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All Aboard! A Reading List For Riding The Rails

We're not sure anyone has ever published a book list that includes both Anna Karenina and The Little Engine That Could -- so this might be a first! Find all our recommended tales of travel by train.

Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included).

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I Dream Of Trains

In 19th century Mississippi, a young boy toils long, hard hours in the cotton fields. It is backbreaking work, but he finds solace in the distinct whistle of a passing train. His burden lifts as he imagines being aboard with his hero, legendary engineer Casey Jones. Together, they view landscapes of mountains and seas, far beyond the bleak life of the cotton fields. When Jones dies saving the lives of his passengers, the boy and his dreams are shattered. That is, until his father assures him that his dream can live on. Heroes are lost, then found, as lives are explored but not sermonized. In this gorgeous book, Loren Long's masterful paintings enrich Angela Johnson's powerful prose to create a story for all ages. (For ages 5 to 7)

-- Lisa Yee, author, most recently of Warp Speed

Peacebound Trains

Sumi spends her afternoons sitting on a hilltop near her grandmother's house, watching trains come in and out of their valley; it makes her feel closer to her mother (or Umma) who is training at an army base far away. One day, her grandmother (or Harmuny) finds Sumi crying on the hilltop and decides to share with her the story of a climactic train ride she and Umma took long ago, at the height of Korea's civil war, from the country's war-torn center to its peaceful southern coast. Many Americans may not know much about the Korean War, but Haemi Balgassi's heartbreaking story, inspired by her grandmother's own journey, and Chris Soentpiet's highly realistic watercolor illustrations bring the Korean perspective on that conflict vividly to life, leaving both Sumi and the reader with much to consider. (For ages 8 to 12)

-- Margaret H. Willison, book critic

Anna Karenina

A lot of people are afraid of Russian novels. They're so long; they're so dense; there are so many characters with such complicated names. If you are among those who feel this way, you need to get over it. These are great stories, and Anna Karenina is one of the greatest. Anna herself is an unforgettable character. The story of her desperate love affair has endured because it is both passionate and heartbreaking. And it makes you think: Why do some people pass through life breaking rules and hurting others with no consequences while others have to pay such a steep price for their transgressions? As for the mode of transportation involved? Some of you actually may not know how the story ends, so suffice it to say our last glimpse of Anna is in a train station.

-- Lynn Neary, correspondent, Arts Desk

The Namesake

A young Indian man takes a train trip that shapes his life — and nearly destroys it. Ashoke Ganguli's passage from Calcutta to Jamshedpur ends when the train derails, leaving him trapped and severely injured among the debris. Years after his rescue and recovery, as he starts a family and a new life in America, Ashoke recalls the advice of the stranger he met on the train and, most significant, the collection of Nikolai Gogol stories he was reading at the time of the accident — the pages of which helped alert rescue workers to his whereabouts. Even when the story shifts focus to Gogol — the son Ashoke named after the author whose book saved his life — the moments and consequences of that train trip loom large. "You remind me of everything that followed," he tells his son. Jhumpa Lahiri follows two generations as they navigate the burdens of family and tradition, and struggle to move forward after one ill-fated train journey.

-- Sarah Knight, NPR Library staff

The Railway Children

Two girls and a boy wave at a train from an embankment in rural Yorkshire, England, every weekday, wet or fine. Just as regularly, an old gentleman waves back. That fleeting ritual of yearning and connection comprises the heart of this 1906 British classic. Mysteriously, the children's father has been taken away and they've been ripped from the comforts of the London suburbs to a shambling cottage. Their mother, a writer struggling to support them, is busy and distracted; they miss their father terribly. It's an oddly contemporary theme for an Edwardian children's novel. The trains link the siblings to their old life, and the nearby station becomes something of a utopia, where hierarchies are disrupted and communities unexpectedly constructed. The train itself — first imagined by the children as a benevolent dragon magically carrying love to their missing father — becomes the vehicle, literally and metaphorically, they use to bring him home. (For ages 9 and up)

-- Neda Ulaby, correspondent, Arts Desk

Fullmetal Alchemist 1

If you're not an experienced reader of Japanese manga, Fullmetal Alchemist can take some getting used to. Besides the right-to-left reading order, there's the fact that one of the protagonists is a giant suit of armor. But once you fall in love with creator Hiromu Arakawa's steampunk vision — or if you're already familiar with the Fullmetal Alchemist anime on the Cartoon Network — the saga's innovative adventures, rich characters and ever-present sly humor deliver hours of enjoyment. Best of all, volume 1, Chapter 4 sees the heroes embroiled in a good, old-fashioned train heist plotline. To rescue a government official who has been taken hostage, they must combine hand-to-hand combat and clever trickery in a series of skirmishes up and down the length of a speeding train. Naturally, the fighters find their way up on top of the cars and into the locomotive as well — it wouldn't be a train heist if it didn't make the most of its venue.

-- Etelka Lehoczky, comics critic

The Great Railway Bazaar

In this 1975 classic, Paul Theroux brings us by train from London's Victoria Station to Tokyo Central, returning on the Trans-Siberian. "I sought trains; I found passengers," he writes. His train ride is filled with pungent scenes and "strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories." Still fresh, he boards the once-glamorous Orient Express: "Lady Chatterley took it; so did Hercule Poirot and James Bond." Now there is no dining car; he disembarks to buy lunchboxes. From there, it's on to Istanbul's Covered Bazaar, to Tehran and then to the weekly Khyber Pass Local, which takes tribal people to the bazaar in Peshawar. Approaching Moscow, 6,000 miles into the trip, Theroux is road-weary: "I resented Russia's size; I wanted to be home." But readers will still be ready for more from this intrepid chronicler, who remains sharp-eyed even as he downs vodka with the club car bartender and ponders the darkening skies.

-- Jane Ciabattari, book critic

La Bete Humaine

Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie made well-known use of the train as a confined setting for their thrillers — but a less well-known example is this violent, mesmerizing book from the great French novelist Emile Zola. It's part of his 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, but don't worry, I've been assured that you don't have to read the other 19 if your beach bag just won't fit them and your sunscreen. La Bete Humaine isn't exactly a sunny read, though — it's an exploration of what kinds of murderous tendencies we've all got locked up in our psychological cupboards and how accessible the keys are. The book, with its high body count, is set against the backdrop of the railway between Paris and Le Havre. In just the first chapter a woman confesses to a sexual molestation in her past, is beaten and threatened by her own husband for the sin committed against her, and a plot to murder the molester is concocted. And we haven't even met the other main character, loosely based on Jack the Ripper, whose most potent love affair is with the train. Hey, it's not called The Human Kitten. What's the fun in reading this grisly story, besides the racing plot? It's Zola's exploration of what creates the desire to kill — all experienced from the safety of your own (hopefully) locked cupboard.

-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition

Mr. Norris Changes Trains

This novel will seduce you from the very first paragraph. (Seriously, try to stop: "My first impression was that the stranger's eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared.") The book begins on a train from the Netherlands to Berlin. The possessor of those eyes is the odd, almost loathsome Arthur Norris (I picture Peter Lorre in the role) wearing a badly fitting wig and in possession of a passport about which he's clearly nervous. The narrator is William Bradshaw, an English teacher, who strikes up a conversation with Norris. The two become friends in the Berlin of the early 1930s, which wasn't exactly a cabaret, old chum, despite what Sally Bowles had to say about it. Norris and Bradshaw become involved in the Communist Party as the Nazis rise to power. I can't spoil too much of what happens to Mr. Norris — but Isherwood himself apparently thought the original American title, The Last of Mr. Norris, ought to have a question mark attached. If you've never read Isherwood — get introduced, pronto! — his sentences are like trains themselves, so smooth and transparent that you hardly even realize you've moved along, until you look up from your book.

-- Barrie Hardymon, Weekend Edition staff

Iron Council

China Mieville is master of "weird" literature with a genius for subverting genre. His fiction takes on subjects with a rigor seldom found outside the higher reaches of the academy. This one is a meditation on imperialism, globalization and the politics of resistance. But within the powerful imagination of this writer, the actors in the drama operate in a world populated by tropes from steampunk and the good old Western. As they build a railroad across a desert expanse, the Iron Council — both passengers and citizens of a misfit collective — seek to end a 20-year war and establish utopia in the city-state of New Crobuzon. It is a train ride like no other, one in which there is sometimes little to distinguish between the human and the machine. As the Iron Council chugs its way to toward destiny, the reader is forced to examine the delirious heady optimism, and the cost, of rebellion.

-- Ellah Allfrey, book critic and editor

The Little Engine That Could

I'll be honest — when one of our reviewers fell through and I was asked to write a last-minute, back-up recommendation of The Little Engine That Could, my first reaction was: No way, I'm too busy. And then I thought: Listen to yourself! Have you learned nothing from the Little Blue Engine? WWTLBED? Long before people were writing articles about confidence in the workplace, the Little Engine (who, at least in the more recent versions, is a welcome female protagonist in the world of anthropomorphized machinery) puffed and chugged her way over a mountain to bring a stranded train of toys and goodies to the children in the valley on the other side. "I think I can" is a lesson in quiet confidence — it's about being humble, but hopeful; daunted, but determined. There. That wasn't hard at all. I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could. (For ages 2 to 8)

-- Beth Novey, producer, NPR Books

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