Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Blue Comet

by Romsemary Wells  Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.

Thumbs Up.

Oscar Ogilvie, Jr. and his dad love model trains.  They spend their extra dollars building up a grand layout in their basement, complete with the right trains for the right routes and stations around the country.  All is well and good until the stock market crashes in 1929 and nobody can afford to buy the John Deere tractors Oscar Ogilvie, Sr. sells for a living.  The house is repossessed and the train layout sold along with the house, for the bank to use as a lobby display.

Oscar Jr. is left with the formidable Aunt Carmen when his father leaves to find work wherever it's to be had.  Oscar finds unexpected friendship, and through that friendship a fantasy adventure that unfolds throughout the rest of the book.

The author includes cameos from several historical figures.  I got a good chuckle when the first one dawned on me.  I had to skim back several pages to refresh my memory of how Ms Wells portrayed this person's disposition. 

The periodic illustrations are beautifully done.  Mr. Ibatoulline includes accurate illustrations for the various historical figures mentioned in the story.  I had fun (and wasted too much time) googling images of these historical persons to figure out which ones were who.

The book would make a good tie-in for the study of the early decades of the 20th century.  It could be used for older children to launch into economics or politics (Progressivism, Great Depression, World Wars), math and science (Einstein and his theories), or a study of any number of early 20th century figures.  A child who loves trains would enjoy reading about the models and layouts.

This is a fun book that would be a great read-aloud for multiple age levels.  For independent reading, I think an eager student in grades 3-5 could manage this story.  But some of the concepts and vocabulary are a bit difficult.  As a read-aloud with my elementary aged kids, I've had to explain a bit of history or economics now and then, and we're only two chapters into the story at this point.

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