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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Steam Trains and Fire Poles: Outdated Tropes in Picture Books

IfYouEverCircusI’m sure you heard the news. After more than 100 years Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have closed. Their final performances will be in May of this year due to declining ticket sales. Now I’m sure that there are small time circus operations out there in the world, but for a lot of places in America Ringling and B&B was it. You got your circus kicks through them and no one else. So when I was sitting in a Little, Brown & Co. preview breakfast at this past ALA Mid-Winter Conference in Atlanta, GA, these thoughts were kicking about in my head a little. Even more so after we were introduced to Ms. Elise Parseley’s latest picture book If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! Circus, eh? I suppose that’ll just be yet another one of those topics that people write about in children’s books but that don’t really exist anymore.

Today we celebrate those outdated concepts, ideas, and technologies that in clear defiance of the 21st century continue to appear in our picture books year after year after year. We’ve already covered circuses so let’s look at . . .

  1. Fire poles (and sometimes dalmatians)


Ever noticed that most fire fighters don’t actually go down poles anymore?  It’s a safety issue.  And dalmatians? Well, according to the firehouse down the street from me, they don’t keep dogs because they have so many kids coming into the fire station and dalmatians are a safety risk.  But does that stop our authors from putting fire poles into their books?  No sir!  In fact, I suspect that kids would be incensed if they failed to do so.  That’s why you’ll see pole after pole in even the newest of fire fighter stories.

ReyMapAnd while I’m on the subject, is anyone else out there in awe of the technology available to the firefighters in the original Curious George? One monkey makes one phone call in 1941 and these firefighters have the ability to pinpoint on the map the very house where the call originated. Are the policemen of this town aware of what the firemen are doing? Then again, since the firemen sort of haul off George to jail without so much as a jury weighing in, maybe they’re one and the same in this town. I won’t even get into the fact that there is no need for George to escape since they were probably just gonna put him in the zoo anyway, and that’s where he ends up at the finish (albeit with a balloon).

Sorry. I digress. Someone’s been reading Curious George a little too often to her 2-year-old.

  1. Steam trains

SteamTrainYou can fudge this one a little easier than fire poles.  Yes, the days of the steam train may be long gone, but when a kid talks about a “choo-choo” you know that they’re not usually referring to a freight train or fancy bullet number.  They’re talking a Thomas the Tank Engine style train.  So authors and illustrators find workarounds.  In How to Train a Train by Jason Carter Eaton (illustrated by John Rocco) the text says that steam trains live mostly in museums.  It’s one of those tacit acknowledgements that they’re outdated while, at the same time, keeping them in the train mix.

3. Rotary phones

OldFashionedPhoneI’m still wrapping my head around this one.  I’m being a little bit facetious when I say “rotary” though.  Yes, you do see an occasional rotary phone in a book, but far more common are landline phones with cords.  I suspect this may be because cords are charming while cell phones age far too quickly.  If your book allows a character to exist in a kind of timeless era (example: A House in the Woods by Inga Moore) then old-fashioned phones are a must.

  1. Steam shovels (but not, for some reason, steam rollers)

I conducted an interview with Brian Biggs last year where he said the following:

When I was researching firefighters for Tinyville Town, I learned that firehouses aren’t built with sliding poles any more, for insurance reasons. And the firehouses that do have them, don’t use them. But when you talk to kids about fire stations, a pole is still among the first things they want to see. I gotta have that pole, even though it’s an anachronism. So, what is it that makes a book “timeless,” anyway? Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I had no idea what a steam shovel was, and that book was big-time dated when I read it in the 1970s. But I loved it. It’s timeless. Not because a steam shovel was still a relevant piece of cool construction technology, but because the theme of “new and improved” versus familiar and reliable, and the David and Goliath story buried in that book will always be relevant.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.  You don’t see the steam shovels all that often these days, but they do appear periodically.  They’re noticeable.  Steam rollers are in every single construction book in the world, and yet I cannot honestly believe they run on steam anymore.  Yet calling them just “rollers” feels wrong.  Am I alone in this?

Any other popular outdated but still fun tropes come to mind that you see in the newest books? Have at it.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I have to chuckle about “rollers.” I remember “rollers’ as the plastic cylinders women put in their hair overnight to make it curl.

  2. I always wondered how Gretel got the witch in the oven without first removing the oven racks.

  3. If you get in touch with a few steampunkers, somebody will build you a Victorian construction vehicle that runs entirely on steam.

  4. Chalkboards in schools. I haven’t seen one in the 10 years I’ve been teaching, but still they appear in virtually every children’s book set in a school. It’s easy to see why a green or black-hued chalkboard would be more appealing than a whiteboard and expo marker though!

  5. We had a construction vehicle book that called them road rollers, so I try to use that. No idea if that’s authentic but it sounds less dated at least.

    And I was always terrified of calling 911 extraneously not because it was irresponsible or because of the fine, but because of that map. I still picture that map when talking about 911 location technology.

  6. Christine Sarmel says:

    Here’s a second vote for green chalkboards in schools. Also, milk cartons on a school lunch table. Milk comes in clear (recyclable) plastic baggies and has for several years in our building.

    And if that doesn’t age you fast enough, I’ve had kindergarteners ask me to identify: watches, radios and CD’s in illustrations. They are accustomed to time and music coming from the phone.

  7. Vicki Kouchnerkavich says:

    Popcorn by Frank Asch, cooking the popcorn on the stove in a pan. Granted now there are “Whirlypops” that use the stove top, I feel many people use microwave popcorn. Love this book though and children I read to at my public library seem to enjoy it very much. That being said, I don’t understand how the parents go out for the evening and leave a young bear on it’s own-that another topic!

  8. Laura Wylie-Fiallos says:

    I always have to explain what a typewriter is before I can read “Click Clack Moo” to students. They’re fascinated!

  9. It’s a bear. A black bear cub can flip a 600 pound rock with one paw.

  10. Videos like this are too much fun:

    (I’m not sure if that’s the one I watched and I’m not going to play it in the library. But the idea is kids trying to figure out what “old” technology does. It goes to show that it’s not that kids naturally use computers or anything else — It’s what they’re used to.)