There are few things in life that I can say with absolute certainty that I believe to be unequivocally true; but one of those things is that having a rich library of living books is essential to life, especially for children.
I believe children need books and even more than that -they need excellent books. They need books that inspire them with big ideas, that are written in beautiful language, that do not talk down to them. Children’s books should expose children to a world of artistic styles through the illustrations, the prose, and the poetry.
Charlotte Mason (one of my educational gurus) wrote:
“One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.”
― Charlotte Mason
So I try to bring the absolute best books into my home for my children. Life is so short and childhood is even shorter – why spend even one bed time reading a book that is awful?
My son is obsessed with trains. He absolutely loves them. He loves playing with trains, riding trains, learning about trains, watching train videos, visiting train museums, and reading about trains. As such, we have accumulated quite a repertoire of train books – and I only keep the best.
So I’ve combined these two loves – my love of the best literature, and my sons love of trains into this ultimate list of train books. There are over 50 books recommended in this list.
We love train books so much in our house, I’ve started hosting a train-themed story time at a little historical model railroad museum once a month. Little kids come in to see the model trains and I read a few train-themed stories aloud to them. It is great fun and my kids enjoy it a lot. So not only have I read many of these books to my own kids, I have read them out loud to a room full of 4 year old train enthusiasts who listened with rapt attention. It’s not just my kids who like them.
I’ve grouped the books by read-aloud age (though there’s also a holiday section near the end).
Ps: If you click on the picture or the affiliate links provided, they are Amazon affiliate links. I am grateful if you do want to purchase any of these books to use my links, as I receive an extremely small commission.
Train books for Toddlers
The Train to Timbuctoo by Margaret Wise Brown is a pleasure to read out loud. It is a poem, rather than a story with a plot – but the words read aloud are a delight to roll off the tongue. I love saying “throw out the throttle and give it the gun”. Little babies enjoy the cadence of this book.
Freight Train by Donald Crews is another book with a wonderful rhythm for babies. When my son was younger and was having a meltdown over something, I would start reciting “the train runs across this track, red caboose at the back” and it almost always calmed him down.
Sleep Train by Jonathan London
The Little Red Caboose by Marian Potter is a classic for the little ones. Until I read this book to my son, I had no idea that cabooses contained the brakes of the train.
Steam Train Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld is a fun poem to read aloud and we love the illustrations.
Train Books for Preschoolers
The Little Red Train storybooks by Benedict Blathwayt are very engaging. We love the detailed illustrations and the stories are exciting. Little Red Train To the Rescue we actually re-enacted with our wooden train set – setting up a wooden train set that mimicked what the train went through in that story. It was a fun way to explore reading comprehension through play.
Hey! Get Off Our Train by John Burningham. This is a great book for introducing environmental challenges faced by animals.
Choo Choo by Virgnia Lee Burton. I’d actually recommend springing for the hardcover edition of this one, only because it comes with a downloadable audiobook read by the author’s son, Aris, to whom she dedicated this book. We love Choo Choo. Choo Choo crops up as a character in many of my son’s original stories.
Shortcut by Donald Crews is suspenseful and exciting. It leaves kids on the edge of their seats! It also reminds us why we never walk along the train tracks.
The Littlest Train by Chris Gall is about a little wooden toy train that gets lost off the train table and goes for an adventure. My son loves how the illustrations represent toys he actually owns.
The Little Train by Lois Lenski
Three Little Engines by Bob McKinnon is a sequel or perhaps a spinoff of the Little Engine that Could.
The Train by David McPhail. I love it when the illustrations tell even more of the story. This is a captivating story of a little boy’s dream of being a conductor.
The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet. This is probably our number 1 favourite train book. Before my son could read, he had memorized this entire book and could recite it word for word. We read it a lot. It is fun, told in rhyme, tells a story and has a clever ending.
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper is a classic of children’s train literature. I love the original unabridged version by Watty Piper.
The Subway Mouse by Barbara Reid is a story of a mouse who lives underground on the subway tracks and dreams of finding the end of the tracks where there is fresh air and sunlight. It is not really about trains, but about subways tracks – so if you’re trying to get your little train enthusiast to consider topics other than trains, this is an option. I love Barbara Reid’s clay art for the illustrations.
The Last Train by Gordon Titcomb is a book based on a song by Gordon Titcomb. We like reading this book and then listening to the song.
Subway Sparrow by Leyla Torres is about a bird stuck in the subway. People from different backgrounds and speaking different languages come together to help this little bird out. It’s not a book about trains but about the unifying experience of people riding in the train together.
Longer Picture books for School-Aged Kids
Thomas the Tank Engine – Original classic editions by Rev. W. Awdry
I am going to recommend this box set of smaller books because the kids love to hold these small books in their hands. Each book contains five original Thomas stories. They are the original stories read by Ringo Star/Alec Baldwin in the Thomas the Train show from when we were children. (The one with real model trains, not animation). I think the original stories are much better than the newer simplified versions.
The Secret Subway by Shana Corey is such a cool story! It is a true story about a man who built an early underground pneumatic train under New York City.
Locomotive by Brian Floca is excellent. It teaches about the immigrant experience taking the train across the West of the United States. Through the story it also teaches geography and facts about trains.
Ten Mile Day by Mary Ann Fraser this is a great story historical story about building the transcontinental railroad and the rivalry that existed between the two railroad companies. It explains how the rails were laid and all the jobs people worked in a gripping story of competition.
Steam, Smoke, and Steel by Patrick O’Brien. In first grade, we have talked about our family tree and our ancestors. This book was a nice complement to that because it goes back in time through a person’s ancestors and all the living experiences with trains through history.
Farewell to Shady Glade by Bill Peet is another favourite in our home. It tells the story of a band of animals whose home is destroyed by suburban development and must relocate via train.
Christopher Vine has written a treasure trove of science and engineering books about a little boy and his grandpa who build a model train they can ride between their two farms. Peter’s Railway is the first in the series. It is very long and will take you several days to read to a younger child. Christopher Vine also writes shorter stories for younger children. My son’s favourite is Peter’s Railway The Great Train Robbery. If you are shopping for a dedicated train enthusiast, you can also do what I did and buy everything Christopher Vine has written in the Peter’s Railway series directly from his website with international UK shipping. He has a package deal for the entire collection.
Children’s novels about trains
While my son’s independently reading skills are quickly maturing, I love to read novels out loud to him that are currently above his reading level but not beyond his oral comprehension level. Below are some train-themed novels we have enjoyed. You could also opt for an audiobook version of these novels for the younger reader.
The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell. This is book 1 of a 3 book series.
The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman ranks very high on my personal list of best of children’s literature. Lev Grossman’s writing style reminds me a lot of Harry Potter. The world of the Silver Arrow is both magical and believable. I love the intersection between trains, magic, science, and saving endangered animals.
The Golden Swift by Lev Grossman is the sequel to the Silver Arrow and we also loved it. I hope Lev Grossman writes more stories about this world and these characters. The audiobooks read by Simon Vance are also excellent listening for road trips.
I Survived the Wellington Avalanche by Lauren Tarshis. This book pushed my son to the next level with his reading. He loves trains, he loves catastrophe and crashes – this book combined these two loves. He read this one out loud to me in a wonderful progression in his education and I actually really enjoyed the story as well.
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. I have linked the BBC Radio drama audible audio production instead of the written book only because we haven’t read the entire book yet but have listened to this radio drama dozens of times. My son loves it.
The Cricket in Times Square by Garth Williams. This one doesn’t technically have a lot of trains in it, but it takes place in a subway station, and my son and I loved it.
Non-Fiction Train Facts Books for Kids
In non-fiction books for kids, I mostly look for ones that have a single narrative so they aren’t too chaotic when reading aloud. However, my son does love to look through encyclopedia style and lift-the-flap books as well on his own, so I include the ones I consider the best from a graphic design perspective.
C is for Caboose by Sara Gillingham
Train – John Coiley. I tend to not like encyclopedia-like books but I think this one does a good job of putting together an overall narrative and the pages aren’t too busy or difficult to follow.
Trains by Gail Gibbons. We love Gail Gibbons books! Whenever I’m looking for a non-fiction book on a subject I always check what Gail Gibbons has written about it. They are always engaging, well-explained and usually told in a single narrative, as opposed to a bunch of little disconnected pop-outs.
Trains by Ian Graham illustrated by Stephen Biesty. As lift-the-flap books go, this one is beautifuly illustrated with a nice balance of information and visuals.
The Transcontinental Railroad by John Perritano
The Big Book of Big Trains by Megan Cullis
Seymour Simon’s Book of Trains. Seymour Simon is a great non-fiction author for children’s literature. His books are written in a narrative and are full of big ideas for children to ponder after the book is finished.
The Stourbridge Lion by Karl Zimmermann.
Holiday Train Books
There’s something about the holidays that just screams “trains”, right? We love our Christmas train we set up around the Christmas tree each year and we enjoy special Polar Express style train rides at different historic train parks in California at Christmastime. Here are some books that combine the magic of the holidays with the magic of trains.
On Christmas Eve by Margaret Wise Brown
The Christmas Tree Who Loved Trains by Annie Silvestro illustrated by Paola Zakimi
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Train Activity Books
Books that have kids searching and scanning are really helpful for eye-strengthening exercises as they learn to read. Here are a couple train-themed ones!
Can You See What I See Toyland Express by Walter Wick
Richard Scarry’s Busytown Seek and Find
So there you have it – my ultimate list of train book recommendations for kids. Have I missed any of your favourites? I’d love to hear from you!