Rosemary Wells is the author of over 60 books for young readers. Her best known work is the Max & Ruby series, about three-year-old Max and his older sister, seven-year-old Ruby. In addition to numerous picture books about their adventures, Max & Ruby has appeared as both television and stage shows. Wells has an instantly recognizable style of illustration. She frequently depicts her child characters as animals, believing that this makes it easier for readers to relate to them. But many may not know that Wells also writes chapter books for middle-grade readers.
"Very early on I knew I would be an artist one day," Wells writes on her website. "Not until my twenties did I think I would be a writer, too. Almost all children with drawing talent discover it early, as I did. Most writing talent shows up quite late in a person's growth because you have to read a ton of books to understand how to use the language well and you have to have lived a little bit to have something to tell others."
Wells puts her writing skills to work in her latest title for middle-grade readers, On the Blue Comet. This book is about Oscar, a child of the Great Depression. When the Crash comes, Oscar's father loses his job as a tractor salesman; they also lose their home. Oscar goes to live with his aunt while his father heads West to try to find work in California. But Oscar's greatest loss, next to his father, is the electric train layout the two of them built together. This was also taken by the bank where it's displayed in the lobby. After making friends with the night watchman, Oscar regularly visits the train, which is how he finds himself to be there the night the bank is robbed.
What begins as a serious historical novel quickly transforms into a time-traveling fantasy. Oscar has always loved to imagine himself small enough to ride the electric trains on the layout, and now he finds himself riding on one of these trains. Heading west to find his father, he is befriended by a charismatic young man who goes by the name of Dutch. This becomes important later in the story when Dutch turns out to be movie star and future President Ronald Reagan.
When Oscar arrives in California, he finds he has traversed both space and time. The year is 1941, and a decade has passed since he got on the train in Chicago. He locates his father only to discover that they have both aged. Oscar finds out he can remember almost nothing about the night of the robbery and is in trouble for not registering with the local draft board. A series of misadventures --- and the involvement of several other famous personalities who would've been in Hollywood at the time --- lands Oscar back on the train, again traveling through timespace until he lands in the home of a Wall Street trader prior to the Crash.
With the help of his friend Claire, who also escaped to the trains, Oscar meets with a group of business tycoons in 1926, trying to convince them that he is from the future with the 1931 dime he wears on a string around his neck to run the bank's train layout. The gathering includes some of the greatest fortunes of the age: J.P. Morgan, Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Mellon, and Joe Kennedy, father of future president JFK. They are looking for specific tips --- which stocks crashed, which did well --- and are not prepared to accept Oscar's answer that everything crashed:
"'And just what caused this crash, Oscar, d'ya know?' asked Mr. Biddle... 'What led up to it?'
I remembered what Aunt Carmen had said. 'Margin calls!' I answered.... 'Whatever margin calls are, and greed. Greedy Wall Street profiteers, gambling more than they were worth and building a house of cards until it all crashed down around their ears.'"
This does not go over well in a room filled with wealthy men. And when they ask him who becomes president after Hoover, they scoff at his answer, saying Franklin Roosevelt isn't anything but a cripple and will never become president.
Nothing Oscar can do can change the future --- the coming Depression or the War that follows --- but as he finds his way back to his home, he is helped by all the friends he makes in small ways that make an enormous difference. What I liked best about The Blue Comet is that Wells illuminates that the small acts are what make the difference, not the big ones. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who is president so long as you have friends and neighbors to lend a helping hand when you need one.
Charmingly illustrated in full color by Bagram Ibatoulline in a style that evokes Norman Rockwell, this is an excellent title for any reader interested in time travel and American history. You will have to get the book to see the pictures, but On the Blue Comet also has some wonderful recitation pieces, including the poem If by Rudyard Kipling that acts as a touchstone through out the book.
What are your favorite books about this Great Depression? What poems have you memorized to keep you afloat during difficult times?
Sarah A. Wood, a reviewer for teenreads.com and kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.