Watty Piper and the Little Engine That Could

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Mention the Little Engine That Could to many readers, and they are sure to smile at memories of the colourful Watty Piper tale about a small locomotive that needs to pull a train up a mountain. The story has given an innumerable number of people a mantra that has helped them persevere through all sorts of difficulties: I Think I Can!

When I first set out to find out more about the author of the children’s book first published by Platt & Munk in 1930, I expected to find a somewhat typical writer’s biography. Instead, I found a surprise. It turns out that Piper was Munk, and the story wasn’t exactly his original creation! Now, before you think he stole someone else’s classical children’s book, I need to emphasise that is not quite what happened. Instead, the story about Watty and the Engine fits in with the telling and re-telling of fairy tales that happens around the world every day.

A Fairy Tale Is Born

The story about the locomotive that discovers the power of positive thinking made famous by Watty Piper is nothing less than a modern fairy tale. Like most fairy tales, its original author or teller is unknown.

What we do know is that whoever first told or wrote down the story probably was inspired by an article in a Swedish journal published in 1902. The article included various phrases, such as the much repeated ‘I think I can’, that eventually made their way into several versions of the children’s book.

However, before any books were written, the Rev. Charles S. Wing published a sermon in the New York Tribune on the 8th of April 1906. The Story of the Engine That Thought It Could was included as part of the sermon. That same year, a shorter version of the story was published in Wellspring for Young People under the title, the Thinking One Can.

The Story’s Reappearance

The short form was reprinted in Foundation Stones of Success, a book published in 1910 – and, sure enough, the reprint inspired another version of the classical children’s book. Written by Mary C. Jacobs, the Pony Engine appeared in the Kindergarten Review.

20 years would pass before the Watty Piper book was published; ample time for a few new versions of the story by other writers. In 1916, Mabel C. Bragg wrote a new version that was also published as the Pony Engine, but she emphasised that she did not create the original story.

In 1920, a story titled the Little Engine That Could was included in the first volume of My Book House, a set that could be purchased from travelling salespeople. The first edition credited Bragg, but the text also indicated that the version included was retold by editor and publisher Olive Beaupré Miller. Later editions dropped the reference to Bragg, because Miller believed the story was a folktale.

The Watty Piper Story

Arnold Munk was born in Hungary, but he immigrated to the USA with his parents when he was a child. The family settled in Chicago, but the city would not keep the boy who would be later be responsible for one of the most popular classical children’s books. Munk eventually moved to New York and found office space on Fifth Avenue. 

In 1930, Munk, the owner of Platt & Munk, published the first of his versions of the fairy tale, which he called the Little Engine That Could. He chose the penname Watty Piper, which he also used in his work as a book editor. Lois Lenski illustrated the book, and its title page stated that it was a retelling of Bragg’s 1930 Pony Engine.

Platt & Munk published a revised version of the children’s book in 1954. The new edition featured slightly different text, as well as new illustrations by George and Doris Hauman.

Munk passed away in 1957, but that was not going to be the last of the Little Engine. In 1976, a new edition featuring artwork by Ruth Sanderson was published. Sanderson’s illustrations are noteworthy because they featured distinct gender stereotypes that were common at the time. To this day, the story is a popular one with children and adults alike, and “I Think I Can” remains a saying that just about everybody recognises.

In 2007, a survey resulted in the Little Engine That Could being included among the US’ National Education Association’s Teacher’s Top 100 Books For Children. If you are looking for other great children’s books, take a look at Toby the Big Little Tugboat on Tobybooks.com. He is a friendly character who along with his friends also has good lessons for young readers!

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