cover image Iron Horses

Iron Horses

Verla Kay. Putnam Publishing Group, $16.99 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-399-23119-3

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)