Two favorite picture-book themes – bedtime and trucks – make a winning combination in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Published by Chronicle Books in May 2011, this story about construction vehicles finishing their work and retiring for the night was plucked from the slush pile by Mary Colgan, a Chronicle editor who has since left the company. She has a sharp eye: that title now has more than 300,000 copies in print. Fans of that bestseller are likely to welcome Rinker and Lichtenheld’s second bedtime book, Steam Train, Dream Train, which the illustrator calls “a cousin – not a sequel” to their first collaboration. The new book, due from Chronicle next April, features animals riding the rails at nighttime. A great deal of thought and effort went into the making of its cover, which is revealed here.

“I always sit down and do five or six different sketches for the cover once I sketch out the whole book,” Lichtenheld explains. “In the cover, I try to get across the essence of the story as much as I can, and find an element from the story that will intrigue viewers and provoke them to want to know more about the story and look into the book – something that is mysterious, cute, or engaging in one way or another. I try to get across a bit of the personality of the story, whether it’s whimsical, serious, or sweet.”

In the case of Steam Train, Dream Train, Lichtenheld knew he wanted several key components on the cover: a train, a sense that it was nighttime, and a hint that the train is occupied by animals. “From there, it was a matter of balance – how much about the train and how much about the animals,” says the illustrator. A close contender for the cover was a picture of a trio of animals tucked into a flatbed car. “That to me was a sweet image,” Lichtenheld says. “It tells you right away that it’s a bedtime book, and lets you know there’s an interesting mashup of animals in the story: an elephant, a polar bear, a penguin – and a bear driving the train.”

The final decision about which cover treatment to go with was collaborative, made by Lichtenheld, author Rinker, designer Kristine Brogno, and Melissa Manlove, the book’s editor, with additional input from Chronicle’s in-house cover review group. “We take great care with our covers,” says Brogno, Chronicle’s design director of children’s publishing. “Sometimes it can feel like a lot of voices in the mix, but it’s a matter of learning to listen to all those voices and getting to the meat of what people are saying. That’s what makes our cover process work. And Tom is very open to feedback. He takes it all in, puts it through his own filter, and comes out with something even more wonderful than what we expected. He’s truly committed to making the best book possible.”

For Lichtenheld, the hard work behind the final cover treatment for Steam Train, Dream Train (which has a 100,000-copy print run on order) paid off. “I really love the image of the giraffe sticking its head out of the caboose,” he says. “Ironically, trains don’t have cabooses any more, but next to the engine, the caboose captures most what kids love about trains. They’re iconic, are painted red, and have a personality to them. And the giraffe seems almost romantic as he looks out into the night. I think the cover captures all of the key elements of the book in a pretty efficient way.”

Brogno agrees that this cover art was the right option to roll with. “This cover has a dynamic composition, with a beautiful image that sets just the right tone,” she says. In the original sketch of the cover, the giraffe was the only animal portrayed, and the designer and others giving feedback felt there was something else needed. “You saw the giraffe from the back, so there was nothing you connected with right away,” Brogno says. “We experimented with adding several different things, and then tried a monkey perched on the back of the caboose. And we knew that he’d be just the right guide into this sleepytime story – holding a lantern giving off a wonderful, soft glow. Tom really nailed it.”

Lichtenheld’s drawing board has been crowded over the past year. In addition to Steam Train, Dream Train, he has two other books due off press this spring: ! (Exclamation Mark) by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, the story of a misplaced punctuation mark that discovers the rewards of being different, from Scholastic Press; and Sing, a picture book from Henry Holt’s Christy Ottaviano Books imprint, which illustrates the lyrics of a familiar Sesame Street song by Joe Raposo. Lichtenheld is currently working on the illustrations for Richard T. Morris’s This Is a Moose, the story of a moose who’s an aspiring astronaut, scheduled for Little, Brown’s fall 2013 list.

Lichtenheld notes that he has no idea whether his Construction Site follow-up will be a similar hit with kids. “I am a terrible judge of how my books are going to do,” he says. “When I got the manuscript, I liked it a lot, but I had a question mark in my mind, wondering if trains are as popular with kids as trucks. I have no immediate gauge for that, since I don’t have children myself.”

Curious, Lichteneld headed to his local library to do some impromptu research. “I put a measuring tape in my pocket and walked to the library, to measure the linear amount of truck books on the shelf against the number of train books,” he explains. “The librarian asked me what I was doing, and I told her – and I mentioned there were far more truck than train books. And she said, ‘Tom, that’s because all the train books are checked out.’ So I immediately knew I’d better do this train book. Obviously the world needs more of them!”

Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-4521-0920-6