Thursday, January 2, 2014


Written by Chris Barton

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

(Little, Brown and Company, 2010)

Preposterous, right? Under what circumstances would a shark compete against a train? You only have to spend an hour with a couple of boys and a box full of toys to see the possibilities. Indeed, that is where the standoff begins in this book. Even before the title page, two boys rush to the toy box, one selecting the toy shark (“GRRRRR”), the other choosing the choo-choo (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”). It’s a battle to the finish...or until the next distraction comes along.

I love this clever, absurd book. It celebrates boys’ imaginations and the shenanigans that can only come from free, unstructured play. Shark and train compete in a variety of situations. Some favor the shark—the hot-air balloon ride, for example. Unfortunately, train is deadweight.
My favorite of Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations portrays advantage train as the two characters roast marshmallows. The locomotive smiles contentedly—perhaps a tad smugly—as it browns the treat with its engine. By contrast, poor shark can’t keep a fire going as he keeps dripping over the kindling. “Drat” indeed!

The situations get even sillier—sword fighting on a tightrope, space travel—just the way children’s play evolves. Younger children will be drawn to the illustrations and the expressions on the toys’ faces. Older children will appreciate the edgier humor such as when shark dons a party hat, goes trick-or-treating and says to the person with a bowl of candy at the door, “This clown is very hungry.” Oh, my!

I am a huge fan of Tom Lichtenheld’s work. (By golly, my last post just so happens to be another picture book that he illustrated.) He gives the viewer a little something extra as train’s distinct little red caboose doesn’t always chug along so well with the rest of the procession. The caboose reminds me of the tiny cloud in his delightful Cloudette. And, yes, I will be looking for more from author Chris Barton. For now, I cannot wait to take Shark vs. Train on a tour as a read-aloud in classrooms at school.

It does not matter who wins these goofy battles between the two toys. The true winner is the reader.

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