Book Review: Shark vs. Train

At the tender age of 4, our Tater Tot has developed a fixation on a few words. Most notably among them is “versus.” 

Maybe it’s the natural tendency among young boys* to explore their world through playful fighting, but the idea of pitting two of anything (cats, robots, cars) against one another thrills our kid. He also likes saying the word aloud and energetically, “VER-SSSUS” just, well, because. When he first fixated on “versus” as a word fetish, it came out adorably as “ver-TH-us,” but now we pronounce it correctly every time. Awww… he’s growing up.

Given Tater’s love of that word and the fact that we read several books a day, I figured it was time to add Chris Barton‘s Shark vs. Train volume to our book collection. I knew Chris (@bartography) back in high school and have reconnected with him accidentally in the last year, so I went all out  and paid full-price. (You’re welcome, Chris.)

When the book first arrived, Tater Tot didn’t seem particularly interested. He noticed the “vs.” right away, naturally. But he was sort of ho-hum. Then I showed him the book’s trailer on He’s hooked. Since we received the book earlier in the week, I think I’ve read it on average 4 times daily.

As a parent, I’m hooked on it, too. Reading to a child is fun, but it turns exciting when an author and illustrator (in this case, the immensely talented Tom Lichtenheld) create a work that explodes the adult reader’s expectation of what a children’s book “should” be. One doesn’t so much read this book as “experience” it, turning it to view pictures optimally and working with one’s child to start the narrative on the early pages where there is no text, just images of two little boys at play who engage their imaginations–and the title characters–in that dynamic way that kids do. Pop culture references abound–the Jaws theme, the SNL “Candygram!” land shark, and not one but TWO references to famous Happy Days episodes. I’m pretty sure that was all intentional–or maybe my own imagination has gotten away with me?

Tater certainly has found creative inspiration from Shark vs. Train. On Wednesday, he made his first fan art starring, yup, a grinning shark and an impressive train. As you might expect, he also made a giant “VS.” on the page, too. Given that our little fella draws images and letters all day long on his own (Thanks, Doodlepro!), I wouldn’t be too surprised if he makes a stab at creating his own book some day. I hope it’s as cleverly written and vibrantly illustrated as our current favorite. We’ll see.

The Details:

FIVE of FIVE Stars

Shark vs. Train Text by Chris Barton. Illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010) Ages 4-8. $16.99 list price.

Other reviews of the book can be found here.

* Many girls do this, too–and maybe some boys don’t (temperament is likely a bigger factor), but in the context of reviewing a book “starring” boys, I’m sticking with what I know personally and from direct observation in my tiny world.

One Reply to “Book Review: Shark vs. Train”

  1. When I tweeted a link out to this post, one of my long-time followers commented that she worried the idea of “versus” was part of our problem culturally and that she was hesitant to give a child this type of book.

    It was an interesting point, so here’s what I responded with via tweets:

    “I disagree. This book reveals that context is everything–the settings of conflict influence who “wins.” For older children…there’s the opp for discussion about strengths and weaknesses and personal differences. I think we can’t solve probs…today b/c we insist at reading only surface & not deeper meanings/contexts/POVs and rush to judgement w/ our “shoulds” intact. And, w/o giving [too much] away, they *do* reach agreement in end, that they’re tired of fighting. Lots of us feel that way in general.”

    To reiterate–and by way of further endorsement, Shark vs. Train will likely have much to offer to children at different stages of development. Assuming thoughtful parental engagement, there’s the opportunity to expand upon the book’s content as wee ones move past the preschooler’s “this is NOT that” stage (which is at the heart, I think, of the “versus” preoccupation).

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