[Review and Author Chat] Samantha R. Vamos on Alphabet Trains

#52 in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the alphabet.


Tear the ticket.
Load the freight.
Sound the whistle.
Raise the gate.

Clank! Chug-chug! Whoosh!

Alphabet trains.


Art © 2015 Ryan O’Rourke

All Aboard, Letter-lovin’ Railroad Buffs!

Author Samantha R. Vamos is here to tell us all about her clickety-clack-cool new rhyming picture book Alphabet Trains (Charlesbridge, 2015)!

Not too long ago, we had so much fun cruising and vrooming through Alphabet Trucks (Charlesbridge, 2013), that we were pretty excited when this shiny new book hit the rails.

Since I’m especially fond of trains (blame it on the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and the fact that I met my husband in London while he was designing a railroad in Algeria), I was anxious to ask Samantha a few questions about writing and researching this 26-track gem.


A is for Auto Train,
Load your car on the rack.

B is for bullet train —
high speed on welded track.

With pitch perfect rhyming couplets once again illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke, Samantha features a different train for each letter of the alphabet, succinctly defining it by the job it performs (auto train, freight train, snowplow train), its structural/mechanical uniqueness (monorail, incline train, narrow-gauge) or its location-specific route (Rocky Mountaineer, Victoria Express, California Zephyr). She also includes a bit of history with the Jupiter (part of the Golden Spike ceremony in 19th century Utah).

Budding choo-choosers will have a blast riding the rails in the Swiss Alps, catching some zzzzz’s between Germany and Switzerland aboard the Komet, or waving their white flags to board the Hurricane Turn in Alaska.

Whether climbing steep hills or zooming along coastlines, past cityscapes or breathtaking natural vistas, young readers will have fun meeting the trains, practicing their alphabet, counting the upper and lowercase letters cleverly incorporated in the pictures, learning new words, and maybe even making up their own stories from scene to scene. Grown-ups will enjoy sharing their own railway memories (how many of the trains in the book have you ridden, Mom and Dad?). More information about each train type is included at the end.

Oh, there’s the whistle. Time to chat with Samantha. Full steam ahead!

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photo by Jackson

What was the best part of writing this book?

The research! Writing Alphabet Trains required that I research the incredibly diverse world of trains. My editor (Yolanda Scott, Charlesbridge Publishing) wanted trains that were geographically well distributed. Between that instruction and the format of Alphabet Trains and its companion book, Alphabet Trucks with rhymes about a vehicle’s purpose, function, or feature, I reviewed a lot of trains! With the exception of one historic locomotive – the Jupiter – all the trains are operational today.

A photo recreating the May 10, 1869 Golden Spike Ceremony joining the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Central Pacific railroad (represented by Central Pacific #60, better known as the “Jupiter”) and the Union Pacific (represented by Union Pacific #119) railroad.

Can you share a few tidbits from your research that you found especially interesting or surprising?

I’ve been hoping someone would ask this question! I’ll categorize them as: 1) express trains; 2) luxury trains, including two very different “blue” trains, and 3) terrifying routes. I’m by no means mentioning all trains that fit into these categories.

First, a number of train titles include the word “express.” Alphabet Trains features three such trains including Switzerland’s Glacier Express, which offers panoramic views of the Swiss Alps. I especially like the Glacier Express title because it’s an oxymoron. The train is touted as “the world’s slowest express train” taking 7.5 hours to travel a 169-mile route at approximately 23 miles per hour.

Switzerland’s Glacier Express

Devastating stories behind construction of the “Lunatic Express” (the colloquial title for the Uganda Railway) intrigued, but I wasn’t able to incorporate the train into the manuscript. The titles “Lunatic Express” or “Lunatic Line” (Africans called it the “Iron Snake”) seemed fitting because of innumerable obstacles – some fatal – related to the railway’s 1896-1901 construction, including a pair of lions dragging workers from their tents at night (estimated 28-35 victims), workers being infected by diseases, encounters with hostile tribes, high cost, and challenging construction problems.

While Alphabet Trains includes one luxury train (the Victoria Express), there are many more around the world. An early (1902) luxury express train titled the “20th Century Limited” traveled nightly between New York and Chicago. The New York Central Railroad welcomed 20th Century Limited passengers by rolling out a crimson carpet. It is believed that the phrase “red carpet treatment” originated with this train. The 20th Century Limited offered secretarial services, a barbershop, and sleeper coaches, among other amenities.

The 20th Century Limited

The Flying Scotsman, which in 1928 offered the first ever non-stop rail travel between London, England and Edinburgh, Scotland, featured amenities such as a theatre (“cinema coach”) and a hair salon. British Rail retired the Flying Scotsman in 1963. The train is in the process of being restored and expected to run again in February 2016.

South Africa’s historic and luxurious The Blue Train with its blue locomotives, railroad cars, and blue leather seats looks incredible, and who can decline fine dining and butler service?

A world away from South Africa, another blue train was dubbed “The Seashore’s Finest Train.” That train, the Blue Comet, was a 1930’s luxury train that ran from Jersey City to Atlantic City. The Blue Comet’s exterior was designed to highlight the blue and cream color scheme of the New Jersey seashore. In addition, passenger cars, upholstery, porters’ uniforms, schedules, menus, and tickets were all blue. Each train car was named after a comet (including Halley’s Comet) and the windows were etched with comets and stars. The Blue Comet ran until 1941, but its introduction coincided with the onset of the Great Depression and the Blue Comet’s success was short-lived. If I could have ridden any historic train, it would have been this one.

In the 1930’s Lionel Trains sold a standard gauge model of the Blue Comet (because Joshua Lionel Cowen, Lionel Corporation founder, rode the train and was a Blue Comet fan). You can view an actual model on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow,” during which the appraiser estimates that the Lionel Train model could sell as high as $10,000 at auction.

In terms of entwining history with popular culture, while reading about the Blue Comet, I came across a reference to the HBO series “The Sopranos.” Season 6, Episode 20 is titled, “The Blue Comet” and features character Robert Baccalieri, Jr. (a/k/a “Bobby Bacala”) in a model train store with a replica of the Blue Comet (on sale for apparently $8,000). I can’t say that good things happen to Bacala at the train store, but it was entertaining to discover the reference.

Third, there were trains with rides that sounded slightly terrifying – including, for example, the Peruvian Central Railway (Ferrocarril Central del Perú (FCC)), described as the world’s second highest railway, climbing 13,000 feet and the Lhasa trains on the high-elevation railway in Tibet. Both railways include onboard physicians and the Lhasa trains carry an oxygen supply for each passenger.


W is for wilderness train,
a wildlife tour on rails.

X is for Xplorer,
a trip through New South Wales.

Do you find it easy or difficult to write in rhyme?

I enjoy writing rhyme, but I need to count syllables on my fingers when I’m structuring a phrase and I also say the phrase aloud in order to learn where to place emphasis. What I’ve especially enjoyed about writing this alphabet transportation series is working through the challenge of creating rhymes that reveal either the purpose or a unique feature of two different vehicles. It’s interesting to think about which two words will emerge as central.

Why are the bullet train and Pacific Surfliner your favorites?

Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train

Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train’s futuristic, aerodynamic noses are striking and render the train’s nickname, “Duck-Billed Platypus” quite apt. What particularly fascinates me is that high-speed rail continues to break speed records. A Japanese maglev (short for “magnetic levitation”) bullet train broke a world record in April 2015, traveling at 373 mph.

My mother, who lived in Southern California for 22 years, introduced me to the Pacific Surfliner. Recalling those memories, I feel especially connected to that train. We rode the Pacific Surfliner to Santa Barbara and to Los Angeles on different trips. I love that the train reveals the gorgeous coast, showcasing beach and ocean views, palm trees, flowers, and hills. When I realized that the train has a rack for both bicycles and surfboards, I was charmed. I like the fact that technology is embracing culture – surfers can pack their board and ride the rails.

Which of the other trains featured in the book have you personally ridden on? Have you ever ridden in a dining car?

E: I’ve ridden on elevated trains in many cities. The trains that I’ve ridden most frequently include Chicago’s “L” train, which was the first rhyme I wrote for Alphabet Trains, and Vancouver, BC’s SkyTrain.

M: I’ve ridden five monorails: the Hersheypark monorail in Hershey, PA, the Seattle Center Monorail, JFK Airport’s AirTrain monorail, the Walt Disney World Monorail in Orlando, FL, and the Disneyland Monorail in Anaheim, CA.

Seattle Center Monorail

Q: I’ve ridden the Q train in New York City.

I have never ridden in a formal dining car (three summers ago, we rode a Eurostar train through the Chunnel and had breakfast, but we were not in a formal dining car). If I could select any dining car in which to ride it would be the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (“VSOE”). I’d love to ride a signature journey on the VSOE from Paris to Budapest to Bucharest to Istanbul.

Did you ride on trains when you were growing up?

Yes. I lived in the Washington, DC area for twenty-five years, riding the DC Metro and Amtrak trains up and down the east coast. When I was thirty, I moved to Chicago and rode Chicago’s L with regularity – to work, going out, to the airport – everywhere. My husband and I bought our first car after I turned 40 so there were many years of public transportation!

Which of Ryan O’Rourke’s illustrations is your favorite and why?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I love the E/F spread because in a single scene, Ryan seamlessly combined two, very different trains. I’m also a fan of K/L – not just because I’d love the opportunity to ride the Leonardo Express, but also because I like the contrasting night scene with the Komet train. I love the two coloring pages Ryan created – one for each of Alphabet Trucks and Alphabet Trains that complement the respective books. I have colored each page!

What is your favorite letter of the alphabet and why?

I like that there is a letter that symbolizes sleep. Z seems like the letter that would have the most dashing and robust personality and truly, Z needs a lot of confidence as it’s the 26th letter. In addition, there are so many great words beginning with Z: zeitgeist, zephyr, zodiac, zoological, zelophobia (a dreadful fear of jealousy!), and zinnia, among others.

Will there be another book in this series?

Yes! The third book in this alphabet transportation series, Alphabet Boats releases in 2017. I’m actually in the midst of edits right now.

Thanks so much, Samantha!!

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I’ve always wanted to eat in a formal dining car — white linen tablecloths and napkins, lovely china in the railroad’s unique pattern, gorgeous vistas right outside the window. Since this won’t be happening anytime soon, and Mr. Cornelius felt sorry for me, he created his own snack time train made from peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches, round butter crackers, extra sharp cheddar, and mini breadsticks. He invites you to take a nibble or two.



written by Samantha R. Vamos
illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke
published by Charlesbridge (August 2015)
Alphabet Picture Book for ages 3-7, 32 pp.

*Click here for free downloadable Alphabet Trucks coloring page.

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poetry fridayKatya is hosting today’s Roundup at Write. Sketch. Repeat. Climb aboard a bullet train and zip over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness on this week’s menu.


Mr. Cornelius loved playing with Len’s vintage NY Central toy trains. He’s convinced, however, that Sam made a mistake with the letter “C,” which should be Cornelius train instead of coal train.

*More Alphabetica here.


alphabet iconCertified authentic alphabetica. Made by hand especially for you with love, chug-a-lugs, and choo-choo’s. 


*Interior spreads from Alphabet Trains posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Samantha R. Vamos, illustrations © 2015 Ryan O’Rourke, published by Charlesbridge. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


44 thoughts on “[Review and Author Chat] Samantha R. Vamos on Alphabet Trains

  1. Alphabet Trains is so full of fascinating facts about trains, it appeals to me as an adult and it must be magical and wondrous for children.
    The interview is superb; intelligent, probing questions, and well-informed, detailed answers full of fascinating facts.


  2. What an enlightening post! So much love and attention to detail by you and your interviewee; makes me feel privileged (loved:) by both of you to be so indulged by easy-to-read, substantive words and bright/telling artwork and photos that leave me feeling full and wanting more! …THANK YOU!…On a rather gross note, reminded me of our first auto train ride…Despite my best efforts to hold onto his pacifier (an instrument of sanity–mine, with the specter of a long trip with a screaming, teething six month old son), the blessed thing fell on to the damp, musty carpet. (Truth: carpet was more than damp and musty; shoes left water-logged footprints when one walked on it.) Short run: End of pacifier. End of sanity. Shame on me for having brought only one. Long run: End of pacifier forever. Sanity, amazingly returned. God bless you for a super-enjoyable informative post (as always!)!


    1. That’s some story — sorry to hear about the damp musty carpet and dropped pacifier . . . glad your sanity was eventually restored! Sounds like it was a LONG ride.

      Wasn’t it great of Samantha to share all those wonderful tidbits with us? I love trains!


      1. You and Samantha are exceedingly generous. I learned so much in such a pleasant, eye- and mind-appealing way. Each week I think I should have to pay you for feasting on your energizing posts…better than high-color desserts & just as delicious! Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for introducing me to this another fabulous take on the alphabet book, Jama! This one has even more appeal to me as I really love trains. I’ve ridden the Pacific Surfliner several times, but I’d love to ride more trains in more places – Europe especially. I love that the tidbit about the Glacier Express being an oxymoron and how the train is touted as “the world’s slowest express train” – cracks me up. =)


    1. Didn’t realize you loved trains too, Bridget! Aren’t they the coolest? Lucky you for also riding on the Pacific Surfliner — I hadn’t heard of it before reading this book. The Glacier Express ride must be magnificent with those breathtaking views.


  4. Oh, my word – MUST go on the Pacific Surfliner now. Also, the train sandwiches look tasty; Cornelius has good ideas. The nephews were train mad and are now Lego mad, but I daresay I could get them excited with these books. Now I want to gooooooo… somewhere.


  5. My son was obsessed (big time) with trains for years. He would have adored this book and that train sandwich, Jama!


  6. Jama, I’m absolutely thrilled to be featured on Alphabet Soup! Thank you and Mr. Cornelius for including “ALPHABET TRAINS” and for the INCREDIBLE presentation – just beautiful. I LOVE the introduction and descriptions you wrote. Mr. Cornelius attempting to doze next to the California Zephyr makes me smile. Also LOVE his Hurricane Turn train flag (!) and Cornelius riding the incline train! I had a blast answering your questions. I have been wanting to share some of the fascinating information I discovered since completing the research for this book. Finally, thank you to Len for sharing the vintage toy trains – I especially like the NY Central – U.S. Mail train as I am still a huge fan of snail mail. Really honored to be interviewed – thank you. All best, Samantha


    1. Of course you know the honor and pleasure was mine — and Cornelius’s. He had fun making his own flag and taking a nap on the Z page. He hasn’t been able to stand up straight since doing that incline pose, though. 😀

      Len enjoyed taking his toy trains out and dusting them off for this post.


  7. Love Mr. Cornelius’ snack train, but this post, and book, make me want to travel, travel. My son was in Tokyo last summer & rode a bullet train-amazing. Wish there were more available trains here. My husband’s father was a UP engineer so he & his family traveled all over the US during his childhood. We do have some new trains now in Denver & more coming to help the transportation overload, but traveling on that Glacier Express would be divine. Thanks Jama, and to Samantha & Ryan for wonderful books!


    1. I know just what you mean, Linda — hearing about all those wonderful trains makes me wish I could travel more via rail. I did ride the bullet train in Japan years ago, but my fondest memories are of riding British rail. One of my favorite day trips was going to Rochester to shop for china :).


  8. Hi Linda – I enjoyed reading your comment and love that your son rode a bullet train! During my research for ALPHABET TRAINS, I learned that there are plans for high-speed rail in several states including Texas (and it’s controversial because of the proposed location (near ranch land) and California, among others. Thank you for your note. All best, Samantha

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a fun book! My son would have loved it when he was younger– he was quite the Thomas fanatic. Those Switzerland trains are incredible and SO reliable too. One of the best vacations I had, since you can get anywhere by train and forego a car altogether! Mr. Cornelius sure was a sweetie to make you that nice choo-choo treat.


    1. Lucky you to have ridden those trains in Switzerland — such a beautiful country, but I’ve only toured it by bus.

      It was nice of Mr. Cornelius to make that snack — of course he ate the whole thing himself . . .


  10. I love the Alphabet Train, Samantha.It is the perfect book for young and older alike. I live in Chicago and ride the Elevated train several times a week. Jama, your post is delightful. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you re Alphabet Trains! Love that you ride the L. I lived in the West Loop for a long time and rode the L everywhere. The Windy City is in my heart – always. I second your comment about Jama – her posts are absolutely delightful! All best, Samantha


  11. We are train lovers at our house as well. My son-in-law is a freight engineer and we can’t get enough about trains. I will definitely be checking this book out. My husband and I are planning a trip to the British Isles in the spring. I will try to book a trip on the Flying Scotsman. So fun to hear about it. Thanks for this lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. There’s one thing you can’t have too many of in a public library–vehicle books! Especially trains. I’d better check the catalog to see if we have Samantha’s books.

    Quite the food artist that Mr. C! A chewable choo-choo!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. If only my uncle were a kid again – he’s a huge train buff. These books are so cute! And I love the cheese-and-crackers train you made – you’re so creative, Jama.

    (Oh, and the Amtrak train we rode in Calif was the Coast Starlight; that would go right by the ocean, too, around Santa Barbara – just lovely.)


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