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Your favorite childhood book perpetuates the meritocracy myth. ‘Three Little Engines’ sets the record straight

In a new children’s book, a little engine learns that an “I-think-I-can” attitude isn’t always enough to get past different obstacles in life.

Your favorite childhood book perpetuates the meritocracy myth. ‘Three Little Engines’ sets the record straight
[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]
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A staple of U.S. elementary school classrooms, The Little Engine That Could has taught kids for generations about resilience in the face of struggle. The moral of the classic story, about a plucky locomotive that makes its way through an arduous mountain journey by repeating “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can” (to the cadence of a chugging steam train) fosters the idea that, through hard work and a can-do attitude, anyone can achieve anything.

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It’s part of a vision that has pervaded American stories since the country’s founding. But, like many of those legends, it may ignore the reality that some individuals simply don’t have the means to propel themselves to success as easily as others. So, Bob McKinnon, a lecturer, writer, and podcaster whose work focuses on the theme of social good, has penned what he calls a more “nuanced” version of the story: an homage, but one that accounts for the important variations in people’s lives. He hopes that by being able to understand our own journeys, we can better empathize with those of others, and be more willing to offer help—especially as we assess the struggles people have suffered during the pandemic.

[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]
At its core, The Little Engine That Could focuses on a kind, caring protagonist, a train that helps others while stronger and better-equipped trains pass by with excuses. McKinnon says his new story, Three Little Engines, could be viewed as an origin tale, to explain why that determined blue engine does have the heart to offer help to his fellow trains. In McKinnon’s story, it’s graduation day for three locomotives, which have to make a final trip over a mountain to meet their teacher. The blue engine is joined by two friends, a confident yellow engine and a brawny red one. The blue engine makes it through minor trials and reaches the other end: “I think I can…Merrily, she puffed down the mountain, reaching the village without any trouble.” But, the other two—who have to pull heavy loads, climb steep and winding routes, and face blocks on their tracks—do not. “As [the yellow engine] tried to push forward, he chattered, ‘I, I, I, think, think, think, I can, can—can’t,'” the story reads. “He could not go another inch.”

Not considering the different obstacles they faced, the blue engine wonders if her friends just hadn’t tried hard enough. Her teacher, the rusty engine, tells her to consider her own path, asking questions like, “Did you face wind and rain?” “How heavy was your load?” “Was there anything blocking your track?” She finally comes to the conclusion that her friends worked really hard, too. “But they got stuck. Just because you think you can, doesn’t always mean you will, does it?” Upon her realization, she goes back to help her friends, and they all graduate together.

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[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]
McKinnon wrote the story to “inspire people to reflect on who and what has contributed to where they end up in life,” which is also the crux of the social mobility research he does with his nonprofit, Moving Up Media Lab. It all started when he considered how his friends, who started in roughly similar places, had “dramatically different life outcomes.” That leads you to consider your own route in life, like the blue engine. By mulling over her own journey, she was then able to consider others’ relative struggles. “What I had come to discover,” McKinnon says, “was that if people didn’t first have a good understanding of how they came to stand in their own shoes, that empathy would be too far a leap.”

The book, which is released July 13, is firmly rooted in social science research, particularly in a psychological principle known as attribution theory. That theory proposes that when we look for reasons for our success, we tend to over-emphasize our “disposition,” or our internal qualities, rather than our “situation,” or any external factors—like financial help from family, connections made through friends or networks, and luck. He refers to a psychology study that started some Monopoly players off with more money than their opponents—like a head start in life. Those players, who eventually won, viewed individual agency as the primary cause for their success; none credited their good fortune. This attitude also influences how we view others’ mobility. In the story, the blue engine’s “first inclination is this fundamental attribution bias,” McKinnon says. “Where are they? Are they not working hard?”

Illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, the picture book is aimed at children aged three to seven, because for McKinnon, it’s important to relay these messages at an early age. “I don’t think children are born necessarily thinking, ‘it’s only about me,'” he says. Rather, cultural influences drive hyper-individualistic attitudes—especially in America, where “bootstraps” myths and historical retellings are core to the nation’s DNA. But McKinnon (who happened to grow up in the same town as the iconic “rags-to-riches” storyteller Horatio Alger), says American stories are filled with situational factors that go ignored. In Rocky, for instance, the small-time boxer gets a chance in the ring only because of another fighter’s injury (“The whole movie hinges on luck!” McKinnon says); in Hamilton, the lyric, “Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland,” illustrates how the founding father was bestowed money to get to colonial America. Yet it all gets credited to individual brilliance.

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[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]
“I saw this idea of exceptionalism being actually a limiting belief,” McKinnon says. Ultimately, the hyper-focus on the individual can be harmful in terms of how we view others. McKinnon wants young people to ask what circumstances brought a person to be homeless, for instance, instead of concluding they didn’t work hard enough. And then, ideally, to consider how they can help. In the story, the crucial turning point comes when the blue engine decides to help his friends, emphasizing a sense of community that’s often silenced in the American ideal. “I-think-I-can” becomes “I-think-we-can.”

There have been times in American history that the “we” has prevailed over the “I,” McKinnon says, principally in times of hardship, such as after the Great Depression, with the emergence of the New Deal. He hopes this will also be the case as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and wonders if we’ll see spikes in volunteering, mentoring, and government and philanthropic action. Even so, the key will be to start with our own pandemic experiences, and not downplay the hardships we’ve all been through—but, instead, empathize with others’ relative struggles without judgement. As those around us try and recoup from their own treacherous journeys, he says, “Maybe we want to go back up the mountain and say, ‘Hey, is there something we can do?'”