We’re the book family. We read to our kids every night. They bring us picture books and chapter books, books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and books by Dr. Seuss, books about dinosaurs and books about sharks, and most of all, books about trains. Because we are also the train family. I counted the other day, and between them, our kids have (at least, because something is always missing) 37 different train books. I didn’t even know so many had been published, let alone that I owned every single one.
We have out of print editions about cabooses, wildly popular series from TV shows, and supposedly educational tomes by Usborne. And because we have those 37 train books to choose from, at least two or three bedtime titles a week are guaranteed to feature a whistle and a smiling conductor. (Why does the conductor always smile? Why not a dour conductor, just once?) Scott and I don’t mind. Like I said, we love trains, too. But with thirty seven possible choices, why is it that without fail, once a week, Sam brings me the worst train book in history, Tootle?
Tootle is a Little Golden Book about a baby train who just can’t seem to get it right. It’s a coming of age story set at the roundhouse, and it’s a doozy. Ours is a reprinted edition. The original is from 1945. So both of my parents could have endured it as children, though neither has mentioned it. The title train shows up in the trademarked Little Golden Books parade of characters on the back cover of every volume in the series. And I think I may have been the idiot who dragged it in, enchanted by the wonderful illustrations.
But the ‘good’ stops at the pictures. Because the story is horrible. It’s a morality tale in which Tootle learns that he can’t succeed in life if he strays from the tracks. Here’s the plot. Tootle the little engine goes to train school, where engineer Bill teaches all the trains about “Staying On The Rails No Matter What”. Oh, there are other things to learn in train school, including “Stopping For a Red Flag Waving” and “Puffing Loudly When Starting”, all communicated with initial capital letters which clarify their importance. But the most important lesson is “Staying On The Rails No Matter What” .
Naturally, Tootle wants to be a success. He wants to become a flyer. Just one thing stands in his way. Fun. Tootle discovers that he rather enjoys cavorting right off the tracks, frolicking in a nearby meadow, and getting covered up in daisies, all appropriate things for a kid train, right?
Well. When Engineer Bill gets Word Of This, he devises a scheme to get that little train back on the rails. Keep in mind the earlier plot device of the red flags. Trains must always stop for a Red Flag Waving (capital letters mean it must be true). So old Bill gets the entire town (including the mayor) to hang around in Tootle’s meadow and throw up red flags until he returns to the tracks where he finally sees a green flag. Of course, thereafter, Tootle has learned his lesson and Stays On The Rails. He becomes a flyer and teaches his lesson to all the up and coming trains.
On the surface, it’s a funny little train story, because (Tee-Hee) who could imagine a train riding around OFF the tracks (Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha). But let’s consider this a moment. Who are these townspeople that they all have time to hide out in the meadow and traumatize this train with red flags? Look at poor Tootle’s face. And why are they doing it in the first place? What kind of hold has Bill got on these folks that they feel obligated to go hide in the bushes with red flags?
And more importantly, why aren’t they celebrating this train that has somehow figured out how to keep moving off the tracks? Why don’t they stop and take notice of this newfound skill he has developed? Can you imagine what the world would be like if Tootle had been allowed to expand on this ability? We could have efficient mass transit systems the world over if not for Engineer Bill and his red flags.
But here’s what really irks me about Tootle.
The whole story is a reflection of empty adult ideals for kids at the time of the book’s publication. It didn’t have much to offer then, and it has almost no modern day legitimacy. Mercifully, my kids seem not to notice the moralization. They have only discovered the funny train story and fail to see the Aesopian potential in their own lives. Thank God.
To me, an adult, the person required to read this shizz every night, the book practically rains symbol bricks. Tootle is a kid who plays instead of paying attention in school and thereby Jeopardizes His Future. He learns his lesson and becomes a beacon to all children, showing them how to toe the line just like him. The train who plays in the meadow is really the kid who can’t sit still in class. He’s the one who struggles to finish his homework at night. He has his own interests, nonacademic ones, and none of the adults in his world can see the validity in what he does.
And Engineer Bill is all the role models in this kid’s life who think they are doing right to sit down and give the child Straight Talk About His Future. Engineer Bill and his ilk have no idea the damage they have collectively done, the creativity they have wiped out of the world, by telling their little trains to sit still in class and listen to the red flags instead of romping out in the meadow picking the daisies.
Mom swears I used to beg to hear Berenstein Bears titles with a similar oblivion. I look at those suckers now and cringe at that younger self. I’m simultaneously grateful that I didn’t understand and horrified, because I’m pretty sure those books subconsciously shaped an internal obsession with following the rules that lasted until I was in college for crying out loud. And my kids? How will they be impacted? How does Tootle interact with Caroline’s Asperger’s? In what ways does it reinforce her preexisting need for rigid order? Will this devastate Sam? He’s the kid who couldn’t Stay On A Track if his future, nay his very life depended on it! This kid looks at the tracks as guideposts from which to deviate on purpose.
See, I’m not into censorship. I’m all about letting kids experience things the way they exist in real life. I don’t have a problem with them getting interested in violent cartoons or gun toys. I consider those teaching moments, where we can all discuss an issue as a family. But books like this, ones that undermine their psyches and encourage them to lives of painful conformity? They make me question myself. They make me wonder if maybe I should control my kids intake a little more closely. They make me a little less enchanted with trains. And that, my friends, is unforgivable.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.