top of page

The Picture Book Buzz

Railway Jack: The True Story of An Amazing Baboon - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

Every once in a while you come across a story too fantastical to be true. If you found it when cruising the internet, there's a good chance that it could be hoax. The modern-day equivalent of the tall tale told around the table or campfire.

So, when I heard of a story about a baboon that worked for the South African Railways, I was ready for an entertaining fiction read. Imagine my surprise to discover that this brilliant baboon, Jack, and his inventive, caring friend, Jim, actually existed and really worked on the railways. My #PPBF choice this week is the nonfiction story of their life together.

Railway Jack: The True Story of An Amazing Baboon

Author: KT Johnston

Illustrator: César Samaniego

Publisher: Capstone Publishing (2020)

Ages: 8-12



Companion animals, trains, South Africa, and friendship.


Jim was a South African railway inspector in the late 1800s who lost his legs in an accident while at work. Unable to perform all his tasks with his disability but desperate to keep his job, Jim discovered a brilliant solution, a baboon named Jack. Jim trained Jack to help him both at home and at the depot. But when the railway authorities and the public discovered a monkey on the job, Jack and Jim had to work together to convince everyone that they made a great team. This inspiring true story celebrates the history of service animals and a devoted friendship.

Opening Lines:

Rrrrrr! The train rumbled into Uitenhage Station at the tip of South Africa. Opened in 1875, the charming station was nearly brand new. The train squealed to a stop and exhaled a whooosh of steam. While people bustled on and off, a railway guard named Jim Wide walked from engine to caboose. Jim ducked underneath and looked in between the cars. He inspected each one to make sure the train was safe.

What I liked about the book:

I like nonfiction books that bring to light stories that few people know. Stories that expose us new ideas and facts. Stories that make us think. KT Johnston and César Samaniego have created a mesmerizing book about a special friendship between a crippled railroad worker and a very bright baboon.

After Jim Wide, a railroad guard and train inspector, was crippled on the job, he created a pair of wooden legs and begged the railroad authorities to rehire him. They agreed and made him the signalman at the Uitenhage Station. To do his job, he created a special cart and other tools. But "he was always on the lookout for other clever solutions."

Text © KT Johnston, 2020. Image © César Samaniego, 2020.

When Jim witnessed Jack, a chacma baboon, helping a man lead his oxen, he bought Jack and brought him back to the trainyard to see if Jack could help him. To his surprise, Jack was not only able to help with everyday tasks but he also helped with a garden and pushing Jim's cart along the rails from their cottage to the signal house. While they both worked hard, they also had fun and became the best of friends. César's digital images skillfully depict Jack's animal nature, character, and affection for Jim. The illustrations also provide beautiful glimpses into the workings of a train yard, period clothing, and the late 1800's in South Africa.

Text © KT Johnston, 2020. Image © César Samaniego, 2020.

Jack's deep curiosity and keen observation of Jim's work - handing off keys to the coal shed or pulling levers to direct the trains - meant that Jack learned to count the number of train whistles and correctly do the corresponding action. When the train authority challenged Jim's wisdom in allowing an animal to control the train tracks, Jack not only passed their test with flying colors, but was himself hired as a railway employee. They even paid him in fruits and vegetables!

The extensive back matter (9 pages worth) includes an author's note, historic photos of Jack & Jim, information on primates, a history of service animals, glossary, thought provoking discussion questions, and a bibliography. Overall, this is a great look at a little-known story of a deep friendship. It's a wonderful entry point for discussions about creativity, disabilities and the changes that have occurred over the years in prosthetics, and service animals. One that should appeal to readers who like trains, history, and amazing animals.


- look at the discussion questions at the back of the book;

- list other ways that animals help humans;

- do you know which animals can be service animals?

- create your own train tracks (drawn or with wooden tracks) and imagine your switching the lines to guide the trains into the station or down another track; or

- how can you tell that Jack thought of Jim as a friend?

- how have prosthetics (replacement legs, arms, etc.) changed since the 1800's? What do imagine they'll look like in the future?

If you missed the interview of KT Johnston on Monday, find it (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

If you are in the area:

KT Johnston's having a book launch for Railway Jack on Saturday, February 22nd @ 2 pm.


891 Grand AveSt Paul, MN 55105

(651) 224-8320

(888) 224-8320

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Follow Me

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • 1473394675_goodreads
  • Pinterest



bottom of page