The Little Train – Graham Greene and Edward Ardizzone, Jonathan Cape, 2014 (paperback edition published by Red Fox in 2017, both are reissues of original 1973 Doubleday editions)
The Third Man, The Quiet American, The Power and the Glory, Our Man in Havana, and…The Little Train. British novelist Graham Greene, known for his dark and complex explorations of such adult themes as religious faith, abuses of power, and the desperation that sometimes underlies relationships between men and women, also wrote about trains and steamrollers. While the hero of The Little Train ends the book with “his heart too full of joy for words” when the mayor of Little Snoreing praises his bravery, the tension leading up to this moment may cause young readers a bit of anxiety. In fact, the Little Train has something in common with Greene’s British intelligence agents and conflicted priests, at least as much as he has with Thomas, Edward, and Percy of the Isle of Sodor.
The Little Train is a model of punctuality, respected by all the residents of his “lovely sleepy village.” Yet he can’t leave well enough alone, as he is “sometimes bored to tears.” Fed up with his lack of adventure, he decides to make a break for it at an uncharacteristic speed, inspired by thoughts of “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” Before long, he is thirsty and depressed, thinking of “explorers who had died of thirst in the desert,” and shutting his eyes in “deadly fear” of his unaccustomed speed. It is rare for children’s books about trains to use the word “death,” but this one does, in addition to “desolation,” “gloomy,” “grim,” and “demons.” Like Tootle, who refused to stay on the tracks, or The Poky Little Puppy’s persistent crawling under fences, the Little Train…
needs to learn a lesson. In the tradition of Peter Rabbit, this involves some morbid lessons, and a reward at the end of the story. (Peter doesn’t get the milk and blackberries that his siblings enjoy, but at least his mother tucks him in with chamomile tea.)
The illustrations for The Little Train are the work of Edward Ardizzone, the wonderful British illustrator whose immediately identifiable style combines English landscape painting, watercolors, and cartoonish figures. He is best known for the series of Little Tim books, as well as The Witch Family and Pinky Pye with Eleanor Estes, The Little Bookroom with Eleanor Farjeon, the Nurse Matilda series with Christianna Brand, and pictures for works by Chesterton, Trollope, and Dickens. He is one of those illustrators whose work you will immediately recognize even if you cannot remember his name. Here he gives the Little Train miles of tracks stretching towards villages as well as a detailed map featuring Gotobed Forest, Weary Road, and High Yelling. Unlike his literary cousins Thomas, Tootle, and the Little Engine That Could, Little Train does not have facial features, making the expression of his fear and triumph even more impressive.
I don’t mean to scare you away from reading this lovely book with young train fans. It is exciting and visually appealing, and introduces children already acquainted with Sir Topham Hatt to characters with such engaging names as Mr. Poslethwaite and Joe Trolley. I recommend a nice cultural excursion to Little Snoreing. With Greene and Ardizzone as your guides, you can’t go wrong.