"If I were ever to write a children's book,
it would be just like this!"
— Stephen King
Charlie the Choo-Choo is (purportedly) a children's story book by Beryl Evans, illustrated by Ned Dameron, and published by Simon & Schuster in its "Books for Younger Readers" series. My local library has (perhaps naively) placed in in the junior fiction section. The front page claims it is the Fourth Edition, Copyright 1942, although the end page gives the copyright as 2016.
Charlie is an anthropomorphic steam engine in the vein of Thomas the Tank Engine, complete with a human face at the front of the engine. Both works have similarities to 1945's "Tootle," a Little Golden Book about a similarly anthropomorphic steam engine that wants to rebel but must learn conformity in order to succeed.
In the story, Bob Brooks is an engineer for the Mid-World Railway Company. He makes the St. Louis to Topeka run with a 402 "Big Boy" locomotive named Charlie. One day Bob discovers that Charlie is "really, really alive" (somehow the giant face failed to give this away earlier). Bob and Charlie talk and sing as they ply their route, but one day the Mid-World Railway Company replaces Charlie with a shiny new diesel engine, and Charlie is retired. Unlike the world of Thomas the Tank Engine, the diesels in this book are not anthropomorphic,but their superiority puts Charlie on the siding nonetheless, where he slowly and sadly rusts away. Bob becomes a cleaner in the yard, where the other engineers pity him because he cannot understand that "the world has moved on." Then one day a crisis occurs and Charlie has a chance to prove his worth once again!
The sepia-toned illustrations bring Bob and Charlie's world to life, and Charlie's expressions put those of Thomas and his ilk to shame. The diesels are bright, shiny and metallic, making their contracts to Charlie highly dramatic.
If the pull quote from Stephen King doesn't caution parents, the cover illustration might. In it Charlie pulls several carloads of children, who are crying and screaming in the grips of some strong emotion. Whether it's joy or terror is difficult to discern.
My daughter was a dedicated Thomas fan when she was younger. While this book is beautifully executed, I have not shared this book with her, primarily out of concern that the illustrations will give her nightmares, as I suspect they will do for me.
For you see, although this book became widely available in 2016, I was already familiar with it from the pages of The Dark Tower Series, in particular book III The Waste Lands and book IV Wizard and Glass. In these novels the young hero Jake owned a copy of Charlie the Choo-Choo, and in book IV the characters meet a version of Charlie in Topeka's Gage park. Charlie seems to be the inspiration for the malevolent Blaine the Mono of whom I have written elsewhere. King`s works quote extensively from Charlie the Choo-Choo, and anyone familiar with the Dark Tower series would hesitate before giving Charlie to a youngster.
If you haven't rumbled it by now, Stephen King is in fact the pseudonymous author of the reviewed work, making it a part of The Dark Tower Series, and explaining the terrifying and maniacal look of Charlie. It's a great tie-in to the main series and gives added poignancy to Jake's terror at meeting Charlie in the park. But, I don't think it ought to be in junior fiction, although I don't know where I would classify it either.
Recommended for fans of The Dark Tower Series, unless you're me, in which case storing it offsite in the municipal library is likely a wise choice.
Parental caution: Contains a mild profanity (hell) as well as, y'know, an incarnation of a terrifying homicidal train.