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Books That Go Zoom, Beep, and Woo Woo Woo

ToyFireTruck_400I have a dream. My dream is that just one room of my house does not have a toy car or truck in it, not even a tiny one “parked” under a dresser, as they are likely to be found. They are in the shower (a car wash, naturally). They are in the kitchen cabinets (delivery truck). They are in pockets, where they are often found as the washing machine starts making alarming banging noises. When we started with the “things that go” phase there wasn’t a lack of books… photographic, stories, interactive. The issue was there were too many and bringing them home became an exercise in trial and error.

Over my protests, one child only really liked—for a time—photographic books with labels (no story) so he could learn all the trucks’ names. (I know there is a difference between a digger and an excavator, but please don’t put me to the test about which is which—ask him). To save my sanity I tried to find as many fire truck books as I could to fan the flames (yes, pun intended) and make bedtime reading a little more enjoyable for me than labeling all the equipment on a fire truck (although it is good know that fire trucks come with axes—and here I thought they broke down doors with…. well, now that I think about it, I guess you would need something like an ax).

The road to truck books is paved with a vast array of choices. We read The Fisher-Price Little People’s Planes, Cars, Trucks, and Trains and Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, which seemed like a very good place to start. We read the photographic My First Trucks. We even read the charming, old-fashioned Lois Lenski books like The Little Train. And we moved on to other books, like Red Truck and Sheep in a Jeep.

We read them all. He seemed to love them all. I can tell you that basically all vehicle books with a plot have either an A or a B story: either the truck gets stuck and they have to get it out, or the trucks are all building something together.

I get asked a lot—and I wonder a lot, as part of my job—why some books become a phenomenon and others don’t. What made one picture book vault over the others? I was interviewing someone once who said, “I want to find the next Harry Potter book.” I didn’t hire her. Not because she wanted to find another publishing sensation (sign me up for that, please!), but because when I asked her what about that she wanted to replicate she said, “The whole magical wizard world.” Books that get replicated sometimes work… there’s a certain loose plot line that works on many a bestseller. But books that are just replicated replacing A with B most often fall flat. Good writing and good storytelling should be a requirement for something that flies out the door, but what makes a great book is that it hits on something familiar yet brings a fresh take to it.

At first glance, Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site looked like a nice construction book. I flipped through it when I saw it in the bookstore and, sighing over yet another construction book, passed it over. When it hit the bestseller lists and stayed there, I wanted to take another look. This time I brought it home and the first night we read it through three times in a row. And then I got it; sure, it was another truck book. But this one has a different, fresh take. It’s a celebration of trucks doing their special jobs, then tucking in and resting as they go to sleep. Simple. And yet, wait a sec: A truck book that didn’t end with a siren? A truck book that didn’t wind up my sleepy (ish) child? A truck book that celebrated that it was fine to dig and roll but even trucks needed to rest? A truck book that actually had a plot? Oh, this worked. This worked on so many levels, from the absolutely delightfully lovely illustrations (yes, trucks sleep with teddy bears!) to the lullaby-like verse that helps lull a truck fanatic to “Relax your wheels your stacks and backs.” It’s not trucks lite. It gets the detailed function and the movement of all the pieces of equipment, enough so that it will absolutely work on even an advanced truck enthusiast (the one who refuses to read the “baby books” about trucks, even though the baby will like reading it, too).

I met the illustrator Tom Lichtenheld once at a conference, briefly. I am always mindful in these moments to not say something idiotic like, “Hey, we get into bed with you every night.” In the end I simply introduced myself. When I went home and told my kids, my son wanted to know why I didn’t invite him over for a playdate.

The author, Sherri Duskey Rinker, according to her bio, has children and her stories were written for them. I’m going to go out on a limb that one night after reading about another stuck truck she got fed up, took pen to paper, and wrote this book. And millions of parents with trucks parked in every crevice of their homes rejoiced.

And now, our favorite toddler truck/train/vehicle books: