Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Feature: The Little Engine that Could

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I got The Little Engine That Could  by Watty Piper from someone at Trevor's baby shower, but hadn't read it to him until now.  This week's theme in preschool is trains, so it is a perfect fit!

The Little Engine That Could mini
There are things that I love about this book, but there it also has some glaring issues when it is read through the lenses of the Bible.

What I Love About The Little Engine that Could

First, the things I love.  I love that the story makes you have an attention span.  The original publication of this book was in 1930, and it is obvious that small children of years gone by were a little more skilled in the attention span department. It was very noticeable, even the first time I read it, that this book includes more detail than it needs to.  One example is when the author describes everything that is on the train instead of just saying “And on the train there were lots of fun toys and good food.”  A short description would have been sufficient, but the more detailed description in the book filled my imagination and challenged me to stay focused instead of just rushing onto the next part of the story.  I think it’s great to stretch our children’s ability to pay attention since most things in our world entertain them by quick moving, colorful, noisy distractions.

I also really appreciate the vocabulary in the book. So many books for children only use simple words (which do have their place), so it was refreshing to see more challenging words (both descriptive words and train related words).  It just serves as another challenge for our children, to push them to think a little bit harder, to encourage them to ask questions to deepen their understanding.  

The basic story line made me think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37.   I love the lesson of taking the time to care for others who are in need.  Children (and myself!) need to be taught that it is terrible to think that they are too important or too busy (or whatever excuse they can come up with) to stop and help. 

Concerns I Have About The Little Engine that Could

That being said, there were some themes in the book that made me pause and think critically for a minute. The first example happens during the climax of the plot, which centers on the famous words, “I think I can…I think I can…I think I can.” This is a very self-centered message and when I read it, it left a bad taste in my mouth similar to that of motivational seminars and self-help books.  As Christians, we are to be others focused, and although it’s not a huge point in the book I think we need to be careful what kind of ideas we are letting enter our children’s heads.  If, as parents, we are speaking to them ideas that are not Biblical, it will be much harder to retrain these mindsets later.  With that said, I know it is good to teach our children to try and not give up, so it’s a little hard for me to know exactly what I think about this part of the book.

Quickly, another similar problem I have is a sentence that is used every few pages throughout the book.  It states that the reason the train has to make it over the mountain is to get the toys and food to the “good little girls and boys” on the other side of the mountain.  I know this is turning theological, but I think it needs to.  Our society generally sees babies and small children as being intrinsically good.  This is an anti-Biblical concept.  On top of that, the idea makes it seem like the children deserved these toys.  We are not deserving of anything good, we only humbly accept gracious gifts from the Lord.  Maybe if the train was carrying clean water and wheat for a starving people I could understand more, but making it seem like the world is going to come to an end if the children don’t receive these toys by morning, sits wrong with me.  Just like my previous point, it’s probably not a huge deal, but I want to at least be critically thinking about what I am putting in my children’s brains.

So I am torn.  Do I nix this book from the shelf or do I just emphasize the good and point out the faults?  I am undecided.  I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts on this book’s message, if you think I’m being entirely too picky, or if you’ve come across any other books that pose a similar problem.

Happy Reading!


Looking for more preschool information?  Click on the picture below to find a list of all the preschool posts here at Living and Learning at Home, plus some of my favorite preschool resources!


  1. Love the pictures in this version! We have it too and the "I think I can" part always bothers me a little. I never thought of the good little boys and girls issue....but you could easily read it another way. I remember my parents doing that with some books.
    Funny, the problem that Robert has with the book is that all the mean trains are guys!
    When I have big issues with a book but I think it has merit, I move it to a section where we have older kids books. If it has merit, I want them to be able to read it and discuss the problems as they get older.

  2. Oh, wait, I like Loren Longs illustrations...just realized that different from the picture you showed.

  3. It's funny that you mention that the mean trains are guys. I didn't even notice that, but when I was looking the book up online to see what year it was published, I read that someone observed that it had feminist leanings because of that. I wonder if the author did that intentionally or not!


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