‘Three Little Engines’ children’s book upends the meritocracy myth


A staple of U.S. elementary faculty lecture rooms, The Little Engine That Could has taught youngsters for generations about resilience in the face of wrestle. The ethical of the traditional story, a couple of plucky locomotive that makes its approach by means of an arduous mountain journey by repeating “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can” (to the cadence of a chugging steam prepare) fosters the concept that, by means of laborious work and a can-do angle, anybody can obtain something.

It’s a part of a imaginative and prescient that has pervaded American tales since the nation’s founding. However, like lots of these legends, it might ignore the actuality that some people merely don’t have the means to propel themselves to success as simply as others. So, Bob McKinnon, a lecturer, author, and podcaster whose work focuses on the theme of social good, has penned what he calls a extra “nuanced” model of the story: an homage, however one which accounts for the essential variations in folks’s lives. He hopes that by with the ability to perceive our personal journeys, we are able to higher empathize with these of others, and be extra keen to supply assist—particularly as we assess the struggles folks have suffered throughout the pandemic.

[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]

At its core, The Little Engine That May focuses on a sort, caring protagonist, a prepare that helps others whereas stronger and better-equipped trains move by with excuses. McKinnon says his new story, Three Little Engines, may very well be considered as an origin story, to elucidate why that decided blue engine does have the coronary heart to supply assist to his fellow trains. In McKinnon’s story, it’s commencement day for 3 locomotives, which need to make a remaining journey over a mountain to fulfill their instructor. The blue engine is joined by two buddies, a assured yellow engine and a brawny crimson one. The blue engine makes it by means of minor trials and reaches the different finish: “I believe I can…Merrily, she puffed down the mountain, reaching the village with none hassle.” However, the different two—who’ve to drag heavy masses, climb steep and winding routes, and face blocks on their tracks—don’t. “As [the yellow engine] tried to push ahead, he chattered, ‘I, I, I, suppose, suppose, suppose, I can, can—can’t,’” the story reads. “He couldn’t go one other inch.”

Not contemplating the totally different obstacles they confronted, the blue engine wonders if her buddies simply hadn’t tried laborious sufficient. Her instructor, the rusty engine, tells her to think about her personal path, asking questions like, “Did you face wind and rain?” “How heavy was your load?” “Was there something blocking your monitor?” She lastly involves the conclusion that her buddies labored actually laborious, too. “However they bought caught. Simply since you suppose you’ll be able to, doesn’t all the time imply you’ll, does it?” Upon her realization, she goes again to assist her buddies, and so they all graduate collectively.


[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]

McKinnon wrote the story to “encourage folks to mirror on who and what has contributed to the place they find yourself in life,” which can be the crux of the social mobility analysis he does together with his nonprofit, Moving Up Media Lab. It began when he thought of how his buddies, who began in roughly comparable locations, had “dramatically totally different life outcomes.” That leads you to think about your personal route in life, like the blue engine. By mulling over her personal journey, she was then in a position to think about others’ relative struggles. “What I had come to find,” McKinnon says, “was that if folks didn’t first have a very good understanding of how they got here to face in their very own footwear, that empathy can be too far a leap.”

The book, which is launched July 13, is firmly rooted in social science analysis, notably in a psychological precept generally known as attribution theory. That principle proposes that once we search for causes for our success, we are inclined to over-emphasize our “disposition,” or our inner qualities, somewhat than our “state of affairs,” or any exterior components—like monetary assist from household, connections made by means of buddies or networks, and luck. He refers to a psychology study that began some Monopoly gamers off with extra money than their opponents—like a head begin in life. These gamers, who finally received, considered particular person company as the major trigger for his or her success; none credited their success. This angle additionally influences how we view others’ mobility. In the story, the blue engine’s “first inclination is that this elementary attribution bias,” McKinnon says. “The place are they? Are they not working laborious?”

Illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, the image book is geared toward kids aged three to seven, as a result of for McKinnon, it’s essential to relay these messages at an early age. “I don’t suppose kids are born essentially considering, ‘it’s solely about me,’” he says. Somewhat, cultural influences drive hyper-individualistic attitudes—particularly in America, the place “bootstraps” myths and historic retellings are core to the nation’s DNA. However McKinnon (who occurred to develop up in the identical city as the iconic “rags-to-riches” storyteller Horatio Alger), says American tales are crammed with situational components that go ignored. In Rocky, as an illustration, the small-time boxer will get an opportunity in the ring solely due to one other fighter’s damage (“The entire film hinges on luck!” McKinnon says); in Hamilton, the lyric, “Took up a group simply to ship him to the mainland,” illustrates how the founding father was bestowed cash to get to colonial America. But all of it will get credited to particular person brilliance.

[Photo: Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson]

“I noticed this concept of exceptionalism being really a limiting perception,” McKinnon says. In the end, the hyper-focus on the particular person might be dangerous by way of how we view others. McKinnon desires younger folks to ask what circumstances introduced an individual to be homeless, as an illustration, as a substitute of concluding they didn’t work laborious sufficient. After which, ideally, to think about how they may help. In the story, the essential turning level comes when the blue engine decides to assist his buddies, emphasizing a way of neighborhood that’s usually silenced in the American very best. “I-think-I-can” turns into “I-think-we-can.”

There have been occasions in American historical past that the “we” has prevailed over the “I,” McKinnon says, principally in occasions of hardship, comparable to after the Nice Melancholy, with the emergence of the New Deal. He hopes this will even be the case as we recuperate from the COVID-19 pandemic, and wonders if we’ll see spikes in volunteering, mentoring, and authorities and philanthropic motion. Even so, the key shall be to start out with our personal pandemic experiences, and never downplay the hardships we’ve all been by means of—however, as a substitute, empathize with others’ relative struggles with out judgement. As these round us attempt to recoup from their very own treacherous journeys, he says, “Possibly we wish to return up the mountain and say, ‘Hey, is there one thing we are able to do?’”