Monday, October 4, 2010

All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine

Kulling, Monica. 2010. All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine. Ill. by Bill Slavin. Ontario, CA: Tundra.

One of the things that I love about reviewing children’s nonfiction is the number of new things that I learn every day.  Today I learned a little-known, but interesting and inspirational life story, as well as an interesting tidbit of etymology, the origin of the phrase “the real McCoy.”
Get on Board!

we hear our conductor
singing low
the song she uses
to let us know
now is the time
to get on board...

the midnight train
runs underground
we hide and pray
not to be found
we risk our lives
to stay on board...
So begins All Aboard! But All Aboard! is not the story of the Underground Railroad, rather it is the culmination of the Underground Railroad's greater purpose - a self-determined, productive life, lived out in  freedom.  Elijah McCoy was the son of slaves who escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad. His determined and hardworking parents saved enough money to send Elijah to school overseas, where he studied to become a mechanical engineer. 

He returned in 1866 to join his family in Michigan.  Though he may have been free, his opportunities were not equal.  Despite his education, he was only able to secure work as an "ashcat," feeding coal into the firebox of a steam engine for the Michigan Central Railroad,
What a letdown! Elijah knew engines inside and out.  He knew how to design them.  He knew how to build them.  He also knew the boss didn't think much of him because he was Black.  But Elijah needed work, so he took the job. 
Still, Elijah persevered in his job while his mind, trained in engineering, sought to find a solution to the miserable job of "grease monkey," the boys (including Elijah) who oiled all of a train's gears when they frequently seized up due to friction and lack of lubrication.  Trains of the time were typically stopped every half hour or so for greasing.  After several years, Elijah invented (and patented) an oil cup, which was used successfully  to keep the trains running.  Travel by train became faster, safer, and more efficient.  He continued to invent throughout his life, eventually filing 57 patents!  Others tried to copy Elijah McCoy's oil cup, but none were able to match his success. 
When engineers wanted to make sure they got the best oil cup, they asked for the real McCoy.
All Aboard! Elijah McCoy's Steam Engine is an obscure but inspiring story, made particularly poignant by the juxtaposition of his parents' Underground Railroad experience, and his own experience working for the Michigan Central Railroad.  The dialogue is invented and there are no references cited, however, the engaging story is simply told in a manner that makes complex topics like the inventive process and racism accessible to young readers.  All Aboard! is short enough that it can easily be read aloud to a classroom or storytime for older children.

 The book's pen and watercolor illustrations are colorful, and full of life and expression; the reverse side of the dust jacket doubles as poster. The cover design, however, does not showcase the Slavin’s work in the most favorable manner and gives the book a rather dated appearance. The design was likely chosen to match the series format.  Don't judge this book by its cover. All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine is the second book in the Great Idea series.

All Aboard has been nominated for the Cybils, Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards,  in the nonfiction, picture book category.  You can nominate books in many categories until Oct. 15th.  (Be sure to read the eligibility rules first!)

Review copy received from publisher. 
It's Nonfiction Monday and today's host is Madigan Reads.
Check out all of today's posts.
(I'll be hosting again on Nov 8)
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First page of US patent 129,843 for Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines
(from Wikimedia Commons)

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like an interesting book about an interesting man. I'll have to check it out.

    Thanks for participating in NonFiction Monday this week.


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