The Children’s Book Review | August 22, 2019
All aboard, train lovers! Author Skila Brown and illustrator Jamey Christoph discuss their picture book, Clackety Track. An array of excellent poems reflect the excitement of train travel and Jamey Christoph’s retro illustrations of the bullet train, sleeper train, underground train, zoo train, and more, provide in-depth details to pore over.
Skila Brown Asks Jamey Christoph
A lot of times when I do school visits, students are surprised to learn that typically the illustrator and author don’t interact directly while the book is being made. So I’m excited to find out all the behind-the-scenes stuff about Clackety Track that I wanted to know…like…which poem was the most challenging to illustrate?
It is true and pretty surprising there isn’t more communication between the author and illustrator on a picture book, especially considering all the time that goes into making one! I first learned about Clackety Track in an email from my Illustration Rep, Pat Lindgren. That is usually how the process begins on my end. Your wonderful poems were sent in a pdf document and I had the chance to read through them that afternoon. Most of my favorite books growing up were about trains. I love the genre and always hoped to explore it myself, but when I read your poems, their evocative quality and rhythm of the words, I knew this was something quite new, and I wanted to be a part of it! Probably the most challenging poem was the Shoulder Ballast Cleaner. I didn’t know what one was before working on Clackety Track, and so I had to research what they look like, figure out how best to fit it on the page and have the fun ‘action’ of your words.
My favorite illustration is either the Steam Engine (you made the coal glisten!) or the Zoo Train (that tiger’s face!). Did you have a favorite poem?
Thank you Skila, those were some of my favorite illustrations as well. I’m a bit old fashioned and especially enjoy drawing the steam engines and all the details. It’s too hard to pick just one favorite poem, I love them all, but the rhythm and beat you capture in ‘Tracks’ and in ‘Freight Train’—it’s just so fun to read! “A shudder felt./Hiss of a brake drum./Start of song./Click-clack refrain./Listen. Hush./Here comes a train.” The cadence of the words, the way they start and stop and eventually build up to that lovely rhyme, it almost feels like a train pulling out of a station– a familiar feeling we all have a connection to.
We shook things up a bit in the traditional order of things. Typically the writer writes the words and then the illustrator illustrates. But for Clackety Track, I saved a spot for the illustrator to chime in. You came up with the idea for the Whistle-Stop Tour page. What inspired that?
We did and I thought that was so very cool of you to seek my input. Being a history nerd, I’m intrigued by the ‘Golden Age of Rail’ and those charming black and white photos of presidential candidates like FDR, Truman, and others criss-crossing the country came to mind. It was exciting pitching the idea to the editor and getting to see the collaboration take shape. Your bringing in the marching band is what makes the scene!
There’s a beautiful pup that pops onto more than one scene in this book. Tell me about this dog.
Those are my dogs Owen and Jack. I enjoy working them into books. I figure they’re always at my side as I’m working, it’s only fitting to include them in the story.
When was the last time you rode on a train?
I took a subway to the New York Public Library, miraculously figuring out the route from Cathedral/10th Street to 42nd street. I was thinking about the ‘The Underground Train’ poem and those ‘moles and worms’ the whole ride!
As someone who has never been able to draw, I’d love to know how much you loved art class as a kid?
I’ve always loved art; it’s very much a family thing. My mom was an elementary school art teacher, and she taught me both at home and in the classroom. One of my first drawings is actually of a train. It’s pretty scribbly, but you can make out the engine and smoke and little line of cars. There’s just something about trains that sparks our imaginations and curiosity at any age. I hope we’re able to tap into that fascination with Clackety Track.
The “Dinner Train” poem deals with trying new foods. How brave are you when it comes to eating new things?
Ha! I wish I was more brave, especially when it comes to trying seafood. Indian, Lebanese, and Mexican foods are my favs!
If you could take a train anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
Oh, it would definitely be somewhere in England, seeing old churches and Cathedrals. Someday we’ll get that chance!
Jamey Christoph Asks Skila Brown
I’m curious about the story behind the story and how a children’s book like Clackety Track comes to be. Please share your inspiration and how the book took shape. Did the first job, mentioned in your bio, have a role in writing the poems?
Absolutely! My first job involved riding in the back of the caboose of a scenic train every day for an entire summer. It was an open-air train—no sides on the cars—so the clickety-clackety rhythm of the train’s motions seeped into my very being at a young age. I still find the sound and motion of a train to be comforting and soothing. A lot of the first poems I played around with for this collection were built from that rhythm.
What were your favorite books growing up? Have you always wanted to be an author?
I read anything I could get my hands on as a child. I was not picky! I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder series and a series called Sweet Valley High. I always had a book in my hands, but I never actually considered being an author until I was older—about age thirty.
Your word combinations, stanzas, and rhyming have a musical quality, Skila. Do you have a favorite music genre? Do you happen to play music when you write or prefer a quiet space?
Mostly I like quiet when I’m writing, though sometimes, like with Clackety Track, I will play background sounds (trains on a track!) while I’m working. I rarely listen to music with lyrics while I write because I find the words distracting.
I don’t have a favorite musical genre, but I do feel strongly that poems are songs. They’re meant to be chanted or sung or read with a resonating rhythm. I certainly hear them that way in my head!
What was it like getting the news that Candlewick was interested in your manuscript? Can you offer any advice in getting published?
My first picture book, Slickety Quick, is also a collection of poems—that one is about sharks. My agent and I came up with a list of ideas for a second poetry collection, and my editor loved the idea of “trains.” I was secretly thrilled that was what she chose, because trains was my favorite on the list too.
My best advice for writers hoping to get published is to write, write, write. Read, read, read. Then repeat. You can’t go wrong with that plan.
Who is Luís and how did he help with Clackety Track?
Luís is my youngest son. He patiently listened to me read aloud the poems while I was writing them and called me out when he thought an ending was weak or the rhythm not quite right. He’s extremely musical and has always had an ear for poetry, so he was a tough critic. It was very helpful!
What has been your best experience in writing or sharing your books?
Last week a friend of mine sent me two video clips of her four-year-old grandson reciting some of the poems in Slickety Quick from memory. It was seriously the cutest thing I’d ever seen and the best thing I’d ever gotten in my inbox.
Favorite train movie (or scene in a movie relating to trains)!
Well, I know I’m supposed to say Polar Express … but honestly I have a strict policy of not watching any movies that were made from books I happened to read and like. (The book is always better.)
But the first scene that came to mind when I read this was the closing scene of Dunkirk. It’s beautiful for many reasons, one of which being there are these battered soldiers who are traveling by train, returning from an awful experience, and through the windows we see the countryside—people going about their lives, celebrating, and honoring the soldiers with applause and food and drink passed through the windows. I love that scene in part because trains take people on a special journey that happen to pass through the everyday lives of other people. I find that really beautiful.
It’s such a good question and fun to day dream … if you could take a train anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
I wrote a book about the Donner Party and was lucky enough to get a grant to retrace the route of my main character. It was a great family trip—two weeks driving out west throughout the United States. I’d love to do that again with the view from a train window. But truly, there’s nowhere I wouldn’t want to go on a train. Except maybe the moon. I’m pretty sure tracks need gravity, so the moon would probably be a bad idea.
Any new projects in the works? Can you give us a hint what’s next?
I’m always writing poetry! Yesterday I wrote a poem about a porcupine that ends with the phrase “monkey wannabe.”
For the past two years, I’ve also been working on a middle grade fantasy adventure series. It’s an epic twist on a fairy tale in a world where magic is being threatened. It’s my first attempt at a multi-book plot, and it’s proving very difficult. But I’m sticking with it!
Written by Skila Brown
Illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Publisher’s Synopsis: Queue up for a whistle-stop tour of trains of all kinds, narrated in lively verse and featuring dynamic retro artwork.
Rows of grooves, cables, and bars.
Graffiti rockin’ out the cars.
A badge of rust. A proud oil stain.
There’s nothin’ plain about a train.
Trains of all shapes and sizes are coming down the track — bullet train, sleeper train, underground train, zoo train, and more. All aboard! Skila Brown’s first-class poems, as varied as the trains themselves, reflect the excitement of train travel, while Jamey Christoph’s vintage-style illustrations provide a wealth of authentic detail to pore over.
Ages 5-8 | Publisher: Candlewick | March 12, 2019 | ISBN-13: 978-0763690472
Buy the Book
About the Author
Skila Brown has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of two young adult novels and the picture book Slickety Quick: Poems about Sharks, illustrated by Bob Kolar. Skila Brown lives in Indiana.
For more information, visit: http://skilabrown.com
About the Illustrator
Jamey Christoph has illustrated numerous picture books. His illustrations have also appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
For more information, visit: http://www.jameychristoph.com
This interview—Skila Brown and Jamey Christoph Discuss Clackety Track—was conducted between Skila Brown and Jamey Christoph. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Picture Book, Trains, and Poetry Books For Kids.