We're Reading: The Little Engine That Could (and the Unexpected Lesson It Taught Me)

All aboard!

One of my joys as a mom is being able to share with my kids a beloved children's book that my mom used to read to me. How I wish I remembered the sound of her voice exactly as it was then. Now, I only hear my own, repeating the same lines probably with the same intonation and cadence, taking the same pauses to wait for a little voice to chime in.

I was delighted to find a copy of The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper in excellent condition at Books for Less! First published in 1930, this is certainly not a new book, but I feel it may be a forgotten classic that a new generation of moms may not be familiar with. It definitely has a lot of competition on the book shelves from the fancier, movie/TV-backed titles. But, perhaps what it has to its advantage is that you often can find a copy in used bookstores, a treasure in the stacks.

If you don't know the story, it goes like this: A little train carrying all manner of fantastic toys and delicious treats breaks down before it can go up the mountain, which it needs to climb in order to deliver its wonderful cargo to the good little boys and girls on the other side. Three different trains pass by, but each have their reasons for not helping the little engine (too important, too proud, too tired, too busy). Just when the engine, the dolls, and their ringleader, the toy clown, are about to give up hope, a little blue engine comes along; and, although she is neither the strongest, the biggest, or the most advanced, through the strength of her will, she saves the day, uttering the iconic words, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can."

This is a great choice for a preschooler. I'd tried reading it to Ella in the bookstore when she was toddler, but it was hard for her to stay focused on the story (it's a long book, with 40 pages). Now, at 3, she's able to enjoy the different characters, empathize a little bit more with the plight of the dolls and train, and sit still long enough to get to the end. The copy we found was the new edition with illustrations by Loren Long. While the familiar classic illustrations have a nostalgic appeal, the new illustrations are brighter, bolder, and richer. Much more captivating (and oh-so-framable, so don't be surprised if you see some new artwork on the playroom wall). The new edition is also much larger than the classic edition, all the better to showcase the beautiful pictures. They really captured my daughter's attention.

Is there anything sadder than a sad clown?

New Lessons from an Old Favorite

It's funny how reading a book at a different time in your life can reveal new interpretations. Books are magical that way; you open the same book another day and it speaks to you in a different way. I'd always loved this book as a tale of determination, the Little Blue Engine putting her doubts aside and relying on inner strength to compensate for what she lacked in ability. I think I can. I think I can. She believed she could, so she did.

That message is so ingrained in those who've read this book that even illustrator Loren Long says they are what inspired him, as a child listening to the book being read and as a grown-up creating the art for the very book he loved. In an interview, he says:
Every time I start a new piece of art, there is a chance I could fail. It's both irritating and inspiring at the same time....I have uttered those famous words, "I think I can™" to myself throughout my life...even while working on this very book!
And, yes, that is a wonderful message to take away from the story; definitely one to put in your (or your child's) back pocket for those self-doubt-filled days.

But reading it yesterday morning, it began to sound to me like the biblical story of the Good Samaritan (with trains). Three more-likely persons showed up at the scene where help was needed, but help was not offered. When the Little Blue Good Samaritan comes along, she shows not just determination but also compassion. She helps not because she wants to show her abilities but because she sees the sadness in the eyes of the toys and the hopelessness of the little train, and imagines the disappointment of the boys and girls she has never met and will never see when they wake up and find that little train has not come. Her heart for others becomes greater than her thoughts of herself.

Sometimes its our love for others that makes us the people (or trains) we never imagined we could be.

Talking to my daughter about the book, this time, we not only talked about doing your best, trying new things you didn't think you could do, and believing in yourself, but we also talked about helping people and all the ways we can help others even when we are little, or young, or not that brave. All around us, there are people who need help, and the best person for the job is the one who is willing.

She nodded. "When it was the last day [yesterday], I helped Riley [her imaginary friend] because she was sad. I cheered her up," she said. And then we talked about eating delicious sweets and maybe buying a train and a new doll, because after all, she is three.

We'll save the world another day.

3 Ways to Play and Learn with The Little Engine That Could

Role play: Get your stuffed animals involved and have them each play the part of one of the trains. Princess Sofia does an excellent Little Blue Engine, that little do-gooder.  

Introduce new words: Talk about the different ways each of the trains are described, or the lovely sound descriptions used: "chug," "bellowed," "rumbled." E asked me, "What's 'rusty'?" so we learned about how only metal things can rust. After, we practiced puffing off "indignantly." (Okay, maybe not the best thing to teach a 3-year-old who likes to act.)

Get haulin': Fill a big bag with toys, books, blocks, and whatever else you can stuff inside, then ask your child to try to carry it. Is it hard or easy? What if you were a big, strong train? What if you were so tired? What if you were a little baby train (what E calls the blue engine)? Don't forget to say, "I think I can! I think I can!"

Love lit crit? Here's a feminist reading of the book discussed on NPR.