CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 7 . . . . November 30, 2001
Trunks All Aboard is a literary curiosity that came about because of the existence of a collection of drawings that Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, the builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, sent to his very young grandson, William, in Montreal while Van Horne was on a trip to Europe in 1909. What makes the illustrations "special" is that they were all drawn and painted by Van Horne who incorporated anthropomorphic or realistically rendered elephants into each of them.
Beginning with just 20 illustrations, Nichol set herself the task of creating a "story" text to go with them, something she achieved by using rhyming couplets with one or two lines of text appearing on each page although on three occasions the text expands to four lines. Lacking six illustrations to complete the alphabet, Nichol makes the "K" page carry six letters while the "T" page also incorporates "U." Prior to the text's beginning, the publisher provides a black and white photograph which shows Van Horne with grandson William who is appropriately mounted on a large toy elephant while holding another toy elephant in his arms. As well, an introductory one-page author's note to the reader provides some historical background on Van Horne plus information about how the book came to be and an explanation as to why Van Horne's illustrations do not appear in chronological order.
With a book like Trunks All Aboard, the challenge for a reviewer is to answer the question: what criteria should be used to judge it? Since the book's subtitle declares that it is An Elephant ABC, should it be adjudicated on its merits as a child's ABC book? Or should it just be considered an historical artifact that will appeal principally to adults. Given that the letters of the alphabet are only used in upper case as the initial letters of given names, the book's value as an alphabet "teaching" tool for preschoolers is limited. Alphabet books also can be used to expand vocabulary, and Trunks All Aboard certainly meets this criterion though often its words and "experiences" go well beyond a young reader's/listener's comprehension. Although the illustration provides the context for a youngster to comprehend the word "pram" in "Now C is Carmelita, on a voyage in a pram," the line, "And Sal, who took to bed the day her son announced his marriage," simply carries too much adult emotional "information" to be understood by children. In short, the book's contents will speak more to older readers, likely adults, who can understand the illustrations in their historical context (or who can explain them to a younger audience). Nichol is to be commended for her inventiveness in providing a workable text for a group of extant illustrations; however, Trunks All Aboard, the title of which echoes, in part, a train conductor's admonition, is not a first purchase item for libraries serving Early Years students.
Recommended with Reservations.
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and YA literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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