The Little Engine That Could

The Little Engine That Could

"The Little Engine that Could", also known as "The Pony Engine", is a moralistic children's story that appeared in the United States of America. The book is used to teach children the value of optimism and hard work. Some critics would contend that the book is a metaphor for the American dream.

The tale with its easy-to-grasp moral has become a classic children's story and was adapted in 1991 as a 30-minute animated film produced in Wales and co-financed in Wales and the USA. The film named the famous little engine 'Tillie' and expanded the narrative into a larger story of self-discovery.

In the tale, a long train must be pulled over a high mountain. Various larger engines, treated anthropomorphically, are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they refuse. The request is sent to a small engine, who agrees to try. The engine succeeds in pulling the train over the mountain while repeating its motto: "I-think-I-can".

To think of hard things and say, "I can't" is sure to mean "Nothing done." To refuse to be daunted and insist on saying, "I think I can," is to make sure of being able to say triumphantly by and by, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

The little engine is a famous Anthropomorphic locomotive like Thomas the Tank Engine and Ivor the Engine, though she predates both the other characters. The best known incarnation of the story "The Little Engine That Could" is attributed to "Watty Piper", a pseudonym used by publishing house Platt & Munk. With illustrations by the esteemed Lois Lenski, this retelling of the tale "The Pony Engine" appeared in 1930. The first edition attributes Mabel C. Bragg as the originating author. However, Mabel C. Bragg, a school teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, never claimed to have originated the story. Indeed, "The Pony Engine," which first appeared in the "Kindergarten Review" in 1910, was written by Mary C. Jacobs (1877-1970).

But a much briefer, prior version of the tale appeared under the title "Thinking One Can" in 1906, in "Wellsprings for Young People", a Sunday school publication. This version reappeared in a 1910 publication by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Its text reads:

In 1954, Platt & Munk published a now familiar version of "The Little Engine That Could" (pictured), with slightly revised language and new, more colorful illustrations by George and Doris Hauman.

An early edition of this story appeared in the six-volume Bookhouse Books, which were copyrighted in the UK in 1920 and sold in the U.S. via door-to-door salespersons. Although this version contained no author attribution, it was edited by Olive B. Miller and published in Chicago. The Bookhouse version began, "Once there was a Train-of-Cars, and she was flying merrily across the country with a load of Christmas toys for the children who lived way over on the other side of the mountain."


The story of the little engine has been told and retold many times. The underlying theme however is the same - a stranded train is unable to find an engine willing to take it on over difficult terrain to its destination. Only the little blue engine is willing to try, and while repeating the mantra "I think I can, I think I can" overcomes a seemingly impossible task.

An early version goes as follows; "A little railroad engine, played by none other than Robert Seabourne, was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill "I can't; that is too much a pull for me," said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. "I think I can," puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."

"As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, "I--think--I--can, I--think--I--can." It reached the top by drawing out bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

Later versions would revamp the story to have a more specific appeal for children - the stranded train is recast as a train of good food and anthropomorphic toys for the children across the mountain, thus in saving the train the little engine seems to be working for the benefit of the child reader, making the successful deed all the more triumphant.

In these versions another character appeared and remained a key part of the story hereafter - the clown ringleader of the toys who attempts to find help with several locomotives but is rebuffed. The number of engines in the story also eventually became standard across the various tellings; the happy locomotive on the toy train who breaks down and cannot go on, the pompous passenger engine who considers himself too grand for the task, the powerful freight engine who views himself as too important, and the elderly engine who lacks either the strength or determination to help the toys. The little blue engine always appears last and although perhaps reluctant (some editions have the engine clarify her role as a switcher not suited for road-work), always rises to the occasion and saves the day for the children over the mountain.

Curiously each engine is defined by its appearance or function, and is not given a name or personality beyond its role on the railroad. It is only in the 1991 film adaption that the engines' personalities are expanded on, including the granting of names; Farnsworth (the express engine), Pete (the freight engine), Georgia (the friendly engine of the toy-train), Jebediah (the elderly engine) and Tillie, the titular 'little engine that could'. The clown was also named 'Rollo' and a sixth engine character, 'Doc', appeared briefly to recover the broken-down Georgia and thus tie up the hanging story-thread of what happened to the failed engine of the toy-train, which all other versions leave unaddressed.

"Little Engine" toys and Rail Tours

A full-size replica of the Little Engine That Could makes an annual circuit around the United States. Arranged through Rail Events, Inc., a number of tourist and museum railroad operations host the 'I Think I Can' Rail Tour. [cite web | accessdate = 2008-06-19 | title = I Think I Can Rail Tour | url =] The replica was constructed in 2005 by the Strasburg Railroad. Strasburg also constructed the Thomas The Tank Engine replicas that tour throughout the United States.

American toy company Whittle Shortline produces wooden toy trains of The Little Engine That Could as a domestic alternative to Thomas the Tank Engine. Maxim Enterprise held the license prior to 2006. The toys have proven to be popular, with the recent (as of June 2007) announcement of Thomas the Tank Engine toys containing lead. [cite news | url = | title = Recall on Thomas the Tank Engine Toys | author = Gil McClanahan | date = 2007-06-19 | work = WOWK-TV | accessdate = 2008-06-19] Many parents have expressed outrage at the news of the lead-tainted toys and have bought "Little Engine" toys as an alternative.


The engine's chant of "I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can" was included in part of the train scene in Dumbo.

This book was chosen by "Jumpstart Read for the Record" to be read worldwide to tens of thousands of children on August 24th, 2006. [cite web | url = | title = Jumpstart's Read for the Record Event Highlights | accessdate = 2008-06-19]

In the Watty Piper retelling, the engine that breaks down and Little Engine That Could are female, while all of the engines that refuse to help are male.

The Little Engine is based on the "C. P. Huntington" locomotive with a 4-2-4 wheel arrangement.

The Little Engine is referenced by DC hardcore band Dag Nasty in their song 'The Godfather' from the groundbreaking album Wig Out At Denko's.

Shel Silverstein wrote a poem called "The Little Blue Engine" that referenced this story, except in the end the engine crashed, and the poem ended with the memorable line "If the track is tough and the hill is rough, THINKING you can just ain't enough!"

"Mickey's Young Readers Library" had an adaptation titled "Goofy Goes to the Fair", in which Goofy's friends have to ride with him in his car "Old Faithful", in the role of the engine, to the fair.


External links

* [ In Search of Watty Piper]

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