Character Assassination Carousel: Tootle

Today, I am to taking a ride on Ninja Mom’s Character Assassination Carousel.  That means I get to take aim at a popular children’s book and fire arrows until it falls bleeding to the ground. I’m walking in some elite company here. The last character assassin, Mommy Shorts decimated Dr. Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go. And the month before that, Cynicism 101 clicked Dorothy’s heels right back home and unseated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from his throne.  The next rider is Robyn at Hollow Tree Ventures. If you’d like to grab a horse, get in touch with Ninja Mom over on her blog. She schedules these several months out, so you’ll have plenty of time to start writing.

And tonight, gentle readers, I will slay for you Tootle, by Gertrude Crampton, with pictures by Tibor Gergely.


Oh, Mommy, see the train!

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.

Note the additional presence of The Shy Kitten, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, and the Pokey Little Puppy.

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” .

Just look at the villain

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.

Red flags everywhere

sad sad little trainOn 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.

checkers kingpin

Clearly, it’s the gambling debts.

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.

All he wants to do is play

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.

About jesterqueen:
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.


Character Assassination Carousel: Tootle — 24 Comments

  1. I confess I haven't read Tootle. And I affirm that now I Never Will. Caps intended.

    Thanks for the great assassination! In the tradition of the bastardized Irish Blessing: May all your fields be trackless and your life without red flags.

    • haha! Thanks so much for letting me ride! I had so much fun writing this. I had to steal the book from my son no less than three times to get my scans done. He kept finding it in the scanner and yanking it out.

  2. I sat here reading this with my little 3 yo train-obsessed mini conductor. As we looked at the pictures he was very excited- then grew sad to see the train crying and people holding red flags. Oh kids books were SO messed up! I appreciate this though as a Day of the Diesel nightly reader. Really. Sidenote- I think I remember this book from way back in the day but I might have blocked it out haha!

    • Haha!! I honestly can't remember my Mom ever putting me through this. But she has always had awesome taste in books. I think she had a lot more reading sense than I did. We also own Day of the Diesel. I'd like to find the people who wrote the new Railway Series (and Rev Awtrey or whomever himself, too) and just knock their blocks off. Also, the Dinosaur Trainers. But Tootle is worst. There's another Little Golden Book about a Caboose that we all really enjoy. It's much more a good train tale about the caboose who saves the day. This? Dreck.

  3. I can't get over the look on poor Tootle's weepy face as the townspeople wave red flags like a bunch of train-fighting matadors. I can't help but wish he'd gore them (just a little). Way to take the fun out of train derailment, townspeople!

    • Oh wouldn't that be glorious! Ha! Let's see you now Bill with blood dripping down your stomach from that stovepipe wound!

  4. I'm giggling, well, sort of. I read that book to my kids (who are now adults with children of their own) and in my foggy, naive float- through-life back then never noticed. As I read and reread your piece, I see you are absolutely correct, and I was clueless. I'd like to think I would do a better job given the opportunity of several decades of experience, but who knows.
    Thanks for an insightful post. Now, please excuse me. I must go call my grandchildren's parents and talk about…well, you know.
    Thanks for making my day.

    • My husband insists I'm nuts. He thinks it's a cute, mildly annoying train tail. But then, he's the kind of good Daddy who will mindlessly read through piles and piles of books every night.

  5. Can't say I have ever read Tootle but I did recognize him from the back of the Little Golden books 🙂 There are so many books published through that group that I really question. HOW did they think this was good writing?? My how far we've come 😉

    Interesting meme…I'm not sure if I have a book I want to trash but it sounds like a fun exercise!

    • It's glorious fun. And I'd love to take out Saggy Baggy Elephant and Pokey Little Puppy, too, at the very least. I can't remember about the Shy Little Kitten just now.

  6. I never bonded with this book, because one of my father's nicknames it Tootie……..for a very different reason………

    • I'm thinking it involves the body part my son chose to wave at his cousins and their assorted friends today. (Lucky that he has good natured cousins and they have good natured friends)

    • Haha! I don’t know how I missed your comment at the time. That’s a great thought. I imagine some absolute crotchet muttering “There, that’ll teach those little turds” the whole time she’s writing.

  7. Thanks for the assassination! I found your review specifically because I went searching for reflections on Tootle. It was one of two vinyl audio golden books I had as a boy in the 80s and I’m pretty sure it has heavily messed with my outlook on life. I’ve got a lot of work ahead to dismantle my perceptions about dos and don’ts in life… I am very much programmed to fit into the mould. Tootle is poison. I suggest you make an exception to your philosophy on censorship and make that book disappear!

    • Yay! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who thinks it is one screwed up piece of literature. I just read it with lots of commentary. It’s gotten to the point where it’s like a call and answer story so that when I say “Bill” the kids chime in, “The moron”. Actually, they haven’t dragged it out in awhile (knock wood) Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

  8. I know that this is an old post, but I thought I would chime in anyway.

    Raising healthy minded children is such a balancing act. I recognized the same subtext as you did, and therefore read the story sparsely (maybe only once or twice to my children).

    Nevertheless, there may be times when anyone of us can get “off track” in our own goals.

    Our plans to eat a more healthy diet can get derailed, for example, and many of us can fall into habits of doing what is easiest or the most pleasurable –rather than what is good for us.

    If Tootles had never set the goal of becoming a Flyer, the story would have been completely different. But there are many big goals take staying power. And while we might enjoy giving in to little pleasures in the short term, achieving our full potential (and living the life of our dreams) can be much more of thrill in the long term.

    So, I think it depends on which lesson a person needs to hear at any given point in time. Knowing your entire community has your back might also be a good thing — on occasion.

    • It’s awesome to know your community has your back! And the real message they’re trying to convey is about maturity and such, so I totally get your point. But it totally galls me to think the only way to get support from your community is to follow a set of preconceived ideas! I’d die if I lived like that. I’ve lived down South for about six … I guess six and a half years now. Making friends has been so hard. It was three years before I had a single strong friendship, five before I had anything approaching a community, and … well, I still have trouble finding playdates for my kids because we’re such an unrailed family.

      I saw Tootles as the kid with ADHD or Asperger’s who can’t harness all that energy or express his ideas clearly to those in authority. I didn’t see him as being arrogant or selfish for going off the tracks. I saw him as taking a different view of the world. At some level, he was getting totally distracted by all the flowers and losing track of his real goals, and that’s what everybody was trying to help him fix. (That fits with ADHD, too!) But he was also opening up this whole other possible path and nobody was even interested in it, which was so sad to me. (And oh GOD, may I pause here to note that we must be parents to engage in a deep discussion like this about a miscreant illustrated train!!)

      I remember when my husband and I first got together (and this would be 15 years ago now), and he realized that I’m one of these people who always has the weirdest experiences, and the people around me are doomed to be caught up in them. Not all of them are bad. Some are quite good. But they’re never, ever on the rails. And he’s a very “stay on the tracks” kind of guy. We were having some kind of argument, and I said, “Do you understand that I cannot possibly do things the same as everybody else here?” His response was, “Can’t or Won’t?”

      My answer was “can’t” then, and it’s still the same. And my husband finally got it when our kids came along, and they are incapable of responding to things in a typical fashion. If you try to force them to, they are simply wretched. If you can meet them where they are, though, they often have quite a lot to share. And they, like I, have paths that intersect with the tracks often enough to keep the villagers from becoming too worried. But I’m far more likely to blunder past a stop sign or pluck it up and turn it around to “go” if I’ve assessed a situation and decided the sign is wrong!

  9. True this is not a good lesson in today’s thinking, but we must remember that it was written in the 1940s and that was the way of education at the time. Perhaps it should RIP in the archives.

    • Yes, I think that’s probably a good place for it to go. Unfortunate. Because the pictures are so fun. But the moralistic stuff drives me nuts.