Friday, March 14

Trainstop


by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin 2008

On a train trip between cityscapes young girls watches as her view in a black tunnel is replaced by a vibrant countryside. When the train is flagged down mysteriously the girl notices she is the only one on the train who isn't asleep. Stepping off the train she finds a group of people gathered around a tree where a person and their plane have become lodged. What isn't apparent until she reaches the tree is that the people are all tiny, as if the remained frozen the height they were from her train window perspective. While the people are as real as the girl, the plane in the tree is one of those balsa wood planes with a rubber band powering the propeller. Once she has rescued the tiny pilot she returns to the train and resumes her ride home, out the of the fantasy and out of the tunnel, back to the city where she lives.

Out in front of her townhouse, standing in her stone yard, she looks up and sees the rescued pilot and a co-pilot flying toward her. They come with a gift of thanks, a small seedling for an apple tree that is planted in the crack in her stone yard. As a parting shot the girl sits on her stoop admiring her now-grown tree while all over the city other trees have begun sprouting up, no doubt from kindred daydreaming souls looking to return nature to the cities.

Lehman set herself an impossible bar with The Red Book a few years back and, unfairly perhaps, everything since has been measured against that amazing snake-eating-its-tale fantasy. If the impression -- mine at least -- was that her subsequent books (Museum Trip, Rainstorm) were increasingly weaker attempts to capture lighting in a bottle, Trainstop manages to stand apart from the others, on its own and with very sturdy legs. As with her previous books Lehman mines the theme of a child's daydream world, but here the idea of an fantasy taking place while the rest of the world sleeps, coupled with the message of bringing nature back to the cities, is perhaps the strongest, most direct message delivered yet. Where in previous books the children imagine or discover worlds for their own purposes and keeping, Trainstop gives us a child looking to share her fantasy with the world. It's almost a subtle environmental message, a quiet Lorax making a last call on those with eyes and ears enough to still listen.

For those unfamiliar with Lehman's work, the book is as wordless as her previous books, filled with the same thick-outlined ligne claire illustrations that are her trademark. Probably the simplest of her picture books to date, but no less engaging. I think what I'd really like to see is what Lehman can do with the long-form: graphic novels. Her sense of pacing, her imagination, I think make her an ideal candidate for an extended fantasy romp a la Sara Varon's Robot Dreams or, on a more picture book level, Regis Faller's The Adventures of Polo.

I can hope, can't I?
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