Alastair Dalton: Children’s book on railways tells it as it is

"You have to buy a ticket before you get on a train. It's best to allow plenty of time." Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books
"You have to buy a ticket before you get on a train. It's best to allow plenty of time." Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books
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Transport is a popular theme in children’s books, from The Railway Children to Thomas the Tank Engine.

However, many present an idealised, inauthentic or outdated vision of travel.

"The bunks are reasonably bouncy - but the ceiling's a bit low." Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books

"The bunks are reasonably bouncy - but the ceiling's a bit low." Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books

At the other extreme, famous authors have been employed to highlight transport dangers as a public service.

One of Roald Dahl’s lesser-known works is his Guide to Railway Safety, commissioned by British Rail in 1991 and complete with alarming illustrations by Quentin Blake, such as boy losing his head after leaning out of a carriage window.

Such images are fine for sending shocking safety messages or introducing the youngest readers to boats, trains and planes.

But most books are far from what travelling is really like for children embarking on their own first journeys.

Doris in the Signal Box. Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books

Doris in the Signal Box. Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books

However, a series of picture books by author Sharon Rentta subtly blends fantasy and reality, using animals instead of people in various transport-related and other scenarios.

Her latest, A Day with the Animal Railway, is based on close observation of contemporary travel habits on Britain’s trains, and is most instructive to both young and old passengers.

On the face of it, the book is a fun and somewhat anarchic depiction of the rail system.

But Rentta cleverly uses her animal characters to exaggerate familiar passenger behaviours that impart some useful life lessons for the commuters of the future.

Retired driver Grandpa takes to the controls to saves the day. Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books

Retired driver Grandpa takes to the controls to saves the day. Picture: Sharon Rentta/Alison Green Books

It tells the story of Dexter the cat’s train journeys with his grandfather.

On one trip, they find the coach overcrowded and have to stand, while on another, the train grinds to a halt.

“They wait. And they wait. But the train doesn’t move. Everyone’s a bit fidgety.” Sounds familiar?

On another page, a picture of a long queue, including a crocodile, koala and cat showing varying degrees of patience, is used to illustrate the need to allow plenty of time to buy a ticket.

Later in the book, adults reading to their children will raise a smile at the anti-social behaviour Rentta highlights, such an octopus putting its feet all over the seats, a crocodile stretching out across three seats, and an angry-looking ostrich staring at a donkey “shouting very loudly” into his mobile phone.

But the author’s light touch and humorous drawings means the book is a world away from a public information guide.

In another scene, Dexter bounces on his bed - a recurring theme in Rentta’s books - in a sleeper train, but hits his head on the ceiling of the berth because it’s “a bit low”.

And in a signal box, signaller Doris - a hen - sits in front of computer screens as a toy train carrying eggs runs beneath her feet.

Rentta’s book has an authentic feel under the animal disguises and surreal images, just like others in the series, such as those set in a garage, airport, fire station and building site.

They are how-to guides that take after the Busytown tales by classic American author and illustrator Richard Scarry, who Rentta readily acknowledges as a major influence.

The next generation needs to learn about public transport more than ever, when so many are driven to school and most are carried around the rest of the time in cars.

I remember taking to buses and trains for the freedom it gave me after years of being trapped in the back seat on both long and short car journeys.

For today’s youngsters, Rentta’s books show how fun it can be.