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Spirit of the rail thing

GHOST TRAIN, By Paul Yee, Pictures by Harvey Chan GroundwoodRagged Bears Pounds 8.99

THE LAST TRAIN, By Kim Lewis, Walker Pounds 4.99 pbk

LITTLE RED TRAIN TO THE RESCUE, By Benedict Blathwayt, Julia MacRae Pounds 9.99

THE RUNAWAY TRAIN, By Benedict Blathwayt Red Fox Pounds 4.50 pbk

No theatre holds more human drama than a railway station. For almost two centuries it has been the focal point of meetings and partings, of welcome and of exile, of holidays and new beginnings. Tolstoy, Dickens, Gaskell and, of course, E Nesbit all saw the fictional power of the then (fairly) new invention. Paintings? Turner for a start. Cinema? High Noon, Brief Encounter, The Lady Vanishes. Poems? Make your own list, but if you have to choose one let it be Edward Thomas's "Adlestrop". And didn't Elgar write the haunting children's music for "The Starlight Express" - a title recently looted?

Among more recent railway-angled books for the young, Ghost Train stands out. One reason is the central theme - who were the nameless men who laid the tracks and built the engines? Another is the writing. This is an ambitious book, not unlike old fairy tale in its design.

Choon-yi is the daughter of poor peasants in south China. Born with only one arm, she is an artist of rare quality. When she is 12 her father sails for north America to become a labourer on the railways. For two years he sends money, wonderful letters and finally a message - Choon-yi must come with her painting materials. When she arrives, he is dead - killed by a landslide with other workers. No bodies have been found. He tells Choon-yi in a dream to paint the "firecar" that has taken so many lives. She studies a train in detail (fact-loving readers will approve), then bravely takes a ride. What are the wailing cries she hears?

This is a marvellous story. The pictures, too, are exceptional, wholly reflecting the text. You may find their prevailing dark-brown-ness a problem - why does the artist abhor daylight? But look again and you will be held.

In The Last Train, for younger readers, the overgrown railway line fits naturally into Kim Lewis's familiar rustic landscape. Sara and James clean up a derelict wooden hut once used by railwaymen, later by sheep, and call it their Railway Cottage. Sara pins up a red handkerchief by the fireplace. "Whoever waves this standing here," she announces, "will see a train, and the driver will stop." Does it work? Of course. The beguiling pastoral pictures, often on double page, do not fail.

For reading to or with the very young, try Benedict Blathwayt's Little Red Train stories. Busy, mild and amiable, they cover much the same landscape as the Awdry favourites. But Blathwayt gives the leading role to a resourceful Duffy Driver, who looks very much like a boy playing trains. But Red Train is no robot. In The Runaway Train, Duffy, doing a good turn as usual, forgets to put on the brakes, and the train chunters off on its own. With help from lorry, canal boat, bicycle, pony, tractor and helicopter, our indestructible driver lands on his naughty train and puts everything to rights. Heady stuff, that final rope ladder business in the air.

For nursery listeners the best features of Blathwayt's books are the tiny repetitive dramas (angst and solution, angst and solution), and the vividly shareable noises: the SCREEECH of the brakes, the WHE . . . EEE . . . EEE of Duffy's whistle and the CHUFFY CHUFFY CHUFFY CHUFF throughout.

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