price of progress: if you’ve got an old GMC or an International 4700 hood you’re looking to dump, you’re straight out of luck.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Parade of Trains

In conjunction with National Train Day (see last post) the Grand Centennial Parade of Trains is on at Grand Central Terminal this weekend, May 11-12. Details here

I swung by today. I hadn’t expected vendors selling historic railroading items, but there they were. I bought more than I meant to but less than I might have. (I mentioned idly to one vendor’s wife that I wasnt buying an antique brakeman’s lantern — reasonably priced! — because I knew in my heart that I had no real use for it. She assured me that her husband had gotten good service from the old lanterns during Hurricane Sandy. With oil and a good wick, the things still work! Well, why wouldn’t they? Still, I stayed strong.) 

Then it was on to the modelers, where I spent some time drawing the terrific N-scale setup shown above. I got to speak with Charlie Sanborn, who along with his partner in very small trains Walt Palmer constructed the scene, an imagined town and valley inspired by the landscape around New York’s Shawangunk Ridge. They drove the model in from upstate in the bed of Walts pickup truck; this made easier than it might sound because the model was precision designed to fit the truck bed. Like a great, busy, Richard Scarry spread, the model invites the eye to wander, rewards with interesting details, and suggests narratives. There’s a lonely hilltop house, a farm, cows, a city, a bridge, tunnels, hairpin turns, even a bit of graffiti on the cliff face (“Class of ’49”), a whole little world. If you’re near Grand Central tomorrow between 10 AM and 4 PM, it’s worth slogging through the crowds (the considerable crowds) to get a look!

Click the images for larger versions.

May 11!

Today, May 11, is National Train Day. (Truly. Amtrak and Wikipedia say so, here and here.) Here’s one train rider’s memory of a formative cross-country trip:

“I was fourteen when my parents returned from one of their trips out West to say that they had found a home in California and we would be moving to the town of Santa Barbara. The train ride from Pittsburg to California took us across country for nine days. The train was taking us from our past, through the vehicle of the present, to our future. The tracks in front of me, hugged the land, and became a living part of my memory. Parallel lines whose meaning was inexhaustible, whose purpose was infinite. This was, for me, the beginning of my ballet Frontier.”

That’s Martha Graham, from her autobiography Blood Memory. Today, May 11, is also Martha Graham’s birthday. Everything connects!

Martha Graham’s birthday is also remembered today on Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac site, here, where there is more posted about Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Thank you, Anita!

Happy May 11 to you, no matter how you celebrate it.

Above: a detail from Locomotive, coming in September.

Friday, May 10, 2013


May 10! It was on May 10 in 1869, 144 years ago today, that the first transcontinental railroad was completed. A trip from the East Coast to California, a trip that a few years earlier might have taken up to six dangerous months to make, now took a week. I crib from the author’s note from Locomotive (coming in September):

Imagine the change! At the beginning of the nineteenth century, you could move over land only as quickly as you could walk, or as quickly as an animal could carry or pull you—that fast, and no faster. That had been true for a hundred years, for a thousand years, for as far back as you could imagine.

Then came the steam locomotive. “Time & space,” said Asa Whitney, an early prophet of the transcontinental railroad, “are annihilated by steam.” 

The first steam locomotive in the United States, the Stourbridge Lion, arrived from England in 1829. America’s first regular passenger service came in 1831. By the 1840s serious discussion of a transcontinental line was underway. A road reaching from the growing network of rail in the East all the way to the Pacific would bind California to the rest of the nation, aid in settling the Great Plains, and provide a lucrative route for trade between Europe and Asia. In the wake of the Civil War, the Pacific railway became “the great work of the age.” When the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies completed the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, the news flashed via telegraph from one side of the the country to the other: “Done!” From across the nation came the response: cheers, speeches, fireworks, parades, cannon blasts, prayer. Other transcontinental lines followed; by 1893 five crossed the country. 

Locomotive is much more about a trip on the line than the line’s construction, but the endpapers and author’s note try to lay the foundation for that ride by introducing how and why the line was built. The drawing above will appear on the front endpapers; it’s a take on the famous A. J. Russell photo (here) of the Union Pacific’s Grenville Dodge and the Central Pacific’s Samuel Montague shaking hands after the driving of the symbolic golden spike. As a general rule I try not to have a drawing be based too closely on a familiar image, but with this picture I hoped that something (maybe) recognizable at the book’s beginning would serve as a point of connection for readers, something to help tie the book’s story to what they have and will see elsewhere about the subject. And, you know, also I really like the picture.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

San Antonio on Sunday: Signing

A not minor (to me) detail that I forgot to include in my IRA post yesterday: I’ll be signing books at Texas bookseller Pat Anderson’s Overlooked Books booth (booth number 2519) on Sunday, from noon to 2:00. Come by and say hello!

Friday, April 19, 2013

San Antonio on Sunday

I head to San Antonio, Texas tomorrow to appear on a Sunday panel at the International Reading Association’s 58th Annual Convention: “But Kids Haven’t Heard of That!”: Why Teaching Unconventional Nonfiction Is Important.

The panel was put together by Marc Tyler Nobleman and will also include Chris Barton, Shana Corey, and Meghan McCarthy. We’ll each say a bit about our work—I’m looking forward to talking a little Moonshot and Ballet for Martha, plus I’ll be packing F&Gs for Locomotive and will look forward to showing some of the process and research behind that book—and then our moderator, professor of children’s books and reading and language arts Susannah Richards, who isnt really any more moderate than any of the rest of us, will get the questions and conversation going. 

I’m happy to be on a panel with this great group and looking forward to everyones presentations. Thanks, Marc, for getting this organized. The panel will run from 3:00 to 5:45 in room 006D of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. If you’re going to be at IRA, I hope you’ll come by! Details are in the IRA schedule online, here. (That link should take you directly to page 236 of the schedule, in PDF form. Page 236 is where the action is.)

Edit: And! I’ll be signing books at Texas bookseller Pat Anderson’s Overlooked Books booth (booth number 2519) on Sunday, from noon to 2:00.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thanks, Baltimore

My thanks to the Baltimore School of the Arts and to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library for the chance to be a part of the BSA’s Appalachian Spring Festival this past weekend, and the chance to speak at two branches of the Pratt as a part of Baltimore’s 10th Annual CityLit Festival. 

Two great events, but the BSA Festival in particular is one that I will remember for a long time. (No offense to the Pratt intended!) Ballet for Martha may have gotten the school started thinking about Appalachian Spring — an exciting thought for me — but when the students of BSA put their own Appalachian Spring on the stage I felt lucky just to be in the room. First there was the set, recreated by the students from Noguchi’s designs. Then there was a prologue to the dance, excerpts from letters and other writings by Graham, Copland, and Noguchi, stitched together and acted out by students. (That was a bit of work that I worried might fall flat, or worse, I confess to thinking, but it was well done and effective; it helped to put the work in context, suggested the outlines of its creation, and even touched on the question of why a diverse cast of young dancers today might and might not find the piece relevant.) Then from left of the stage came the opening to Copland’s score, and it was remarkable to look over and see such young performers working away on their instruments to such good effect. The music swelled, the young dancers came out, and they did their thing and they did Martha Graham’s thing — not a Lite version of it, either, but fully felt and fully enacted. You could feel the emotions in the house building as the dancers and musicians took us all the way through the piece, and the standing ovation, from a capacity crowd, was as fully and happily delivered as you can imagine. I also had the chance to meet a few of the talented students in the art program and to take a stab at critiquing their work, and that was a pleasure, too. A remarkable school, a remarkable Friday and Saturday for me. 

And then on Sunday, after speaking at the Pratt’s Central Library, I headed off to visit friends in the area and succumbed either to food poisoning or a stomach bug or something and spent the next twenty hours sleeping, rising only to be fed small portions of rice, toast, broth, and JELL-O. And then I was over it and caught the train to New York, feeling a bit Lazarus-like the whole ride back. Well, there are ups and downs even to the best weekends. 

Thank you to everyone at the BSA and the Enoch Pratt Free Library for making me feel welcome! And thank you, D and N, for the guest room and the rice.

Earlier posts on the festival are here and here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Some reviews you feel like shouting about.

Locomotive doesn’t come out until September, but the first review is out today, and I’m happy to say that I couldn’t ask for a better start for the book. The review is a starred notice from Kirkus Reviews: “Floca took readers to the moon with the Apollo 11 mission in Moonshot (2009); now he takes them across the country on an equally historic journey of 100 years earlier. In a collegial direct address, he invites readers to join a family—mother, daughter and son—on one of the first passenger trips from Omaha to Sacramento after the meeting of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in May 1869… Full- and double-page spreads take advantage of the book’s unusually large trim for breathtaking long shots of the American landscape and thrilling perspectives of the muscular engine itself. The nameless girl and boy provide touchstones for readers throughout, dubiously eyeing an unidentifiable dinner, juddering across a trestle, staring out with wide-eyed wonder. Unjustly undersung as a writer, Floca soars with his free-verse narrative…. Nothing short of spectacular, just like the journey it describes.” 

The review is up in its entirely on Kirkus for subscribers, here, and also on Amazon, here. Thank you, Kirkus Reviews!

Above: a newspaper “butch” hawks his wares. Any resemblance is purely coincidental.