The Little Engine That Could – Watty Piper

POINTS: 5 out of 10.

Bechdel: Nope
Variety of characters: 1 feminism point.
Good story: Yes for both me and kid. 2 points.
Discretionary ideological points: 2 for positive ideological messages (Perseverance is good!).

The Little Engine That Could is often cited as a great feminist children’s book simply because said engine is female in the story. Which, I guess, is fairly progressive for a book published in 1930. I have some qualms about this assessment, though. After all, the people being benefited by said engine are explicitly children, and the delivery is of good food and toys, so you could argue that this falls neatly into the “hearth” side of things, and therefore the feminine role is applicable. But, I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt, simply because the genders of the characters seem (to me at least) to be fairly random, and because, let’s face it, there are almost no other fictional female trains. So I’m going to give it a feminist point. That’s 1.

But Bechdel? Nope. The first train is female, the Little Engine is female, but they never converse directly with each other.

Non-token range of characters? Nah, I’m not giving it this one. Yes, it has female characters that are not tokenly girls, but it already got the feminist point up there, and apart from that? Nothing. (It’s tricky with toys, of course, but nevertheless.)

Enjoyment value? Well, I do have a train obsessed child, so he has a bias, but the truth is, I have read this story many, many, many MANY manymany times, and it’s still fun to read. C loves it, and I don’t want to cry brokenly when he brings it to me. (Just wait till we get to Thomas.)  It has a good kidbook story structure, with the repetitive interactions, and the neat little linguistic catchphrases (who doesn’t know about “I think I can, I think I can”?), and even has actual healthy food included in the “good food to eat”. We both love it. Full points for enjoyment. That’s 2, for a total so far of 3.

And I’m going to give it a couple more for general ideological niftiness. I mean, it was published in 1930, so there is obviously some of that “All American Dream” thing going on – work hard, pay your dues, you’ll succeed. But I think it’s not hard to make it a story about perseverance, about giving it a go, trying even though you’re not sure if you can do it, and continuing to try when you don’t succeed right away. All of that is stuff I want my kid to learn. So, here, Little Engine, have 2 more points, for a total of 5.

Not bad for the first (and therefore earliest in this section) book of the list. Totally a reasonable book for the liberally inclined parent to read to kids, I’d say.

What do you think? Have I been too harsh? Not harsh enough? Do you know of better picture books for 0-3 year olds that talk about perseverance? Tell me about them in comments.


3 thoughts on “The Little Engine That Could – Watty Piper

  1. In terms of idealogy, i think most adults of the appropriate culture recognise this book and its message, and i have heard people occasionally use it as an inspirational message, so it seems to really have lasting value. All from a simple kids book!


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