A (Literal) Train of Thought

May 11, 2023 § 2 Comments

When I was almost ten, our family moved from a large, ramshackle house in the lush green suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the fifteenth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan, and I did not handle it well. My parents adored New York City—they had lived there before having kids and couldn’t wait to return—but all I saw was no backyard, a shared bedroom with my younger sister, and more people and noise in a single day than I’d known in the decade I’d been alive. In a memory that still makes me cringe—though I was a deeply feeling child I prided myself on my poise—I pitched a fit in front of our realtor, yelling to my parents about how dirty and smelly and noisy the city’s streets were, while we rode an elevator to another prospective apartment, from which the sounds of car horns and ambulance sirens and buses pulling away from the curb would only be slightly dampened.

Kids generally underestimate their ability to adapt, and I quickly grew to love the city. But I never entirely shed the feeling that I was an outdoor kid living in an indoor city, and I sought out changes of scenery whenever I could. Sometimes, the escape was literal, like the summers I spent at sleepaway camp in Vermont. Mostly, I escaped through books—or through my imagination, spurred on by the stories I read. A handful of tap water before bed was the icy, life-saving stream water from My Side of the Mountain. The six-block concrete walk to school was an enchanted yellow-brick road, visible only when I looked down at my quickly advancing feet. I was a dreamy child, something I’ve never been sorry about passing along to my daughter, even when her liberal interpretations of reality have been known to try my patience.

With it being Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the timing seems perfect to share one of the most beautiful picture books of the year, as it is both written and illustrated by Dan-ah Kim, born in Seoul, South Korea and now living in Brooklyn, New York. I dare you not to gasp aloud as you page through these glorious spreads. But I don’t only adore the book for its artwork. Its story speaks directly to that child I once was, the one who never kicked and screamed in an elevator again but definitely felt like it, even as she found love and belonging and wonder in city life. That the book is inspired by real subway stops in New York City doesn’t hurt, either, though its message of creativity and imagination is undoubtedly universal.

The Train Home (ages 4-8) is an inventive story about a girl who conjures up a train for a magical journey away from the noisy reality of her city apartment. Along the way, amidst the alluring, refreshing, fantastical scenery of her imagination, she surprises herself by yearning for the home she has left behind. Ultimately, like the dichotomy that exists in the art—some spreads fancifully populated, others pared way back—the story is a reassuring validation that the desire to escape and the desire to return home are never mutually exclusive. Rather, they exist in a tug-of-war dance alongside our own journeys of growing up.

If the cover alone isn’t enough to convince you of the beauty of the art to follow, take a look at what likes beneath the jacket cover, a direct invitation into the book’s title.

On the opening page, when we meet Nari, she’s in her apartment, a “rowdy home in a crowded city,” a place that sometimes “feels a bit too full and a little too loud for Nari, and she wishes she lived somewhere else.”

Among the bickering of her parents, the chatter of her grandparents, and the whines of her little sister, Nari “dreams of a quiet space all to herself.” As she watches the NYC subway race by above ground outside her window, she gets an idea. What if she could take a train “to find her dream home”?

We join for the ride, as Nari explores a different possibility for this dream home with each stop on her (literal) train of thought. At the first stop, she steps into a fantastical garden, where she tries out “build[ing] a big nest where she could sleep and dream in the treetops.”

“The next stop smells of salty sea air,” as Nari takes a dip alongside sea turtles, mermaids, and octopi reading newspapers.

On she goes, including a stop in a room full of books flanked by two stone lions—a nod to the New York Public Library, of course—and here is the first time we see thoughts of Nari’s real home life creeping in. She pages though a story “that reminds her of her grandparents, full of bravery and adventure.”

Nari’s thoughts fall to her younger sister when a stop at the Natural History Museum transforms into a meet-and-greet with living dinosaurs, a place she imagines her sister, given her dinosaur knowledge, would appreciate.

Eventually, she imagines the most peaceful home of all—the constellations of a night sky—but here, amidst all the quiet she could ever want, she finds herself missing “her parents’ laughter, her grandparents’ stories, and her sister’s singing.” And so, she boards the train once more and “follows comets back down to Earth.”

One of the final spreads is a favorite, the only time we see what the interior of Nari’s train looks like. Each of her adventures have left with her a memory, which she now transports with her into the future.

In the final spread, Nari looks on from the train window as her loved ones light up the inside of her apartment building. The bickering and whining has, for now, been forgotten, and Nari sees only connection. It’s a literal re-framing: the moment where Nari embraces her real-life home for the possibility of its own kind of magic.

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Book gifted by HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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