I Review Children's Books: The Little Red Caboose
Marian Potter’s The Little Red Caboose is a Little Golden Book classic illustrated by Tibor Gergely of The Happy Man and His Dump Truck infamy. The central character is the eponymous Caboose, who spends most of the book sighing wearily over the structural inequalities of train life: he’s the caboose, and thus, always last. He doesn’t object to being last as such; it’s just that children wave to the engine and other cars up front, but apparently even in 1953 children lacked the attention span to remain attentive through the passing of an entire train. Before the caboose can make his appearance, they go back to playing marbles or Pokémon or whatever it is the kids of the generation you want to grumble about are always being distracted by, and the Caboose gets NO LOVE.
Like John Milton in his 1673 sonnet “On His Blindness”, the Caboose questions whether he has anything to offer God/the world when he is relegated to a life of blindness/anonymity and social invisibility. “Doth God exact day labor, light denied,” he asks the woodland creatures that are paying him no attention as he passes them. Milton’s themes, of course, make fantastic source material for preschool age children: when aren’t they being prevented by circumstance from pursuing their passions? Who’s to say that my sixteen-month-old isn’t at this very moment lying in her crib wondering if I’m not allowed to play in the dog’s water dish, what am I even here for?
The sad Caboose gets his answer at the climax of the plot, when the train has attempted to climb a “long tall mountain,” it does not have sufficient engine power to climb. When the train starts to slide back down the mountain, the Caboose performs the heroic act of engaging his brakes. It’s a riveting action sequence. Just kidding, it’s about as riveting as watching someone engage the parking break on a steep driveway—but that’s not the point. The point is that the Caboose puts on the brake and holds the train until a couple more engines (engines that obviously should have been hooked up to the train in the first place; I hope CSX is doing some kind of internal audit on this incident) can show up and push it to the top. Or, as Milton put it in the original:
Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
This is the moment Potter’s version derails (sorry/not sorry). After teasing the surprising and delightful idea that simple existence in whatever state one finds oneself is laudable, the story ends with the Caboose raised to mythic level, and children the world over saving “their biggest waves” for the Caboose because the Caboose “saved the train.” First of all, this is preposterous. When was the last time anyone told their kids a story about a train wreck that didn’t happen? (NB: me, last night, when I read this book to my kid). I'm trying to imagine someone actually telling their child “There was almost a train wreck! but the Caboose had functional brakes, so there was not a train wreck!” and the child feeling anything at all, other than maybe disappointment that they missed the jolly smash that might have resulted were the brakes less functional. Second, because the Caboose is so focused on praise and adulation, the lesson becomes “do things that will make people rally and cheer for you” rather than “be what you are, what you are is enough.” You know who embraces the former lesson? Donald Trump.
Also, we have to talk about one more thing. The Little Red Caboose was published in 1953. Most of Gergely’s illustrations are just fantastic tapestries of animals and people in varied and lively landscapes, their range of activities and energy both delightful to explore with a toddler and effective at creating contrast with the ignored Caboose. We love to look at the rowboats and the swimmers and the horse carriages and the foxes and the mountain climbers and MOST OF ALL the LOGGERS. But there’s this one page that depicts “Indians” that . . . would not be included in a book published in 2016. Or so one hopes. Admittedly, it’s the only page that depicts people who aren’t white/European looking, but any welcome diversity is undermined by the depiction of tepees, war bonnets, papooses, and other deeply stereotypical trappings of Hollywood Indians.
I mean, imagine if this page were replaced with one that showed the train passing the encampment at Standing Rock! Imagine if the ending were revised and the Caboose were to not only embrace his ability to put on the brakes, but to find satisfaction in having been what he is, rather than in finally receiving acclaim! But look, you and I both know that Random House isn’t going to issue an updated version of The Little Red Caboose, so, sure, if you find a copy of The Little Red Caboose at a garage sale, (like my aunt did) buy it if you want to take the time to talk about this page with your kid. But keep in mind that you could also just read your kid some Milton instead and buy her a couple books from the AICL list of recommended books about American Indians.
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