My Book Club – quirky critical and social justice takes on children’s literature. Otherwise known as what happens when someone interested pop culture and political analysis has read the same bedtime story for the 100th time.
The Little Engine that Could is best known for its signature line, “I think I can.” But while many adults remember nothing outside of that – I know I didn’t until my son went on an Little Engine kick – the core of the story is actually a groundbreaking feminist fable.
From the very start, The Little Engine that Could is notable for featuring female protagonists in a book first published in 1930. For those who don’t quite remember, the namesake Little Engine must go over the mountain because an engine pulling a train full of “toys and good things to eat for the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain” has broken down. Both the broken-down engine and the Little Engine who takes over her load are explicitly gendered as female. While they are referred to specifically as “she,” the rest of the trains are referred to as “he.” Compare this to Dr. Seuss, who of his 47 main characters had only three female protagonists. Even today, television and movie executives still say that boys won’t go to a movie or buy a toy starring a girl.
The book also illustrates how the patriarchy underserves and denigrates the needs of children and women. After the original engine breaks down, a little toy clown jumps off the train to flag down help. Three different trains pass by, each refusing to pull the toys and food. The first train states that he is too important to bother, explaining that he has a dining car with waiters. It connects the social power of the rich to not caring about the needy. The second similarly refuses, explaining that he is too powerful to bother, as he just came from carrying heavy equipment to print newspapers for adults. Simply, both are saying that feeding children and bringing them toys aren’t worth their time or effort. To add insult to injury, the first two trains aren’t even busy with different jobs! They’re headed back to the maintenance yard and just don’t feel like helping. The third train that rejects the clown does so for slightly different reasons – he is too old and tired – but is also notably male.
When the Little Engine comes on the scene, she shows how the glass ceiling affects even competent, hard-working women. Although she wants to help, she says she isn’t sure that she can – she’s never been over the mountain before. But her lack of experience isn’t for lack of effort. Instead, it’s lack of opportunity – she is only used for switching in the yard. It’s only when another female train needs help and no one else is willing to that she receives her chance.
And of course, everyone knows the ending – through grit, passion, and a good mantra, she gets over the mountain. She not only proves herself, but also brings the girls and boys in the city on the other side of the mountain good food to eat and toys to play with. In the end, it’s a story of one strong woman finding empowerment by helping out another woman and serving her greater community. A lesson far more complex than the easy “I think I can,” and even more worth cheering for.