babies books kids

Is Steam Train, Dream Train the ideal board book?

A venn diagram showing that Kids' books have lots of animals, and some of them fall asleep. There's also overlap with books that have vehicles. Two books have all three themes.

Somewhere around the thousandth time that I sat down with my baby and a book in my lap, it occurred to me that not only do most children’s books seem to feature animals instead of humans, but also, many of them end with someone falling asleep. Is there a conspiracy, I wondered, between children’s book authors, publishers, and parents everywhere to make babies and toddlers go the f**k to sleep?

I wanted to know, so I conducted a (rather unscientific) study of 100 popular board books to see how many feature animals and how many end in sleep. Along the way, I noticed that there’s a healthy number of trucks, trains, and other vehicles in these tiny tomes, so I counted those, too.

Here’s what I did: I started with the 90 English-language narrative board books in my home. To bring the total up to 100, I added the first 10 featured children’s board books on Amazon (excluding seasonal holiday books) that weren’t already on the list. I excluded a few books that simply count or name objects, and which lacked sentences, narratable images, or plots.

In tallying each book’s contents, I looked for animals and motorized vehicles that were either active characters or a focus of attention, whether visually or in the text. Imaginary animals (such as those from Sesame Street and Dr. Seuss) and animal-like objects (such as teddy bears) were counted as animals, as long as they were animate and active in the story. Animals and vehicles that appeared in an image’s background without being a focus of attention were not counted.

The last page of Virginia Lee Burton’s 1942 classic, The Little House.

To count sleep, I looked for books that ended either explicitly or implicitly with sleep. For example, the last page of Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House shows a nighttime scene, twinkling stars, and the phrase “and all was quiet and peaceful in the country.” Sleep is not mentioned, but it’s implied, and I counted it.

What did I find? It turns out that 75% of the board books feature animals (whether or not accompanied by the other themes), 24% feature vehicles, and 24% end with someone–an animal, person, vehicle, or combination thereof–falling asleep. Only 14% included none of these things.

Looking at the overlaps, 18% of books had both animals and sleep, 16% had vehicles and animals, and 5% had vehicles and sleep. There are many animals in board books, and a good number of them fall asleep at the end.

Two books out of the 100 had the trifecta of animals, vehicles, and a snoozer of an ending. The first is Steam Train, Dream Train, a 2013 book authored by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. This book followed hot on the heels of the duo’s #1 New York Times bestseller Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, suggesting that this combination of elements was deliberate, if not calculated.

Steam Train, Dream Train not only uses, but thickly layers, these three elements. It features a train, of course, but it also stacks race cars on the train, and shows a yellow digger operated by a giraffe merrily scooping balls into the train’s hopper. The book ends with sleep upon sleep: after a series of vignettes in which various animals bed down to sleep on the train, the scene pans out to reveal that the train is, in fact, a toy on the floor of a young child’s darkened bedroom. The child, meanwhile, sleeps quietly in bed. It’s a sweet ending that playfully yet insistently suggests to children that everyone and everything goes to sleep at the end of the day.

This isn’t even the last page! Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld (2013)

The other book that includes animals, a vehicle, and sleep is The Going To Bed Book by Sandra Boynton. The vehicle here is much less pronounced; it’s a boat that the animals are living on, and it never shows any of the mechanical guts and parts that toddlers love. So it is not as obviously in the spirit of the trifecta, but it is a delightful short book for younger babies and toddlers alike about bedtime routines and sleepy time.

Of course, there are also excellent books that avoid these formulas entirely. Of the 14 books on the list that do not contain animals, vehicles, or a sleepy ending, many are stories that depict everyday lives and experiences. There is Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 The Snowy Day, with its spacious description of a child’s encounter with snow in an urban neighborhood in New York. And there is Amy Wilson Sanger’s unfolding of the rhythms and pleasures of a family dim sum outing, as told through collage and rhyme in her 2003 book Yum Yum Dim Sum.

Whether or not Steam Train, Dream Train is the ideal board book, its deft use of some of the most common baby and toddler book themes will rank it among the most familiar-feeling of volumes. And that should be comforting to children–and to their parents, who need them to go to sleep.

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Here are all 100 books:

Animals, vehicles, and sleep

Steam Train, Dream Train2013
The Going to Bed Book1982

Animals and sleep

Babar and His Family1973
Behowl the Moon2017
Big Red Barn1954
Curious George and the Bunny2010
Go to Sleep, Little Farm2014
God Bless You and Good Night2013
Good Night, Gorilla1994
Goodnight Moon1947
Guess How Much I Love You1994
I Am a Bunny1963
I Love You, Little One1998
I Love You, Stinky Face1997
If Animals Kissed Good Night2008
Olivia’s ABC2014
Pajama Time!2000
There’s a Wocket in my Pocket!1974

Vehicles and sleep

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site 2011
The Little House1942
Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?2012

Animals and vehicles

1, 2, 3 To the Zoo1968
All the World2009
Are You My Mother?1960
Counting Cars2016
Curious George Rides1952
Harold’s ABC1963
Jamberry1982
Little Blue Truck2013
Little Elliot, Big City2014
Llama Llama Misses Mama2009
Peek-a Who?2000
Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks from A to Z1990
Sheep in a Jeep1986
The Shape of Me and Other Stuff1973

Animals only

Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?2007
Baby Beluga1980
Barnyard Dance!1993
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?1967
But Not the Hippopotamus1982
Caps for Sale1940
Click, Clack Moo: Cows That Type2000
Corduroy1968
Curious George Goes Fishing2001
Dear Zoo1982
Do Cows Meow?2012
Doggies1984
Dr. Seuss’s ABC1963
Each Peach Pear Plum1978
Everything Is Mama2017
From Head to Toe1997
Gallop!2007
Giraffes Can’t Dance1999
Green Eggs and Ham1960
How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends? 2006
I Love You Through and Through2005
Little Green Frog2016
Max’s New Suit1979
Moo, Baa, La La La!1982
Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?1970
My First Peek-a-Boo Animals2017
Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs1993
Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!1975
On the Night You Were Born2005
Open the Barn Door…1993
P Is for Potty!2014
Pat the Bunny1940
Potty2010
Ready, Set, Brush!2008
Some Bugs2014
The Foot Book1968
The Mitten1989
The Napping House1984
The Pout-Pout Fish2008
The Very Hungry Caterpillar1969
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt1989
Where’s Spot?1980
Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA2015

Vehicles only

Busy Fire Station2015
Madeline1939
Road Builders1994
Roadwork2008
Trucks2013

Sleep only

Nighty-Night2017
Peepo!1981
Welcome, Precious2006

Neither animals nor vehicles nor sleep

Beep Beep Robot! A Spinning Gears Book2017
Brush, Brush, Brush!2010
Bye-Bye Time2017
Calm-Down Time2010
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom1989
Foods With Moods: A First Book of Feelings2018
I Am a Big Brother1997
Quantum Physics for Babies2013
Sharing Time2009
Snow1998
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes2008
The Snowy Day1962
Where Is Baby’s Belly Button?2000
Yum Yum Dim Sum2003

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About Littldata: At Littldata, my goal is to help parents figure out their family logistics by sharing calendars, maps, lists, and spreadsheets–as well as research-backed blog posts and data graphics. This post uses Amazon Affiliate and referral links.

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2 comments on “Is Steam Train, Dream Train the ideal board book?

  1. ienumerable2

    100% this: “suggesting that this combination of elements was deliberate, if not calculated”

    Maybe a controversial opinion, but this is why I don’t really like this book! 😛

    I might argue that anthropomorphic vehicles hit _both_ your categories? The first book was an order of magnitude better imho (other than the gender pronouns, which I live edit for our daughter). It definitely hits a formula but in a very natural and organic feeling way, whereas the sequel just feels _super_ forced for me, like so many movie sequels… To the core of your post here, it feels like someone was just going down the checklist of “what should be in a toddler book”.

    Ok rant over 😉 Great post! Would be fun to feed the text for all these into a model, do some bag of words maybe, label a gold set of the best books and generate our own “perfect toddler book”?

    Like

    • Ha, that’s true–I suppose that if we’re counting Dr. Seuss’ creatures, then trucks clutching teddy bears are animals, too. 😀

      I actually like Steam Train, Dream Train much more than Good Night, Good Night Construction Site because I just can’t get over the gendered pronouns, even if I try to edit them. I suppose that since our house has accumulated some of those stapled, softback books that are based on merchandised shows, like Thomas the Train or Daniel Tiger (I’m not actually sure what the term of art is for this type of book, but the kind where the author credit goes to a company, not a person), Steam Train has started to look almost like literature.

      It would be fun to generate a perfect toddler book. 😀 I had Komar + Melamid in mind, but a text generator would be fun, too. Lots of animal and vehicle sounds, I’m guessing. It could be done for different slices of the market. One perfect NYT children’s bestseller, one perfect Caldecott medallist, and one perfect mass market whatever-they’re-called.

      Like

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