Classic Picture Books: The Little Engine That Could

'The Little Engine That Could' is a well-loved classic picture book whose original author is unknown. Though the story dates back to the dawn of the 20th century, the most famous version was written by Arnold Munk, using the pen name Watty Piper, and first published in 1930. Since then, there have been myriad iterations of this enduring favorite.

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About the Story

The Little Engine That Could begins with a long, anthropomorphic train attempting to pull its cars over a steep mountain. When the train is unsuccessful, a series of larger engines are asked to help, though each refuses. Finally, a small engine offers to try.

The little engine struggles with the weight of the train on the mountain. Yet the engine keeps repeating its mantra, 'I think I can, I think I can.' When they reach the top and begin to descend the other side, the little engine says, 'I thought I could.'

The Little Engine That Could

A Message of Hope and Determination

The Little Engine That Could has resonated with readers both young and old for good reason. It's the story of an underdog who achieves the most unlikely and improbable of victories. Many readers find hope and inspiration in the story of the little engine succeeding at the task that much larger engines refused.

It's also a story about reaching difficult goals. It's clear that pulling the train over the mountain is not easy for the little engine. It's a job that the train's original engine tried to do and failed. The little engine's repetition of 'I think I can' represents the power of determination; reaching the top of the mountain is viewed as a metaphor for reaching any challenging goal.

This story also contains an important message about being a good Samaritan. The train cars are stranded without a way of getting to their destination. Several engines who could help refuse and keep going on their way. It's the little engine who offers to assist who is the hero. Furthermore, that friendliness and kindness of spirit is rewarded by the little engine's momentous achievement.

The Origins of the Story

While the story in The Little Engine That Could is straightforward, its origins are clouded in mystery. The most famous early publication of the story, from 1930, carried the name of Watty Piper. This was a pen name used by Arnold Munk, whose publishing house, Platt & Munk, released the story. In 1954, Platt & Munk published a new edition that included a biography of the fictional Piper; he is said to have discovered a passion for books as a 14-year-old, when he worked as an errand boy in a Chicago bookstore for $2.50 per week.

The 1930 story was supposedly 'retold' by Watty Piper. It was said to be based upon Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg. Pony Engine was first published in 1916, yet Bragg stated that she didn't create the story. In 1949, Elizabeth M. Chmiel claimed that Frances M. Ford, her cousin, wrote the story around 1910 under the pen name Uncle Nat. When Grosset & Dunlap chose to publish an edition of the story in 1953 under Ford's name, Platt & Munk responded swiftly.

Platt & Munk sued Grosset & Dunlap for trademark infringement over the title The Little Engine That Could. They subsequently announced a national search, featuring a $1000 reward, for information certifying the actual origins of the story. Their search turned up several earlier editions of the story, dating back as far as 1906. Yet to this day, the true author of the story remains unknown.

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