CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 36. . . .May 21, 2010
The excerpt above gives us our first glimpse of Elijah McCoy in this enticing picture-book biography for children aged 5-8. In the child, we see the man he will become, innovative, enthusiastic and dedicated, overcoming unimaginable odds against the dogmas of his era to follow his dreams.
Elijah McCoy was Canadian born, a child of slaves who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. One of 12 children, Elijah’s parents miraculously managed to educate him in Scotland, where he became a mechanical engineer. When he rejoined his family, now living in Michigan, racial prejudice intruded and, despite superior qualifications, he became a locomotive fireman where he was required to shovel coal for the firebox and oil wheels and bearings. He had a child assistant, small enough to oil areas that he could not reach.
A boy was under the train. His clothes smelled of oil.
“That’s your grease monkey,” said the boss. “He’ll oil the places you can’t get to.” A grease monkey was paid pennies a day. At night he slept on the train’s grimy floor. The work was dangerous, and boys often got hurt or worse.
Disturbed by the danger to these children and the inefficiency of frequent greasing stops, Elijah created a self-regulating lubricator that oiled the engine as it ran. This and other inventions, coupled with the quality of his design, propelled him to heroic status in American history.
All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine is an intriguing and readable introduction to Elijah McCoy that whets the appetite for more, but it also touches on other thought-provoking themes such as slavery, the Underground Railroad, racial discrimination, railroad history, everyday inventions and belief in one’s own ideals.
From the beginning, the account engages the reader. The attractive format and direct readable prose propel the reader along to a satisfying conclusion. The story is prefaced with an emotional poem about the Underground Railroad that sets the stage for the connecting messages throughout. The author ends the book by explaining the derivation of the term ‘the real McCoy.’ Although Elijah is just one possible inspiration for this expression, its inclusion creates a convincing dimension to the story.
The wonderful effervescent illustrations of Bill Slavin bring the story to life, capturing the atmosphere of the age with authenticity. Pen and ink drawings with watercolor used across double page spreads convey a sense of action and vitality. They also provide whimsical details and subtle pathos that fascinate.
Bill Slavin is the illustrator of over seventy books and has at least the same number of nominations and awards to his credit. These include the prestigious Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award, the Blue Spruce Award and the Zena Sutherland Award for Children’s Literature.
Monica Kulling is a poet with a B.A. in creative writing. She has written many titles for children, including nature books and beginner biographies of such greats as Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Eastman and Amelia Earhart. This, her second book in the “Great Idea” series, is a delightful addition to any library or personal bookshelf.
Aileen Wortley is a retired librarian from Toronto, ON.
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