The Little Engine That Could


This evening I was looking through the 1001 Children’s Books….and the first book recommended at the beginning is The Little Engine Who Could.

I have come across this story several times over the years and I knew it was short so I decided to look it up on You Tube and find a copy. I found a short video of a woman reading the book online. I spent a few minutes and watched it as she read the story. It is the story of an old train, not very big, trying to get over a mountain. It doesn’t work very well and needs to find a way to get the train up the steep hill. The train is full of toys and lollies for the children on the other side of the mountain. I spent some time trying to find an original cover of the story rather than the boring train pictures on the more modern covers.

You know how it is when you look up one thing on Google and then that leads somewhere else and then there are about 10 different tangents to follow after that? I think it is the love of researching things more than really wanting to know the complete history behind this story. But I must say, reading various pages online I found all sorts of information regarding the development of this simple tale.


What I notice most in children’s stories of old is the more complex vocabulary. Books for children in the “olden days” had more words, sentences were in smaller font and there weren’t as many illustrations. Nowadays when you open a children’s books the illustrations are huge, the text isn’t much smaller and there are fewer sentences on a page.

I don’t say this lightly as I watched the changing curriculums of primary schools and early education during my 35 years working in schools. I remain more traditional in my phonics approach to reading, teaching root words which aren’t taught anymore, transcribing verbs, talking about syllables and accents. These things aren’t around much anymore. No memorising long passage of literature such as plays and poetry in late primary school.

The LP version

Mind you the knuckles of children also are not hit anymore with wooden rulers and teachers don’t threaten children with hickory sticks or writing 100 sentences, “I will not talk in class” anymore. (I got so I could write that sentence three times at a time by carefully arranging three pencils in my hand and yes, it did work.) I digress.

Anyway, I spent an hour searching out everything I could find about this wonderful tale with the simple morale: If you work hard, persist and tell yourself you can do it, then you can do it, no matter how hard it is. That was a persistent theme of growing up in 1960’s America where any boy or girl, if they worked hard enough could become president of the United States. Teachers and parents told us this all of the time. I never believed that until this week. I guess it is true.

According to Wikipedia…
The story’s signature phrases such as “I think I can” first occurred in print in a 1902 article in a Swedish journal. (“In Search of Watty Piper: The History of the ‘Little Engine’ Story”. New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship.)

An early published version of the story, Story of the Engine That Thought It Could appeared in the New York Tribune on April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing.

It was first sold by door to door salesmen in a compilation of stories in the book My Big Bookhouse in 1920
The best known incarnation of the story The Little Engine That Could was written by “Watty Piper”, a pen name of Arnold Munk, who was the owner of the publishing firm Platt & Munk. Arnold Munk was born in Hungary, and as a child, moved with his family to the United States, settling in Chicago.snip20161115_10

Later he moved to New York. Platt & Munk’s offices were at 200 Fifth Avenue until 1957 when Arnold Munk died. Arnold Munk used the name Watty Piper as both an author of children’s books and as the editor of many of the books that Platt & Munk published. He personally hired Lois Lensky to illustrate the book. This retelling of the tale The Pony Engine appeared in 1930, with a title page that stated: “Retold by Watty Piper from The Pony Engine by Mabel C. Bragg’s copyrighted by George H. Doran and Co.

In 1954 it the book was upgraded with revised vocabulary and colourful pictures.

Now you know more than you ever wanted about this charming little story. I think I might be using this phrase more and more over the coming year. ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…’

10 thoughts on “The Little Engine That Could

  1. I’ve finally caught up with the fact that you’ve moved – and I’m so glad you did. I always have to grit my teeth when I approach a blogger blog. I don’t know whether blogger bloggers (ha) feel the same about approaching a wordpress blog but I’m happy you’ve made the change anyhow.

    I’ve always loved this story, and am definitely one of those who quotes either “I think I can” or “I knew I could”.

    I like your observation about vocabulary. I think that just doesn’t work for children’s books. You see it when you read old newspaper articles too.


    1. Yes, I am enjoying wordpress. Though are still a few things I have not figured out how to do yet. I guess it is a fine line how hard vocabulary can be for children’s books. I know the books are much more exciting to look at illustration wise but sometimes I wish they used a big harder vocabulary especially for children over the age of 8. Especially since it is so easy to look up the meaning of words these days.


      1. That’s good Pam. I do think its a bit more user-friendly. If you have questions, just ask, though I may not have the answers. Depends on whether they are things I do or not!!


  2. Thank you for your research – I don’t think you can ever know too much about a book… but I am ready to be proved wrong. Looking forward to the next in your tale of 1001!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My mother read this book to me a zillion times. It’s the one I threw up on when she was reading it! It was probably around 1945-47. I always say “I think I can, I think I can,” when someone (or myself) is trying very hard to accomplish something. Nice to read all the history about it…..

    Sent from my iPad


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