Baby’s Monday Salon: Dogs, Trains, and Simple Illustrations

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It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed what my son (age 21 months) is reading, so I thought I’d jump in and mention some highlights. It’s so much fun to see my son loving reading. He’s also definitely developing preferences and favorite things in his life, so now his reading is becoming focused on what he wants to read!

Our reading has become an all-day affair. When he wakes up in the morning and/or when he eats his breakfast, I often read to him a few pages (literally) from a full-length book. If he’s not eating, he plays on the floor of his room as I read. Right now I’m reading him Winnie-the-Pooh, and he loves it! If I stop reading, he looks up at me and begs “more?!” (which is one of his favorite words).

Throughout the day, then, he occasionally finds his picture books, which are all through the house, and then sits down and turns the pages. He often goes back to the same books these days. At bedtime, we read at least three books. Sometimes he sits still while I read a book to him or we “discuss” the pictures in it; other times he sits apart from me and “reads” it to himself, talking and turning the pages. This is so delightful to watch. I’m so excited that he’s figured it out!


My son has developed a serious obsession with dogs, despite the fact that I strongly dislike being anywhere near furry animals. So he has fun with Doggies by Sandra Boynton: we count to ten with the help of ten different dogs and ten different barks, plus a meowing cat. Another Boynton classic, full of furry animals I actually like!

I also picked up some nonfiction books about dogs. Because most picture books don’t have full-page illustrations or pictures, I wanted to get him something full of pictures just of dogs. Dogs by Gail Gibbons fills that need, with a picture of at least one different dog on each page. This one has too many words for my son to be interested in reading with me, but he certainly loves to turn the page, saying “Dog!” about fifty times through the course of the book.


My son’s obsession with dogs is now overshadowed only by his love of all trains. This originates, I think, from the train table in the children’s department at our local library. Whenever we visit (which you may imagine is quite frequently), he loves to play with the trains. Now, all his toys become trains in his imaginative play: “Choo choo!”

The first train book is one we own, a Thomas the Tank Engine Golden Book story called The Big Big Bridge. I seriously can’t stand to read it. The story is ridiculous to me, and the pictures are essentially the same throughout it; each page shows the same trains with the same expression on their “faces.” This means I can’t describe the pictures or ask my son what he sees in the pictures. Never mind, he loves to listen to the story, which astounds me because it is so stupid. Maybe it’s just the turning the pages and looking at the trains that is so fascinating. I intend to “misplace” it one of these days. (Is that mean?)

Because I got tired of reading that same story at least three times every single night (literally), I went to the library on a search for new books about trains. Chugga Chugga Choo Choo by Kevin Lewis, illustrated by Daniel Kirk, has become another of my son’s favorite books. The illustrations are busy and bright as it illustrates a little boy’s toy train running around his bedroom; the little boy pretends it is a real train.  I still don’t like reading this one aloud: every page has the phrase “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo! … Whooooooo Whooooooo!” I’m sorry to say that this becomes very annoying to read when we’re reading it about three times in a row. I’m just not a sound effect girl, and that sound effect is integral to the book’s cheesy rhymes. Nevertheless, my son loves it. It’s a very fun read for him! I still think it’s better than Thomas because we can also talk about the pictures on the second and third read each night.

We’ve also turned to a few nonfiction books. These describe how trains work and what various trains are. He actually lets me read the words to some of these, and he likes to point to all the different trains.  One favorite is I Drive a Freight Train by Sarah Bridges. This has cartoony illustrations of a conductor and engineer explaining the parts of the train. It has a “story” explaining the train, and then little factoids in boxes in the corner. For some reason, my son lets me read this to him most nights, without becoming bored. I don’t mind it because I do find it interesting to learn how trains work! My son likes to wave “Hi” to the people on every page.

Freight Train by Donald Crews is my favorite train book. Crews illustrates a freight train of many different colors. When the train moves, the colors blur. It’s quite cleverly done, and the simple and brightly colored cars are nicely balanced with lots of white space. Crews’ illustrations won the Caldecott Honor, and I love knowing that simplicity won out this time around. My train-loving son loves it, and I don’t mind reading the one-to-two word pages either.

Simple Illustrations

Another brightly colored Caldecott Honor book that my son loves is Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert. The geometric animals are created by die cuts in brightly colored pages; thus, while each page has just one or two colors, a few pages together create a multi-colored lion, or an ox, or a deer. My son likes the die cuts, but he also loves the bright colors. Each page has one word on it, be it the name of the shape (“heart” or “square”) or an animal (“snake” or “lion”). It’s incredibly clever, and while I don’t read it aloud to my son, he loves flipping through it by himself. I think it is a great book for children his age, given the bright colors. It’s also nice to have a break from trains.

On the completely opposite end of the spectrum (literally), is an infant board book: Black & White by Tana Hoban. I wouldn’t have noticed this book at all had not my son found it on a low shelf and brought it to me. I would have assumed that this wordless book, with black pictures on a white background and white pictures on a black background, would be utterly below his interest level, since he’s now 21 months old. To my surprise, he still loved to flip through it and say (or try to say, as the case may be) the shapes he recognized: chair, bird, bottle, banana. Just as the bright colors in Color Zoo appealed to him, I assume the stark, simple black and white pictures also appeal to him.

I suppose that’s a lesson to me that we are never too old for simplicity.

What are your children reading?

What books about dogs and trains have you and your children enjoyed?

What simple illustrations in picture books do you remember?

Reviewed on July 6, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • LOL! I have “misplaced” a few of my childrens books for a day or two! The one I find myself hiding the most frequently is a non-fiction book called Trains. It just has lots of pictures of real trains in and I get really bored of examining the relative height of chimneys/colour of the traction rods/everything else on a train.

    I always bring it back after a few days, but the repitition can really wear you down!

  • Not Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could? It doesn’t have a ton of sound effects (as I recall), but it does have some fun train voices to do. I can still hear my mother doing the voice of the tired old train – “I am soooo tired. I must rest my weary wheels.” Excellent book! And (spoiler alert) the plucky little engine triumphs at the end! 😛

  • My little girl loves “The Great Gracie Chase.” It is about a dog that runs away from home because of the noise. When she runs away, everyone chases her to get her back. My daughter (who is 3) loves books with animals, chasing and shouting.

    Another really good book is “The Big Bad Bunny.” It is about a mouse that dresses up as a bunny. This lead to some confusion about what is a bunny and what is a book, but there’s lots of great “sound” words that my daughter loved.

  • Kevin Henkes has a picture book about dogs called Circle Dogs. And I remember Go, Dog, Go! from when I was a kid. Oh, memories. 🙂

    My kids looooove Sandra Boynton. They get so tickled! I notice my boys love silly books over all. They also like the How do Dinosaurs.. series (Jane Yolen and Mark Teague), the Froggy books (Jonathan London and Frank Remciewicz), Russell the Sheep (Rob Scotton), anything that makes them laugh. 😀

    I, on the other hand, love Leo Lionni the most. I like Lois Ehlert, too. She has such beautiful books for little ones.

  • Jackie, I’m glad I’m not the only mother who purposely hides books! It’s not been so bad lately — with all the library books on trains, he’s forgotten about that one I don’t like. Which is good 😉

    Jenny, as I was making this post, I was recalling that one from my childhood! Thanks for the author’s name I’ll have to find it for my son. I’m sure he’ll like it too!

    Tracie, I think my son would like that dog book! Sounds great! I’ll have to find that Bunny book too. Except my son has seemed bored with the bunny books I”ve found thus far. Still just in to dogs.

    claire, I have so many Boynton books I was feeling that was all we were reading for a while! I like them, but I’m glad for some variety (i.e., the whole train thing right now!) We have one of the Dinosaur books — the Count to Ten book — and I like it a lot. I think my son would like the Froggy ones as he has a stuffed frog that he likes a lot. Thanks for all the recommendations! I’m going to have to look them up!

  • YES, Jenny!!
    “The Little Engine that Could”, also known as “The Pony Engine”, is a moralistic children’s story that appeared in the United States of America. The book is used to teach children the value of optimism and hard work. Some critics would contend that the book is a metaphor for the American dream.

    “I think I can, I think I can!”

    The story first appeared under the name The Pony Engine, in the Kindergarten Review in 1910 written by Mary C. Jacobs (1877-1970).

    109 years ago and it still rings true!

  • “Where the Red Fern Grows: The Story of Two Dogs and a Boy.”
    by Gordon Korman

    “Because of Winn-Dixie
    by Kate Dicamillo

    “Old Yeller”
    by Fred Gipson

  • Rebecca asks: “What simple illustrations in picture books do you remember?”

    I remember a book from about fifty years ago that showed how a little girl found her way home after a long walk by remembering things like a big red barn, a porch with flower pots, a windmill, a white fence and gate, etc. Wow, it’s as clear as today. anyone else remember? It showed little ones how to look for familiar objects so as not to get lost. I’ve used the message in that book for the last fifty years! I just came back from a medical mission in a jungle and I found myself identifying cetain trees and lakes as markers for when I returned to base camp!

  • Mega dittoes on Freight Train. Our copy is currently being read by the second generation!- my grandson. I love the ROYGBIV colors 😉
    When we read it aloud, we say “Freight train!” in a choo-choo fashion.

  • Hi Helen, thanks for the ideas! Although I think my one-year-old is still a bit too young for Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller … 🙂

    Sylvia, Isn’t it great? I wish that was the one my son wanted to read over and over and over. But it it’s not. Usually just once is enough for him.

  • I have requested Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo from the library to read with my grandson when he comes to visit. I should be able to handle it for one day, right?
    While browsing at Amazon, I noticed a companion book to Freight Train, Inside Freight Train. I will share that with my grandson as well. Have you seen it already?

  • estelle, it is a pretty one, huh? We had to return it to the library, but I’ll have to find it again…

    Sylvia, it’s really not that bad. I hope your grandson enjoys it! I haven’t seen Inside Freight Train, but I just looked up some info about it and it looks beautiful!

  • Doggies was one of the Pirates favorite books. I was actually sad when I realized he wasn’t interested in it any longer. The Bug only wants to turn pages, not read books.

  • Lisa, how old is The Bug? My son was like that until about a month or two ago and then suddenly, he was very interested in all kinds of reading, even at listening to the story! I’m always amazed.

  • My favorite book of all times is, The LIttle Engine That Could. It is truly the 1st motivation book written for kids. And young children, like your son, love you to read the book when you read it as if you were speaking like the cantor of train wheels.

    I have a copy of the original book from when I bought it for my children. It sits on the self of my house and my grandchildren were raised on that book too.

    When I designed the toy wooden train table plans for my 1st grandson, built the table, and got him his first train set, made a hill with the tracks. As he pushed the train up the hill we said together, “I think I can, I think I can…” and as the train went down the hill, we said, “I thought I could, I thought I could…”!

    We had such a great time together.

    As you can probably tell, I am a former diagnositc and gift reading teacher.

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