1880 Train to take flight

Leslie Silverman

The 1880 Train is about to take off thanks to a new children’s book by Sean Covel.

Covel, famous for his film credits that include the cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite,” is releasing a graphic novel for children entitled “Marlon McDoogle’s Magical Night,” inspired by Meg Warder, president of the Hill City 1880 Train. 

“The book happened entirely because of (Warder),” Covel said. “She talked about how she’d love to be able to do Polar Express events except they’re so expensive to license so she said, ‘you know I wish I had my own Christmas train book.’”

Covel took that conversation and thought “what’s cooler than riding a train to the North Pole? Flying one.” 

Thus began Covel’s project — using the Engine Number 7 locomotive that sits outside the 1880’s depot to create a story about a young boy whose greatest desire is a present of a toy train for Christmas.

“The story begins on Christmas Eve,” Covel said. “It’s Marlon’s 12th Christmas and his grandpa always said that on his one dozenth Christmas he’d get a present that would blow his mind.”

Marlon gets a visit from his grandpa bearing a present, “instead of the train he was hoping for, he gets a lousy scarf - the same scarf that his grandpa’s always worn.” Marlon’s disappointment is ignored as his grandpa imparts the message, “some folks might not recognize that something so simple can hold a world of adventure.”

From there the two set off along the winding Black Hills roads to the 1880 Train station where a magical story unfolds complete with Santa Claus, golden hay and a flying Engine Number 7 train. 

As much a tale of adventure and whimsy, the book offers a positive message for its readers. 

“There are three or four times throughout the book that Marlon talks about being only a kid. And Santa says, ‘Well being only a kid is your choice to make, isn’t it Marlon, I’d just be a very old man with a very white beard if that’s all I wanted to be, but I choose to be something more,’” Covel said. “It’s about self-actualization and family and getting over materialism.” 

The book takes place in Hill City, although Covel uses literary licensing to move Hill City to the base of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The famous faces are an important feature in the literary work.

“This page is a direct rendition of postcard I saw once, black and white from the ’40s where there’s a pigtail that looks at the faces,” Covel said.

Although the exact location of where this picture was taken is uncertain it is this sort of element of detail that Covel uses to create realistic visuals of the Black Hills landscape.

“We did 3D CAD renderings (Computer Aided Design, as used in building design and architecture) of the entire train station so this is all accurate and then we would just spin all the cameras around to look at the buildings in different angles,” he said.

 The book was illustrated by Diego Velasquez, who lives in Columbia, South America.

“I grew up reading books like Dr Seuss’s, ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’, Charles Dickens’, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and Chris Van Allsburg ‘The Polar Express,’ so I absolutely love Christmas books, and when I was offered the opportunity to be part of this new project it was definitely something I could not let pass,” Velasquez said.

Covel forwarded pictures of the 1880 Train and the Black Hills to Velasquez.

“I think he does an amazing job,” Covel said. “You see a town that looks like Hill City. He went in and did the auto CAD designs of all the buildings.” 

Velasquez, who has been involved with movies such as “Black Panther” and the “Avengers” franchise, said, “It was very challenging trying to recreate certain spots and the feeling of the actual location. Although I was not familiar with the place, I was able to get a very close idea of the surroundings thanks to the great collaboration Sean offered me. He is not only a very talented writer but his eye for cinematic composition was something that added that unique look to the book illustrations.”

One of the biggest challenges for Covel was that Velasquez has never seen snow.

“The hardest part of this whole book was getting (Velasquez) to draw ice fractals,” Covel said. “It was so hard because in Columbia that condensation is water dripping down the insides of windows. He couldn’t grasp the idea the glass could get cold enough to make it freeze.” 

Covel is involved in a multitude of projects including “Porter the Hoarder,” an “interactive reading adventure and family engagement project.” Covel recently brought the Porter series to elementary school students in Hill City.

Covel, a native of Edgemont who calls the Northern Hills home, understands the realities of growing up in a small Midwestern town.

“I got really lucky in that I had people that encouraged me to say ‘you can go do this — you can be a storyteller,’” Covel said.

Marlon is geared for elementary and middle school aged children.

“I wanted to drive home a message that lands when kids are really forming their identity,” Covel said. “There’s that whole idea that you can be whatever you want to be. But there’s also that idea that you have to choose it. It’s not going to happen on its own. I want the message of Marlon to be about being proud of who you are, finding fulfillment in time with family, and seeing the holidays through something other then the lens of materialism.  Hopefully Marlon carries all those wonderful deep ideas, but more than anything I hope kids like a book about a train that flies.”

The book is available for purchase at the 1880 Train store. 

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