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Review: Choo Choo, The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away

A review of Choo Choo, The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away by Virginia Lee Burton. I really love this book; it has a special place in my heart.

choo choo

Choo Choo is dedicated, with a beautiful charcoal drawing of a little boy, to the author’s son Aris. In this picture, he is surrounded by his toy trains and — in ever-widening circles — historical, real life trains. The story itself includes all the train-related high-points: tunnels, bridges, stations, traffic crossings, hills, train noises. It is not hard to imagine that Burton knew exactly what her son wanted to see in a train book and made him one that fit the bill. Even the endpapers feature a large panoramic scene of the tracks where Choo Choo runs. My son likes to trace his fingers over the tracks in these pictures, going over the hills and through the tunnels and across the bridge. If you have a small train lover, this book has almost everything you could ask for.

Choo Choo was one of the very first books we checked out from the library that wasn’t a board book. Finn was very young at the time, less than 18 months old, and he had very little patience for this book. There are a lot of words and they don’t rhyme or have a noticeable rhythm. It seemed to take us forever and ever to get through it and, to be honest, many times we did not read the whole thing. I thought it was too long and too wordy and spent a great deal too much space in the beginning laying out the names of the engineer and the fireman and the conductor.

But now that Finn is older, this has become one of his favorite books. Duh, of course we need to know everything about Choo Choo before she decides to run off. We need to know her engineer and see his oil can and hear about how much he loves her; because if you are a person who loves trains, you need to know all about everyone in the book who loves trains. You need to see his hat and imagine it on your own head. You need to see the conductor’s pocket watch and imagine you have one, too. We have to see where Choo Choo goes every day before she runs off, because this is how trains cast their magic spell on us: they travel along paths we can’t always see from our windows or from the roads we usually travel.

Burton is better known for her book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which is a pretty great book, too. But I like this one better. I saw The Little House, another book of hers, at Half Price Books last week and I am still a little irritated that I didn’t buy it (someone wanted to spend his summer reading gift certificate on a Thomas book). I think I will put that on our list.

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Cowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope

Usually, I put up reviews for books that are kind of old news. This is because they come from the library because the library is free. But today’s review is for a book that is not out yet. Something new! Exciting!

cowboy boydCowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope is from Lisa Moser, the same author who wrote Railroad Hank. We read Railroad Hank a few months ago and loved it. It had a lot going for it, as it was about a train, but even so it is a charming book that is fun to read aloud. We would say the line “Railroad Hank rubbed his chin” very slowly and rub our own chins at the same time. Finn thought this was hilarious. Cowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope has a similar feel. Even the illustrations seem related, though they are by a different illustrator.

Synopsis: Cowboy Boyd is a cowboy who rides a rhino instead of a horse. Calliope has trouble doing a lot of the ranching tasks and the other cowboys aren’t sure she will work out, but Cowboy Boyd believes in her. And when it’s time to soothe the cattle after a bad storm, Calliope comes through and saves the day in her own particular Calliope way.

Cowboy Boyd is a fun story. Finn asked to read it over and over again, which is always the sign of a winner. I liked Calliope as a character and would like to see her have more adventures in other books. But I think I liked Railroad Hank better over all.

This book will be available at the end of August.


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Choo-Choo Bob’s

Sometimes, when my mom friends talk about what we need, the discussion ends up like this: we need a place we can take our kids that is inside with a lot of air conditioning, or outside with lots of shade and completely fenced in (none of this “there’s a fence around part of the playground” nonsense); it needs to be free or almost-free, with coffee and wifi available, and it needs to be extremely welcoming of children with a playground to play on or something for them to do — a place where moms can go and sit down and relax for a minute and maybe connect with a friend or find a kindred spirit. Sometimes the bouncy house places seem like they would work, because they are inside and you can basically stay there all day if you want … but I personally can’t take much more than an hour of the whining fans. They tend to be noisy enough that you can’t really carry on a conversation with anyone while you are there. We’ve tried the children’s museum, but that is too much on the bonkers side of things. Too many things to look at and do, too many cubby-holes for kids to disappear in, and not what you would call relaxing. Or, let’s face it, free.

Well, mamas, listen up because I found The place while we were on vacation. It just lacks a coffee machine, but we could fix that.

It is called Choo-Choo Bob’s, and yes, I realize it only exists in Minnesota — but I bet we could franchise this thing.

Choo Choo Bob’s is a train store. It’s the best train store. The best store, period? Maybe.

In the front windows are two large model train set-ups that feature Thomas the Tank Engine. So, I’m sure if you have a train enthusiast in your family, this would win them over immediately. The genius part: they put benches behind these model trains, so you can just sit there and watch them for as long as you want. And if you are me, you can set down your stupid diaper bag and chill out while your children are fascinated for minutes and minutes.


I iz mesmerized by the choo choo

Behind the benches are aisles of toy trains to buy. Some of them are the old-school model trains, some are the expensive Thomas-brand trains, but there is also a great mix of other train toys and wooden tracks that are less expensive. There is even a piece-by-piece section. I saw it and for a moment, I thought I heard choirs of angels singing. We got some new bridge pieces without having to buy a set! Also for sale were books and engineer hats and other wooden toys. In the middle was a giant bargain bin where we found Thomas’s friend Den at 50% off.

So. Trains to look at, benches to sit on, toys to buy ON SALE. What more could anyone want? Well, just take yourself all the way to the back of the store and you will find the jackpot. In front of two party rooms where you can, yes, have probably the best birthday party a 3 or 4 year old could imagine, are 8(!) train tables. And benches, so the grownups can park themselves for a while. If the model trains occupied my children for minutes upon minutes, the train tables took up all the rest of the time we had, and Finn was dragged from this store very much against his will.


Someone with a brilliant brain made these train tables. Because they are all the same. Well, there were two wooden trainscapes set up, and there were four tables of each one. This meant no fighting for the “good” one. On the day we went, there were three or four other families there, which meant plenty of train table for everyone. Even my little niece who was hardly a year old had fun pulling up on the tables and zooming an engine around. On a shelf near the tables was a little box for donations. You could leave some change if you came to play and didn’t want to buy anything — again, a sign that someone gave this place a lot of thought.


When it was time to go, Finn was not interested. Sometimes, when you have a young child, this is the dilemma: if you go somewhere awesome and have a great time, going home often means A Crazy Meltdown. Well, here again Choo Choo Bob’s has it going on, because it is next door to an ice cream shop and a short drive away from the Amtrak station. If you need something else awesome to do, you have some options. We chose both ice cream and a trip to the Amtrak station, it being vacation and all. The drive there involved lots of railroad crossings, lots of boxcar sightings, and even a beautiful streamlined train sitting at the station. Who gave us directions on how to find the station? Why the guy at Choo Choo Bob’s, of course.


We got yelled at for climbing on this train right after we took this picture. Ah, vacation!


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Minnesota History Center

Last month, we flew to Minneapolis for vacation. I really love visiting Minnesota in the summer; it is quite lovely. In the days before we had kids, my husband and I spent our Minnesota vacations riding bikes and exploring breweries and strolling around the lakes. This time, we basically did something train-related every day. One place that Finn is still talking about, and asking to return to, is the Minnesota History Center.

This is a museum with exhibits about Minnesota that are mostly geared towards the school-aged crowd. During the school year, I’m sure it is packed with kids. But we had a secret weapon: we know someone who works there so we had a private tour on a day when the exhibits would usually be closed. I realize how lucky we are to have this kind of connection, but let me just make sure I say this and that you pay attention: if you know anyone who works at a museum or the like who can get you in when it is normally closed — do it! OMG, it was way better than my wildest dreams! If we lived in Minnesota, we would be bothering my poor friend to take us around every Monday.

There is lots of fun stuff to look at the History Center, even if you are a little too young to understand most of what is going on.

This airplane is in the gallery. (Which means you can go look at it even when the exhibits are closed.)

mhc plane

I didn’t take this photo. Click it to see who did.

So is this windmill.

mhc windmill

I didn’t take this photo, either. Click it to see who did.

Inside one of the exhibits is this: an actual boxcar. AN ACTUAL BOXCAR.

mhc boxcar

I think Finn would have moved in to this thing.

There is also a streetcar, complete with steering wheel and token box and a bell.

mhc streetcar

Some of the things I really loved about this place were: everything was touch-able, most things had a play-component, and there were several opportunities to dress up. Check out Donovan sporting a WWII uniform. So cute, that one.

mhc d in a hat

One of the coolest parts about going to museum when it is closed: someone has to open the gates to let you in. I think this could have been the boring-est museum ever, and this gate would have counted as a highlight of our entire trip.

mhc gate

The building itself is gorgeous and offers such amazing views of the surrounding area. It doesn’t hurt that it is in one of the most picturesque parts of St. Paul.


I didn’t take this photo. Click it to see who did.

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Birthday Disaster – Saved!

I thought I was doing everything right for a 3 year old’s birthday: a lot of planning, a lot of googling and pinning, trying not to go overboard with favors or decorations. I thought I had learned a lot after his other birthdays. For 1 year old, we had it at the house and it was a lot of stuff to prep and clean. So for #2, we went to a park, which was also a lot of stuff to prep, and then throw out on a picnic table 30 seconds before anyone showed up. So for 3, I thought we would have it at the house, and yes, I would have to clean, but then at least I would get to enjoy a clean house for a few days afterward.

Then the party favors I ordered from Amazon arrived and they were broken.

These train whistles are cute. Oh, wait, they don't work.

These train whistles are cute. Oh, wait, they don’t work.

Then Finn came back from visiting his grandparents and threw tantrums for about nine hours in a row because we wouldn’t turn on another episode of Curious George.

curious george 2

George, you are killing me.

Then I woke up on the morning of the party to discover that the food we had prepped the night before had turned kinda brown, kinda black, kinda super gross overnight. I’m still not sure what happened there.

I didn't actually take a picture of the disgusting food. You're welcome.

I didn’t actually take a picture of the disgusting food. You’re welcome.

I hope I wasn’t crazy-rude to everyone who showed up to help. Thanks to my sister and my in-laws, everything was ship-shape and ready by party time. None of the nice trucks got thrown into the sandbox, Finn only ignored his friends for the first half of the party, and the cake was magnificent.

My neighbor brought over this cake from Paige’s Bakehouse. It was yummy.

thomas cake

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Non-Train Books That Have Trains, Too

I get sick of reading books about trains. Every time we go to the library, Finn says he is going to find a train book.  There are only so many of them, you see, and we often go home with one we have read before.  It’s all fine, of course, but sometimes you want to read a book about something else. Anything else. Please, God, a non-train book for a tired mommy?

Here is a list of books that are not about trains. But, if you need to sell it to a kid who wants only trains, they all have a train somewhere inside.  My mom likes to say, “Let’s compromise! That way no one is happy!” But, look, here’s a compromise that actually does make everyone happy.  See how that works? It’s called magic.

What Do People Do All Day

1. Find yourself a Richard Scarry book. Trains galore! And also many other things to keep you from going train-crazy. Check them out here and here.

mr brown2. Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Suess. Cuz choo-choo rhymes with moo.

3. Green Eggs and Ham, also by Dr. Suess. Would you could you on a train? Would you could you in the rain? Bonus points: train goes through a tunnel.

two at the zoo

4. Two at the Zoo by Danna Smith and Valerie Petrone. Zoo train!

knuffle bunny free5. Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems. I once complained that Knuffle Bunny didn’t have a train in it. Oh, but wait.

animalia6. Animalia by Graeme Base. Check the L page for a Locomotive.

alexander7. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz. “I had to wear my railroad train pajamas. I hate my railroad train pajamas.” (Also there’s a toy train on the floor of his bedroom.)


8. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. As you can see from the cover, there’s a … thing … on some train tracks.

(If you spot a train in a non-train book, please let me know in the comments. I feel like we own about twelve more than I have listed, but my brain is starting to hurt.)

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Books We Are Reading This Week

I am trying to cut our library trips down to once a week. It’s been harder than I thought.  Finn’s school is within walking distance of a library and he used to go to school on a schedule that coincided with one of the days the library was closed. So he would ask to go to the library after school and much of the time, I would tell him that the library was closed that day. We have since switched schedules and now the library is open every day when I pick him up. It is really hard to tell a kid you can’t take him to the library. I have extreme guilt over this.

One thing we are going to try for the summer is to read some “classic” children’s books that we haven’t done yet.  Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar have been staples, but it’s time for us to visit with some of the others that end up on “best” lists for kids.  The nice thing about looking for “old” books is that they are often at the library. Another goal of mine for the summer is to read some books with Finn that are specifically marketed to girls.  Princess books, pink books, you probably know what I’m talking about. If I had a daughter, I would be reading her books about boys, so I figure it’s only fair that my boys get a healthy dose of what “girls” are up to, at least in storybook land. I would really like to figure out how to circumvent this whole “stuff that is marketed to boys” v. “stuff that is marketed to girls,” but I am having a hard time figuring it out, since — at least in books — there is inevitably going to be one main character who is inevitably going to be a boy OR a girl. But, baby steps: first read some “girl” books, then have more thoughts later.

Here’s is what we are reading this week:

curious george

1. Curious George, the original by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey. Finn adores this story, even though he often comments on how sad it is. It is a little sad, because it shows how George was captured by the man in the yellow hat and taken away from the jungle. But it’s not as sad as the original Babar, which made me want to cry (maybe I was just having a bad day; maybe it was because someone had crossed out every instance of “hunter” in the book and written “poacher” over it).

round trip2. Round Trip by Ann Jonas. Fascinating book. It does include a train on one page and a subway on another; we keep getting hung up on those pages.

piggy pie3. Piggy Pie Po by Audrey and Don Wood. Super cute and fun to read!

king bidgood4. King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub also by Audrey and Don Wood. I went on a little Audrey and Don Wood kick, which is a wonderful thing about exploring the bookshelves instead of always ordering up what we want from a website. This book is hilarious and fun to look at.

5. train tripTrain Trip by Deanna Caswell and Dan Andreasen. What is a trip to the library without finding a train book? This one is a quick read and has pretty good pictures.

This post is part of the Kid Lit Blog Hop this week. Click on over to it and see what children’s books other people are reading.


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Boards Books Into Tunnels

This is what we did yesterday:

Board books into Train Tunnels

Yep. Sometimes it’s that simple.

I’m a big fan of using toys for off-label purposes. I suppose I could talk at length about that. Maybe later.

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Review: Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo for PPBF

This is my pick for Perfect Picture Book Friday, which is presented each week by Susanna Leonard HillChugga-Chugga Choo-Choo by Kevin Lewis and illustrated by Daniel Kirk.

  • Hyperion Books, 2001
  • Fiction; ages 3 – 5 (or anyone who thinks it’s fun to say “choo-choo”)
  • Themes: trains, toys
  • First line: “Sun’s Up, Morning’s Here.  Up and at ’em, engineer.”

Related activities:

So, duh, we love trains around here.  Train books are pretty much the gold standard.  Was Knuffle Bunny good?  Yes.  Would it have been better if it had featured a train? Yes. Obviously.

chuggc chuggaIn honor of this train adoration, I offer up Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo by Kevin Lewis for Perfect Picture Book Friday.  It is a really fun read-aloud book.  When we first heard it at a library storytime (o! storytime! how I miss you!), the librarian had all the kids say, “Chugga-chugga choo-choo!” with her while pulling an imaginary train whistle whenever the phrase appeared in the book.  By the end of that reading, she had turned into the pied piper of the library; the children would have followed her anywhere. The pictures are pretty great, too, since they are about toys.  I love seeing how other people imagine playing with toys that we have in our house, like blocks.  It helps me out when I’m having those low-energy days. Or, you know, months.

I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but sometimes when I have read the same book forty or fifty times, I start to mentally take it apart and search for hidden meanings. Maybe this is just how the girl who loved English class deals with this all day mommy-time, I don’t know.  Llama Llama Red Pajama, for example, appears to be about a single-parent family.  And many of the workers in Roadwork seem to be women (they have ponytails at any rate, so I’m calling it). Did I notice that all the trucks in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site are male? Yes, I did. And I was irritated. I know these examples aren’t exactly Jane Eyre-madwoman-in-the-attic, but you know, they help me get through another bedtime.

I don’t want to admit how many times I read Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo before I realized the human protagonist has dark skin.  And that some of the toys, including a cowboy, do too. (I’m not using the term African-American because this story could take place anywhere around the world.  And also, I don’t know how/if toys identify themselves as far as race/ethnicity.) These details make this book a little more special to me, especially since I think it is easy to lump trains into the realm of Thomas the Tank Engine and little Caucasian boys wearing engineer hats, when really, I know from personal experience that trains appeal to all kinds of kids. And some of them are not often represented in the pictures on the page. Example: an amazon search for “princess + train” reveals just one entry.  Why?

Every time I discover something new/extra/hidden/special about a book, it makes it all the more interesting when I read it the next forty or fifty times.

Do you ever pick apart the kids books you read?  Have you discovered anything interesting?


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Review: What Do People Do All Day? for Perfect Picture Book Friday

For Perfect Picture Book Friday, I present: What Do People Do All Day?

What Do People Do All DayBy Richard Scarry, published by Random House 1968

Amazon says the intended age is 3 – 7. But my 2 year old thinks it is awesome. And I remember looking through this book long after I had moved on to reading my own chapter books.

Theme: Occupations (also: trains!)

“Some workers work indoors and some work outdoors. Some work up in the sky and some work underground.”

There is something so intriguing about Richard Scarry’s illustrations.  They are full of such minute detail; they reward every visit and revisit with new little nuggets to look at.  This was one of my favorite books as a kid, one I took from my parents’ house when I was planning to start my own family so I could read it to my own kids.  The stories I remember loving the best were Building a New House, Sergeant Murphy of the Busytown Police Department, and A Visit to the Hospital.  My son’s favorite are: The Train Trip (I can currently recite it from memory), The Story of Seeds and How They Grow, and The Airplane Ride. I still like looking at the cut-away pictures, showing the insides of different vehicles or parts of a coal mine.  On more than one occasion, I have caught Finn pouring over the pages by himself, just as I used to do when I was a kid.


Make painter’s tape roads. Add blocks or legos to make some buildings. A few cork boats floating in a cookie pan. Make a car or train tunnel out of a cardboard box or toilet paper tube. It’s your own Busy Town.


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