The Little Engine That Could
by Watty Piper

Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 3-8

I think I can. He thinks he can. Do you think he can? Do you think YOU can?

I've heard The Little Engine That Could described as a quintessentially American story. I don't buy it. Are they trying to tell me that parents in the rest of the world want their children to think they can't?

This book is universal, an essential book for any parent who wants their children to have confidence in themselves and a belief in what they can achieve if only they try hard enough.

The story has roots that go way back, but the text most of us are most familiar with can be traced back to 1930. (And the illustrations I grew up with are the ones I chose to feature at the top of this page. There are other versions as well.)

Review continues below.

old Watty Piper image inset in Loren Long cover

I have to admit, I was surprised as I reread this book. My memory was that the book consisted almost entirely of the words, I think I can. I had that wrong, but those words are definitely the take-away message of the book.

The Little Engine That Could

A weary old engine breaks down on the way to bringing great toys and yummy food to the children on the other side of the mountain. She can't go another inch.

Well, the toys are eager to be owned! Led by a "funny little clown," they endeavor to engage another engine to take their little train over the mountain.

The Passenger Engine is used to carrying important people, not toys. He refuses to have anything to do with this crew. The Freight Engine likewise. And, alas, while the Rusty Old Engine has sympathy, he has only enough strength left to pull himself.

The toys are very sad.

Along comes a Little Blue Engine. This perky young fellow wasn't built for carrying such large loads. But you know what?

He thinks he can. He thinks he can. And sure enough...he does.

Painter Loren Long brings us a new version of the book plenty faithful to earlier editions illustrated by Doris and George Haumann. The Little Blue Engine is still a steam engine, still cute and almost cuddly. I'm of course biased by what I grew up with, but I suspect children today will show a strong preference for the newer version. The toys in the new one come off more as characters unto themselves than objects that belong in a toy chest.

Either way, you can hardly go wrong. The Little Engine That Could has helped instill in children a belief in themselves for the better part of a century. Put those magic words in the back of your child's mind:

I think I can, I think I can...

More top sellers from last century.

Read more of Steve's children's book reviews.

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