Trains and tigers

Last month I started volunteering as a reader at a preschool in Portland. It means once a week I read books with four preschoolers, fifteen minutes per preschooler. It means I have a lot to say about books for preschoolers. So let’s not waste any more time setting this up: the best and worst preschool books.


Thomas. Any and all books featuring Thomas the Tank Engine.

There are others I dislike but mentioning them would lessen the impact of saying there is one bad thing in the world and it’s Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s nice that some things are still simple: up vs down, black vs white, good vs Thomas. 

Every kid wants to read Thomas books, there’s a mad scramble for them every time a new group of preschoolers comes in. The books are organized differently every day so the kids go crazy hunting for the Thomas books while the readers hang back, hoping our kid is the slowest kid and doesn’t get any.

Thomas and his other lame friends

Thomas books are the worst, they’re so long and the pictures are terrible. If a Thomas writer is reading this and you’re offended, you need to hear it. There’s no real story, no exciting parts, and kids glaze over three words in and start aggressively picking their noses.

Luckily they can’t read so the pain is over just as fast. “Hello Thomas said Sir Topman Hat, I have an idea said Thomas, let’s turn seventeen pages ahead. Turn another four pages! shouted Annie and Clarabell. Everyone cheered. It was another day as a train. The great story was over.” 

Then I get to pick the next book.


The best book is any book read with Ian.

Have you met Ian? Supposedly he’s a four-year-old attending this preschool but he’s probably actually a child actor someone hired and trained to be my favorite person on earth. My first day as a reader he came in with the crowd of not-Ian kids, walked up to me, looked at me, and said “Let's read about gorillas."

Last week he picked a Winnie the Pooh story that I was lukewarm on. It was super long, and the words per page count was gross. But Ian’s really patient and a great listener so I went ahead anyway. In the book, Tigger (who Ian says I do a great impression of) decides that he’s self-conscious about his stripes. 

The book doesn’t really explain what causes this, maybe he was reading a magazine or maybe he noticed that a celebrity he likes doesn’t have stripes, but whatever the reason he decides to get rid of them. His friends help him execute a variety of horribly-conceived ill-fated removal methods, and sometimes before or after they offer to help they’ll mention off-hand that they like his stripes.

“Eeyore says he likes Tigger’s stripes” Ian would whisper, tapping gently on the picture of Eeyore. “I like them too, they’re part of what makes him special.”

Man it was a long story. But Ian was so invested and laughed at every voice and got so discouraged when dumb ideas like covering the stripes with honey didn’t work. And it made me think of dumb things I do, like not smiling in pictures because I think my teeth slant a little to the side. 

Half smile

It’s weird to say, and probably not the point of being a volunteer reader, but by the end of this book I was feeling pretty choked up, and so was Ian. “That. Was. Such. A. Good. Story.” he said. “What I would love now, is if we could read another.”

Ian can read my mind sometimes. “You make the best snoring noises!” he’ll say, somehow knowing that’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear my whole life. That’s why any book with Ian is the best book. 

And Ian never picks Thomas books.

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