Book Review, MG Fiction (8 - 12 year olds)

Kidnap on the California Comet (Adventures on Trains) by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman

Mystery and intrigue step up a gear in Kidnap on the California Comet, the highly-anticipated sequel to The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. This second Adventures on Trains story doesn’t disappoint as 12 year-old Hal Beck is back riding the rails with his Uncle Nat. This time, they’re in America on the California Comet – an iconic three day train journey from Chicago to San Francisco. As they race across this vast country, passing amazing, ever-changing landscapes, Hal finds himself in the middle of a kidnapping!

Uncle Nat, a journalist, has been invited onto the California Comet to report on a special announcement by wealthy technology entrepreneur, August Reza. Reza loves all things trains and dreams of creating the trains of the future. His daughter, Marianne, is less keen and just wants to spend time with her father. When Marianne is kidnapped, Hal and his new friends, Mason and Hadley, use all of their skills to search for clues. It seems that every one of the strange passengers on the train could be a suspect. Will Hal find the answer in time? Fortunately, this “Sherlock Davinci” uses his sketchbook to tell the story of his investigation and every key moment is preserved. Illustrator, Elisa Paganelli, helps the reader to really see the story through Hal’s eyes and feel as much a part of it as any of the other characters.

The California Comet is an incredible train: shiny silver, double decker and massive windows to see the awe-inspiring views. Uncle Nat says the diesel-electric engines aren’t as friendly-looking as steam engines but Hal is completely taken in, especially when he gets to visit August Reza’s private railcar attached to the train. He’s never seen anything like it and is completely blown away by how amazing it is! The train, the stations and the landscapes are characters themselves in this book. From the palace-like Union Station in Chicago with its marble hall and high ceilings to the Durham Museum in Omaha and the start of the First Transcontinental Railroad to the small town stations along the way, each stop has its own story and important part to play. Between the stations, there are endless fields, mountain bends, dark tunnels, deep canyons, winding rivers and hot deserts – Hal sees more in three days than many people see in a lifetime.

There is so much scope to use this book in the classroom. It is a fantastic example of the power of children and their ability to solve problems, even when adults don’t listen. Hal’s observation skills and brilliant sketchbook (brought to life by Elissa Paganelli) show the value of developing drawing techniques and trusting your inner eye, your own interpretation of events and what you see. There is a fun play on the differences between UK and US English and how, even with the same language, there can be misunderstandings (as a Canadian living in the UK, I completely empathise with this!) Issues around technological advancements versus conservation and the environment are key to the development of the trains of the future and debate about the use of fossil fuels for energy is key to what August Reza is trying to do.  Finally, opportunities to explore Geography are huge. It would be wonderful to track the journey with children as a part of a topic about America and its diversity.

The adventuresontrains.com website is full of resources to support and extend use of both Kidnap on the California Comet and The Highland Falcon Thief. Details about the books, the authors, the illustrator, activities, author videos and information about school events provide the perfect starting point for developing a unit of work centred on these fantastic books!

This is a confidence building read with its engaging mystery story, manageable text and fun characters. The story draws readers in right from the start. When I was just a few chapters in, I felt like I was back with old friends, catching up and getting ready for our next big adventure. I can’t wait to find out where Hal and Uncle Nat will travel next!

Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Children’s Books for this wonderful book that will be published in September 2020.

Click on the cover below to find out more or purchase on-line from Amazon.

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