Ask me to think of my favorite childhood book and my mind comes up with Blubber. Then I think of Forever. What about the sweet, lovely little tales that I first heard back when I was a little innocent, I wondered? I remembered Pat the Bunny, suddenly recalling that I pulled the fur off of my copy.
A call to Mom was in order. I was a bit reticent to call her, seeing as she was getting a PhD in literature during the period in time we’re discussing (she went back to school when I was two) and I seem to recall her reading me books I knew she wanted me to love but I just couldn’t get into — Wind in the Willows and The Chronicles of Narnia, the kinds of books that kids who were never going to worship Judy Blume books would love.
She told me my favorite book was about a timid mouse that frees a bird. I’m not even putting the title in here or linking to it because I had no recollection whatsoever with this book that she claims I was uncommonly obsessed with. I’d accuse her of getting me mixed up with my brother because, as we all know, parents do things like that, but my brother only liked books about science and space ships and Narnia (yes, he was one of those kids) and would surely have turned his nose up at anything having to do with a timid mouse.
Mom ran another few books by me that didn’t resonate at all but then she mentioned The Little Engine That Could. Eureka moment because that rang a bell — although mostly because we used to go to this restaurant when I was little that was designed to look like a train car and the children’s menu could, in fact, be folded into a train as well. I think the book and menu must have somehow meshed in my mind because I have a distinct memory of running the cardboard train — which, as I recall, was so difficult to put together that it was surely training for future struggles with Ikea furniture — along the table and calling it “the little engine that could.” No recollection of the book, but Mom says it was similar in theme to the mouse story in that it was about this “innocuous thing doing something heroic.” As the second child, I always felt forgotten about, so a theme like that must have seemed incredibly hopeful to me. Although Mom says I mostly just obsessed over this picture of the conductor (who, she says, was a rather hateful character) and swore he was “looking at me in a mean way.”
It’s funny, though — recovery literature, like Permanent Midnight and Rachel’s Holiday, two of my favorite books of all time — really do traipse on the same territory by covering the heroic journeys of people who appeared to have no hope whatsoever. And I guess that means that my book does, too. The Little Engine That Could, indeed.