Props: Wooden cart with wheels (or something to be a train); Train Whistles; Smokestacks hats (colored paper cylinders or similar); a Pillow for the knees of the poor guy in the cart; Conductor's Hat (or similar to wave)
Presenters: 3 (or 2) plus several kids from the audience
It's a favorite for many people and a classic picture book and all, but I have to admit, The Little Engine That Could was never really my kind of story. I have a vague memory of some elementary school teacher reading it with a bit too much enthusiasm…I guess even then I had my preferences about storytelling styles. This month, however, I was glad to give it a try, because our library just started a cool program called Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Every child under five within city limits can sign up and get one free book every month up to their fifth birthday! More details about the program are here, but the key piece of information for this blog entry is: Dolly Parton’s favorite book is.......The Little Engine That Could! So it's the first book every participating child receives, and for our kick-off event we gave out copies to all who attended…and of course we had to present the story.
Luckily, Brad and Sheila had come up with a fun way to act out this story a few months ago for a “trains” themed storytime. Adapting their approach just a little, Terri, Sheila and I acted it out for the 150 people who attended the kick off event. With a rainbow wig, clown hat, and red nose, I was the Clown in the stranded “train,” which was a rolling wooden cart that I barely fit into. Terri and Sheila started out as the engine that abandons the Clown and all the toys and books for the kids on the other side of the mountain. Each wore a colored smoke stack: a rolled up cylinder of butcher paper with white tissue hanging down for smoke. They pulled me from the back of the room to the front to start the story, going along “train tracks” we had taped on the floor. I held a rope and they pulled and we blew our wooden train whistles. When they gave up, they chugged off and I asked the kids to help me flag down the next train that came along. Each child had received an engineer’s hat for attending, so we all waved them in the air and said “Stop, Train, Stop!”
That set off the pattern, and Sheila reappeared, now with a Red smokestack, as the passenger train. As she entered, blowing the train whistle, she plucked a couple kids from the audience to be part of her train. After she departed, the audience and I flagged down the next train: Terri, now with a Black smokestack, train whistle, and a couple more kids. Terri and Sheila of course gave each of their trains plenty of personality. Terri posed and flexed and tried to get her kids to do the same as the tough black train. Then it was Sheila as the old train (chugging in slowly, leaning on a cane). At last, both returned with Blue smokestacks as the good old Little Engine that finally could. The kids all joined in with the “I think I cans” and the train rolled on over the mountain.
Our audience was large, and mostly on the younger side of the 0-5 age range, so I was pleasantly surprised with how much they enjoyed this story. Even as young as 2 or 3, they have no problem seeing a grown up wearing a goofy hat and blowing a whistle as a train in a story. We had plans for making or drawing a mountain but ran out of time….and it didn’t matter, they totally got it. And they really really wanted one of those trains to stop and get that clown and all of those toys (and books!) over the mountain. The concept and tension of the story came through strongly with a big, young audience, and not that many books can do that. So The Little Engine definitely moves up several notches in my picture book rankings.
After it was over, a few of the grown ups wondered why we chose to put the heaviest, tallest of the trio (me) in the rolling cart when it looked like I could barely fit inside the cart and was kind of hard to pull….and the answer of course is: because it looked like I could barely fit and was kind of hard to pull. Which adds just a bit more silliness.