Of Equity and Engines: The Bob McKinnon Interview That Could
It sounds like a gimmick. Like something that happens to children’s books that end up in the public domain. As I’m sure you already know, The Little Engine That Could is so ubiquitous in our culture that it shows up in our pop songs, for crying out loud. And with its strict message of hard work winning the day, one would be forgiven for thinking that it’s incapable of conveying much more than that. One certainly wouldn’t tap it as a potential conveyor of lessons in equity. Yet when Bob McKinnon’s Three Little Engines was released in July, that’s precisely what it did. The book takes three of the original engines from that story and . . . well, here’s the plot description from Baker & Taylor (which, interestingly, I think is more accurate than the one you’ll find from the book’s own publisher):
“Little Blue Engine tries hard and passes her final test for Engine School, but learns that everyone’s journey is different and that, sometimes, success requires a little help.”
Yeah. We’re doing a deep dive on this one. I really did have some questions for Bob with this book.
Betsy Bird: Thanks so much for coming on my blog, Bob! So this is an utterly fascinating little book to me, and I’ll tell you why. That classic story The Little Engine That Could has just permeated our culture to an amazing degree. I mean, even the Quad City DJ’s in “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” make “I think I can” a part of their refrain. We’ve seen that picture book re-illustrated multiple times, by folks like Loren Long and Dan Santat. And we’ve seen other kinds of spin-offs of it. But your book is completely different from all of these. So how did it come about?
Bob McKinnon: First off, thanks for the Quad City DJ’s reference. I had no idea! It just speaks to how influential The Little Engine That Could message has been in our culture for over 90 years.
When it comes to Three Little Engines, the story of how it came to be is pretty remarkable with plenty of twists and turns
By way of background, I am executive director of a small non-profit organization, the Moving Up Media Lab, whose mission is to inspire people to reflect on who and what has contributed to where they are in life.
As part of our work, I was introduced to Shai Davidai, now at Columbia University. His research explored how people see their headwinds (challenges) and tailwinds (assistance) differently. As part of our conversation, he shared an article, America’s Surprising Views on Inequality by Maria Konnikova that featured his work. The article closes with this passage:
But Davidai is starting where he can—at home, with an experimental sample size of one. He is doing everything he can to make sure his child is not exposed to the traditional underdog narratives. One book he won’t be reading to his infant: “The Little Engine That Could.” “I have always hated that book,” he told me. “Some engines can’t, and it’s not their fault.”
After reading the article, I thought Shai’s take was a little harsh. After all, I did read The Little Engine that Could to my kids.
So I went back and pulled it from my daughter’s book shelf and re-read it. In doing so, I could see where Shai was coming from and began wondering what a different, more nuanced version of the Little Engine story might look like. One that reflected both Davidai’s sentiments and my own personal experience. After a few days of giving it some thought, I took out a notebook and wrote the first draft in an afternoon. I read it to my three daughters who at the time were 6, 8 and 10 and they gave me the thumbs up..
While I had previously published a nonfiction book and written for magazines, I had no knowledge of children’s publishing and no longer had an agent. Fortunately, a friend of a friend knew the illustrator Ed Young who agreed to take a look at the manuscript. He thought it had promise and an important message worth telling – especially in education settings.
Based on this feedback, another friend connected me to Pam Allyn, founder at Lit World and now at Scholastic. It was Pam who suggested that I reach out to Penguin regarding any rights issues before moving forward.
So I cold called the main number and asked for the rights department.
I spoke with a person who suggested I send an email with my requests. Months went by with no response. So I reached out again and they asked if I would send the manuscript. Within two weeks, I was asked if I would be interested in talking to Sarah Fabiny, then at Penguin Workshop.
During the call with Sarah, I had expected that my request would be either rebuffed or given restrictions limiting my ability to refer to the original characters or story.
The opposite occurred. Coincidentally, Sarah told me, they were looking for a more modern take on the story to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the original that was upcoming.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I share all of this background because in many ways it’s a perfect illustration of the moral of Three Engines. Success in children’s publishing is notoriously difficult. While I did work hard and persevered there were clearly so many other people, events and factors that made this project possible. Take any of them away and this book never happens. Some might hear this story and see “I think I can, I think I can,.”
When as you can see, it was more like “I think we can, I think we can.”
BB: I love publishing kismet, when the stars align in a certain way. This bears out that love. So did you read The Little Engine That Could at all when you were a kid?
BM: I grew up in a poor area outside of Boston, raised by a single mom, so we didn’t have a lot of money for books. I can’t say with certainty that I read The Little Engine That Could when I was a kid. But the message of “I think I can, I think I can” was something I was definitely familiar with and was a source of inspiration as I eventually became the first in my family to go on to college.
BB: I feel like at its worst The Little Engine That Could is supposed to stand as a kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. The idea that hard work can overcome any obstacle. Any obstacle at all. Can you talk a little about what your book does that’s so different?
BM: Hard work and believing in ourselves do make success possible, but not necessarily probable. Most of us also need the help and support of others and some good fortune along the way.
So while The Little Engine That Could asks children to believe in themselves
(“I think I can, I think I can,” Three Little Engines asks us all to also believe in and help each other (“I think we can I think we can.”)
In that respect, Three Little Engines, compliments the original message but adds a layer that recognizes that our journeys are all different and some have more obstacles than others.
BB: A lot of what you’re talking about here is equity. Or, at the very least, conveying to kids that sometimes we don’t understand why the barriers that we face are any different than the barriers other people face. I’m beginning to see more and more picture books that are attempting to convey this message. Some do it well. Some do it poorly. Yours does it well, but it had to have been a difficult thing to figure out how to write about. What was the writing process on this book like for you?
BM: First off, thank you for the kind words.
Concepts like equity are difficult for grownups to understand, let alone children. As a country, we don’t have very good conversations about why some people succeed, while others struggle. I’ve learned a lot over time about the complex psychology that we bring to these challenging conversations. I tried to take some of that learning and create a book that is not preaching or didactic, that doesn’t make someone feel guilty or bad regardless of their journey.
The writing process for trying to communicate this concept of different journeys (that aren’t equitable) can be broken down into two parts. The first part was straightforward. Just show the different journeys and the factors that metaphorically represent why some may have a more difficult time – e.g. they carry heavier loads, have more headwinds holding them back or experience bad luck like a tree falling on their tracks.
The second and more difficult part was how do you see your journey in the context of others. Rather than just having the Rusty Old Engine come up and tell the Little Engine that Could that her journey was easier and she has a responsibility to go help others, he instead asks her a series of questions so she can reflect on those differences herself. We see her work through her confusion and frustration. In the end, she comes to the realization on her own. In doing so, she has more appreciation for her own journey and that of her friends. Her gratitude leads to her desire to act and help the other engines.
In some ways it’s a more complex message but told in a pretty simple way that I hope is easy for children to understand and relate to.
BB: Were there any pitfalls you were attempting to avoid with this book? Mistakes that you definitely didn’t want to make?
BM: There were definitely two mistakes I was trying to avoid. One was that in no way did I want to diminish the role that hard work or believing in ourselves play in our life. We definitely want to encourage our children to think that they can do hard things and to work hard to accomplish their goals. This book is intended to complement not replace the original story of the Little Engine that Could.
The other mistake I wanted to avoid was suggesting that the two other engines that have more obstacles lack individual agency or that they aren’t also working hard to achieve their goals. In fact, as you see, they have to work harder because of the challenges they face along the way.
BB: I see that the art was created by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson. Did you have a hand in the art in any way, or the selection of the artists? What’s your final opinion on how it all turned out?
BM: First off let me say that Lou and Steve did a tremendous job. I absolutely love the illustrations and at readings I always point out that first spread where you’re seeing these three engines with completely different tracks they are about to travel over this mountain. It is a complicated and beautiful illustration that set the stage for the rest of the book so masterfully.
In terms of my hand in the art, I’m really grateful to the team at Penguin asked for my input in the art notes describing what I envisioned, the selection of the artists and the illustrations themselves. My final opinion of how it all turned out? I think that Lou and Steve’s illustrations bring the words to life in a way that is beyond what I could have hoped for.
BB: How would you like to see this book used in the future then?
BM: It’s hard to overstate how influential The Little Engine That Could has been in our culture. It has inspired generations of children to believe in themselves and work hard to achieve their goals.
I’m already seeing and hearing stories about how parents and teachers are using Three Little Engines to expand on this message. To teach them that we all have different journeys, to appreciate how ours might be different from someone else’s and that our work isn’t done when we’ve “reached the other side of the mountain.” There is still an opportunity for us to reflect on who might have helped us along the way AND to help others who may be stuck through no fault of their own.
Who knows, maybe this book will similarly inspire future generations of children to also believe in each other and work hard to help others achieve their goals.
Maybe, they’ll even be a new Quad City DJ’ song with “I think we can, I think we can” in the chorus.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
BM: I’m actually in conversations with Penguin about a couple of different ideas right now and we’re excited to develop them together. More soon!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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