What You’re Missing in “The Little Engine that Could”

In our collection of children’s books, I have a few favorites to read aloud.  I savor the beautiful illustrations, great messages, and satisfying rhymes.  The Little Engine That Could is not one of those books.  The sentences spill over between pages, and I can never get the cadence right.  Despite having the words nearly committed to heart, my oration is clunky and awkward.  Plus, (and this is a personal annoyance) a train delivering jack-knives to small children seems a tad unnecessary. 

In stumbling through The Little Engine That Could, my biggest frustration is the book’s focus on the wrong hero. 

Sure, there’s a great lesson to be found in the Little Blue Engine.  She is unsure of herself but is willing to try, and guess what? She does it! Yay for the little boys and girls! Sadly, it just doesn’t sit well with me.  Each time this book makes its way off the shelf and over to my lap, I consider the message that is all too often lost in our readings. 

little engine that could

Let me refresh your memory.

The train breaks down. The little clown finds the passenger engine.

The passenger engine rejects them, and that’s a bummer. The little clown finds the freight engine. 

The freight engine rejects them, and the dolls and toys feel pretty disheartened. The little clown finds the old rusty engine.

The old rusty engine rejects them, and the dolls and toys are ready to have a good ugly cry. The little clown finds the Little Blue Engine.

The Little Blue Engine is willing to give it a shot, and you know the rest of the story.

Here’s the thing – if we really want a story about perseverance, grit and faith, it is not the story of the Little Blue Engine. It is the story of the little clown. The little clown is undeterred by repeated rejection; first because the passenger engine compares the dolls and toys to a fancier load, and later because the freight engine declares he is too important.  The old rusty engine rejects the train simply because he is too tired. 

The little clown is unshakeable. He stays calm and positive; he lets someone else take the credit.

In many ways, he is the parent in the story.

In the real world, parents also face challenges that threaten to stop us in our tracks.  Some days it may be a passenger engine: unfair comparisons, judgments, and guilt.  It may be easy to lose perspective as a self-important freight engine barrels toward us, or sigh when confronted with the familiar rusty engine of poor self-care and lack of sleep.  Every day we can recognize our own resilience, point it out to our children and role model the important skill that will help them cope with life’s disappointments.  We can teach them that perseverance is the difference between “I think I can” and “I know I will.”

Sorry, Little Blue Engine.  Believing in yourself is a great message, but your job was just the easy part.  Success was only possible because when the obstacles presented themselves over and over, the little clown continued to push forward. That’s an important lesson for all kids–and parents–about what makes the trip truly possible. 


Susie is a mom of two, book-lover and frequent challah baker. In addition to working at The University of Iowa, Susie is a PTA volunteer and sorority advisor. She loves date nights in the Ped Mall, catching a show at the Englert, and most of all, cuddling her family on the couch.


  1. Funny how reading a book over and over makes you really think on the story! Just reading the first line on this post my thought was, “the little clown.” Lovely to be of the same mind ;).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.