Three Little Engines

Is saying “I think I can, I think I can” enough to carry you over the mountain? In the world of the children’s classic “The Little Engine That Could,” the answer is yes. The locomotive makes it over the mountain through sheer grit and determination. But can everyone really make it on their own?

According to Hastings resident Bob McKinnon, a consultant and author, some people can. But some of the most successful people had help along the way.

His new children’s book, “Three Little Engines” (on sale July 13), is a modern retelling of the beloved story. He felt that the message of “The Little Engine That Could,” released in 1930, was limiting, and he contacted the rights department at Penguin Random House about issuing a follow-up. The publisher replied that the 90th anniversary of “The Little Engine That Could” was coming up, and they would produce his book as an addition to their “Little Engine That Could” franchise.

In McKinnon's story, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, there are three engines, each taking a different route. As in the original, the little blue engine completes the trip by repeating the “I think I can” mantra. But the other two engines encounter unexpected obstacles. A wise old engine in the train yard agrees that the little blue engine can be proud of succeeding, but adds that the other trains are also trying their best, and they still need help. Their journeys are too hard to make on their own. The little engine and the rusty old engine team up to help the other two reach their destinations. 

McKinnon will read his new take on the beloved tale on Saturday, July 10, in Fulton Park, next to the Hastings Public Library. Registration is required by emailing A crew from “CBS News Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley” will be filming the event for an upcoming segment on McKinnon and his book.  

McKinnon, 52, has lived in Hastings for 10 years. He and his wife, Julie, a real estate broker with Compass and a Hastings volunteer firefighter, have three daughters who all attend Hastings schools. 

He also edited the 2009 essay compilation "Actions Speak Loudest: Keeping Our Promise for a Better World," which featured contributions from President Jimmy Carter, Queen Noor of Jordan, Rachael Ray, and Geoffrey Canada.

McKinnon grew up in Chelsea, Mass., a working-class town near Boston that he points out was the birthplace of Horatio Alger, the 19th-century author whose rags-to-riches stories penetrated deep into the American psyche. McKinnon didn’t grow up in straits, but life wasn’t easy. His mother worked as a bartender, raising three kids on her own. “It was almost a cliché that she married a truck driver who promised her a better life,” he said on July 5. The family moved to a trailer park in York, Pa., a situation McKinnon described as “another form of poverty.” 

“I read a lot as a kid and wore glasses, so my mother named me the ‘little professor,’ which set the expectation I would go to college, although nobody we knew went to college,” he said. He graduated from Penn State, and then landed in the rarefied world of Manhattan advertising, working at Saatchi & Saatchi for 15 years. He was most inspired when the agency worked on public service campaigns for clients such as the Olympic Committee and the CDC.

In 2004, he started his own consulting company, GALEWiLL Design, where 100 percent of the work would be dedicated to social change. His consultancy partners with nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, and media companies to develop communications programs.

As his company grew, he said, “I was trying to dig into the question of ‘How did I end up doing what I do?’ I got interested in what makes people move up in the world.” His company conducted surveys to find out. “We did this national survey and asked people what their American dream was... then we followed up with a survey of what [people thought] was essential to success. At the very bottom was being connected to other successful people.”  

But looking at people’s stories, it turned out that where people are born, and their access to people who can help them, can factor into success, or lack of it.

“We abhor the idea of dependency,” McKinnon said. “We’re pretty generous to our neighbors but maybe not to other people, who we don’t know their whole lived experience. And with people that are struggling, we don’t see people who are heroic.” 

He hopes that his efforts help people understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving success. In partnership with PBS, McKinnon created the “American Dream” quiz. The five-minute online quiz, which McKinnon said has been taken by over 700,000 people, asks about their backgrounds and upbringing, to help them get a better understanding of what factors worked in their favor and what impediments they faced.

“The quiz tries to say, ‘This is my experience, it just is what it is,’” McKinnon explained. “And we should look to give people opportunities to get what they’re not getting, through no fault of their own.” 

In “Three Little Engines,” McKinnon said, “The central message there is ‘I think I can,’ but ends with this idea, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’ I think we’re at a pretty pivotal question where there are all these divides. The book seeks to answer a central question: ‘How was your journey different? How did you end up here?’ Asking people that question can lead to very important discoveries and better understanding.”

He concluded, “What we also want to recognize is that even children that struggle, they have tremendous strength and positive attributes. The two engines that struggle? They struggle because they have bigger loads to carry... or some random tree has fallen on the tracks.” 

“Three Little Engines” will be available July 13 in hardcover ($13.69 at Amazon) or as a Kindle edition for $10. 

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