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Brave New World

The Making of the Freight Train
and Tren de Carga Apps: Part 1

Freight Train app Greenwillow

We’ve been working for a very long time (it took much longer than most books, mysteriously) on an app based on Freight Train, by Donald Crews. Well, as Paul would say, release the doves. Freight Train: The App is now available in the iTunes app store. There is also a Spanish version of the app—you’ll find it if you search for Tren de Carga. Happy shopping! Happy sharing!

Making an app from a classic picture book is more challenging than you might imagine. But Freight Train seemed to us to have all the right ingredients: bold colors, clean lines, timeless design, a brief text that is still readable on a small screen, concepts just right for the audience, potential for seamless interactivity (what’s inside those freight cars, anyway?), and the potential for an addictive musical soundtrack. Plus, Don Crews published a ground-breaking picture book in 1978—and he was more than game to experiment with this new and ground-breaking format in 2010.

We started with storyboards. Lots of them. Here’s a look at the very early Greenwillow concept, Don’s storyboards, and the storyboards our developer then began refining.

FT app Greenwillow

Greenwillow's initial concept.

Sketches 1 Greenwillow

Don's storyboards.

Sketches 2 Greenwillow

More of Don's storyboards.

Development 1 Greenwillow

Sketches by the developer.

Development 3 Greenwillow

The developer's layouts.

Audio is a huge part of the Freight Train app. We listened to and selected voice talent for both the English and Spanish narration . . . and the English and Spanish vocals. This got bumpy as our English reader was initially too coy and some of the vocals and instrumentation too bouncy—Don didn’t want to be the voice for the app but he supplied a straight reading of the text (a treat), and we listened in (via conference call) on a recording session-in-progress, so that Don could give feedback on the quality of the music in real time. Freight Train features three classic train songs: “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” and “John Henry.” Our developer also wrote and recorded an original song just for the two apps—we challenge you NOT to sing this all day. Hey, Tim has been singing it EVERY day for twelve months . . .

FT music recording Greenwillow

What a fitting end to a great 35th anniversary year—here’s to the future.


  1. […] about how the Freight Train app was created?  Head over to Under the Green Willow for a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at creating the app with Donald […]

  2. Emily Whitman says:

    That is one happy train song! A new storytime classic in the making. Bravo! (In fact, as I’ve been listening, a frog started croaking somewhere in the garden, and I haven’t heard a frog here forever–even they’re singing along).

  3. Jed Henry says:

    I love the song you came up with. It’s really important to expose kids to all kinds of music, including folk and bluegrass. Thanks for creating such high quality media for the upcoming generation.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Congratulations! I look forward to seeing your new app! :) e

  5. mwt says:

    Listening to Donald Crews read Freight Train. That was the best!

  6. […] at work on the storyboard for his classic, Freight Train,  first published in the late 1980s, here (part 1) and here (part […]

  7. Janelle says:

    My son would love that app.

  8. […] Crews’ Freight Train for Halloween last year. And speaking of freight trains, has everyone seen, purchased, shared, played with the Freight Train app? We’d love to hear of your experiences […]

  9. […] Ms. Duncan explained the making of Greenwillow’s first app, Freight Train by Donald Crews.  With bold shapes and different views from its companion book, Inside Freight Train, this was a perfect way to get an introduction to all that can be done with an app. Take a simple story, then add movement, games, songs… the sky’s the limit!  Check out storyboards and other making-of tidbits from Freight Train here. […]

  10. Wes says:

    I’m still curious as to who sang the songs, loved her voice. Any ideas?

  11. Faye Black says:

    Hello and thank you for this information. How wonderful that the app is scored by working musicians. Will you please provide credits so we can check their other work out? Thank you!

  12. jumbo says:

    Nice article, thanks for the new song.

  13. jumbo says:

    Nice song i love this song..

  14. uday says:

    Nice article. Useful information regarding the music and freight music app. Thanks for the article.

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