The Little Red Caboose: An Obsolete Children’s Book

Last night my daughter picked The Little Red Caboose for her story before bed. I had never read it to her before, and I was surprised she picked it. When I told her to pick a book, I think she panicked and picked the first book she saw on the shelf. I do the same thing when they ask for my order at the the drive through window. Many a chicken quesadilla has been ordered as a hurried reflex. Anyway, a few pages into the book I realized I am wasting my daughter’s time, and young, spongy brain on a book about something she’ll never need to know about.

I get that trains still exist, but I think their usefulness as a subject of children’s books has ran its course, or at least The Little Red Caboose has. My daughter almost always asks questions about things in books, usually related to the pictures, and usually always answered in the next sentence. However, when she asked questions in this book, I realized the answers were irrelevant because the subject matter is as well. My daughter will never see a train like this in real life. Actually, I take that back. There is a vintage train at Disney World. So the train is as real to her as Cinderella.The train is an old-fashioned, steam train, and was pulling a coal car.

“What is that?” she asked. To this point her only reference for coal is what Santa might give you if you’re bad, but even that she probably doesn’t remember that seeing as it only comes up once a year and she’s three years old. While I was trying to think of the quickest answer that would keep us moving through the story, it dawned on me that coal as a source of energy is something for a history book, not a children’s book. We need to position our kids to think forward and to imagine possibilities. The books they read should provide a road map, or a least a positive projection of what their futures could hold. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in my daughter’s life time coal energy will disappear, or at least that’s what we should be striving for. Of course, global warming and sustainable energy are a little beyond the grasp of somebody who still can’t tell time.

“Those are rocks,” I told her.

The train was also pulling an oil car. While she didn’t ask about that, I noticed that I’d never seen to many references to fossil fuels in a children’s book before. Who published this thing? The Rockefellers? The book was first published in 1953, so a sign of the times I suppose. Another sign of the times featured in the book – racial stereotypes. Who doesn’t love that in a children’s book?

Throughout the first few pages of the book, the train starts in the city and heads out of town and up a mountain. Along the way it passes cars stopped at the railroad crossing, a beach, another train with circus animals in cages (another totally relevant thing to a kid today), a farm, some wild animals in a field, and then we come to a Native American village complete with teepees, a shirtless man taming a wild horse, and kids with a single feather poking out the back of their headbands.* To say that page hasn’t aged well is an understatement. Sure, it was published in another time, I get that. But even aside from that, where the hell is this train going? Under what scenario does a train leave a modern, industrial town and end up in a scene from “The Searchers”? Based on the cars, the factories, and the modern dress of the white people, we’ve already firmly established that this book takes place in present day. So are we to believe that this caricature of a century old Native American village somehow still exists? Or did this train somehow travel back in time? Or could it be that the publishers probably just didn’t give a shit and some guy in a meeting said, “Throw some Indians in there, kids love Indians,” and nobody else at Little Golden Books saw anything wrong with that?

I’m not saying we ban it, and I’m not saying we “cancel” it. I’m saying this book is old. Too old to be in any way relevant to a kid today. Hell, it’s too old to be relevant to kid 20 years ago. The lesson is fine, the little caboose saves the day after feeling like the unappreciated part of the train. Turns out those coal cars were what the people wanted to see, which is another reason I’m fairly certain this whole book was just a propaganda piece for Texaco. Anyway, put this book in a museum next to cabooses and coal burning trains, and let’s get a new one out there. How about a book about an electric bullet train that learns to be appreciated while going past a collection of scenes that are a little more relevant and a lot less racist? If children are the future, let’s leave the past in the past, and not in their nighty entertainment.

So far there are only a few books that I refuse to read my kids at bed time, but I think this one is going on that list. Right next to Baby Shark (the words to the book are literally just the words to the song, complete with the do-do-do’s) and anything over 25 pages – a bedtime story needs to be five minutes or less. I am trying to get my kids to sleep, not make an episode of Reading Rainbow.

*I cannot in good conscience include a picture of this here. If you want to see for yourself, you can find it.

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