Cover Story: Trainspotting

Ohio author and illustrator team up to make Dream a reality

Angela Johnson and Loren Long haven't yet met in person, but their words and images made I Dream of Trains a reality.

In the fields of Mississippi, a young boy pauses while picking cotton to listen for the whistle of Casey Jones flying down the Illinois Central rail line. To him, this is the sound of freedom.

To a sharecropper at the turn of the 20th century, dreaming is leaving. To an author, it's not having to dream at all. To an illustrator, it's having a hero. And in the children's book I Dream of Trains, it's all of these.

Author Angela Johnson and illustrator Loren Long — two Ohioans — have teamed up in this endeavor to tell the story of a father and son and their hero, Casey Jones. The story is simple. Its impact is far from trivial.

The idea, dreamed up by Simon & Schuster editor Kevin Lewis, was made a reality by Coretta Scott King Award-winning (and Kent resident) Johnson and then sent to nationally known West Chester artist Long for a visual interpretation.

Long says he didn't have to brainstorm too extensively about the illustration. Johnson's passages evoked images as he read: "I still stare at the tracks and wait for Casey and his engine to come flying past the fields and dream me away."

The jacket picture became the first thumbnail sketch he drew.

"I pictured this boy going in and out of daydreams with this 'ghost train,' which is why I consciously made the train a larger-than-life image," he says.

Trains can certainly be interpreted, and probably will be read by elementary school teachers, as a social message book — the engineering duo of Irishman Jones and his black fireman Sim Webb and the thunder of the engine coming down the track a symbol of hope to the black sharecroppers bound to the fields. But Long never saw it as such.

"What I immediately pulled from the manuscript was a story of a father and son, and the hero was the father," he says. "But the main message is that the father is a big enough man to allow his son to have a hero (Jones) and nurture that dream. Casey Jones is also the father's hero."

Experienced in historical fiction herself — she's written books on the Negro baseball league, Martin Luther King and the Tuskegee Airmen — Johnson agrees that the book can be interpreted on several different levels.

"The beauty of these books is that each one carries a number of messages," she says. "And Casey Jones' message goes along with the art."

The bleakness of life amid the cotton is implicit in Long's dark scenes of the woods, mountains, railroad tracks and shadows, but it wasn't intentional, he says. It won't be obvious to a second grader. In contrast, the warm color schemes in the fields, the big round eyes on faces always looking skyward and the long backs of the pickers/planters depict the pride of the people.

"Their life was that cotton field," Long says. "That rail. This shack. There's such a nobility in those families."

Lucky for us to be locally tied to such a noble book.

Long, 39, a Lexington, Ky., native, settled in Cincinnati in 1988 when he started working for Gibson Greeting Cards. His artwork has won gold medals from the Society of Illustrators; seen the pages of Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Forbes; and been displayed at Cincinnati Art Museum (where he has a lithograph print, "The Tornado," in the permanent collection).

He's quick to credit C.F. Payne for initiating him into the realm of illustration, in which he's now focusing exclusively on children's (picture) books.

Johnson, 42, grew up in a "sort of Brady Bunch family" right outside Windham, Ohio, attended Kent State, worked in child development for a short time and since 1989 has been writing full time. Always intent on writing, specifically for children, Johnson insisted that the "book people" teachers read about in school came to life and stuck with her.

Those "book people" must've done something, as 30 or so books and two Coretta Scott-King awards later their voices surely still resonate.

After the dreaming, these words and scenic pages are sure to stick with any reader. As Johnson writes, "and we are where we were and who we are."

Angela Johnson and Loren Long, who haven't yet met in person, will appear together at Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore in Oakley at 11 a.m. Oct. 23.

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