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I'm not sure whether the 'useful' in the title of this book refers to the words or to the book itself; either way, it is very aptly named.
The book is hardback, with wipe-clean thin cardboard pages. Each double-page is a different scene from the island of Sodor, with plenty of activity and things to see. Most of the elements in a scene are labelled in bold black print, and the font size is large enough for children who are just learning to read to make it out on their own, without being so large that it detracts from the scene. Thomas appears in every scene, sometimes as a poster or a toy (in one instance, a cake!), and the other characters appear on some pages as well.
On every other page, the scene does not fill the entire width of the book. On these pages there is a vertical margin on each side where some elements from the scene are pictured with the word underneath, against a white background (these elements are not named in the scene, only in the margin). This is great for younger children as you can make a game of it by pointing to the margin picture and then the child can find the picture in the scene.
In addition, there is a little mouse to find on every page (it took us a while to notice this as it is not mentioned anywhere in the blurb). In some cases, this is quite wittily done: in the school, it is next to the computer where a computer mouse would be and in the Fat Controller's house, it is running up the side of the grandfather clock. This game doesn't last long, though, as it doesn't take a child long to memorise where the mouse is on every page!
The pages without margins are:
At the station
In the country
By the river
In the wildlife park
On the beach
The Fat Controller's house
The pages with margins are:
On the platform
On the farm
At the harbour
In the town
The birthday party
I'll go into 'In the town' in a bit more detail to give a better idea of what is on each page.
The picture is three-dimensional and the point of view is high up, looking down on the scene. There is a church in the centre of the picture, and beyond that a town hall. Also in the picture are: a factory, a petrol station, a playground, a house, a cinema, a row of shops and several vehicles. The colours are quite muted, which is good as the scenes are very busy, so bright colours would cause a bit of a visual overload, particularly for young children. Among the items in the margins are: a policeman, a red telephone box, a motorbike and a petrol pump. Thomas appears in the foreground.
The variety of scenes (who knew Sodor had a wildlife park?) means that there is a huge range of words. There are about twenty five to thirty for each scene, so there are upwards of three hundred words in this book with very little repetition.
This is a wonderful book which is suitable for many ages. For younger children, it teaches the names of different objects and lets them have fun looking at pictures of trains and animals. For slightly older children, it is an introduction to words while still being simple enough to avoid bombarding them with more information than they can absorb. There is so much on each page that you could probably spend half an hour just discussing one scene. For £6.99 (currently £4.66 with free delivery from Amazon), there is so much that children will get out of this book that it is really fantastic value for money. I can't recommend it highly enough.