Do you think you can like the ‘Little Engine’?

The dictionary defines nostalgia as “sentimental recollection.”
By that definition, I had a nostalgia trip recently when I read a tattered and torn children’s book from the past.
A book that I haven’t looked at for years—a book that I read many times with a little boy beside me.
Now, the little boy is grown and reads his own books. But somehow, I think he got the message of this important story.
University of Illinois professor Roy E. Plotnick describes “The Little Engine That Could” as one of the most popular and famous children’s books of all time.
Plotnick is a science professor, whose own published works carry titles more like this co-authored piece: “Nonlinear Dynamics and Fractals: New Numerical Techniques for Sedimentary Data.”
But he also has a strong interest in old children’s books, especially “The Little Engine That Could.” And he maintains a website featuring his research on the book, entitled “Now Celebrating One Hundred Years of Thinking I Can!”
The origins of the story are unclear. The first known published version appeared as early as 1906, but “The Little Engine That Could” wasn’t copyrighted until 1930.
That version is authored by Watty Piper and illustrated by an almost unknown artist by the name of Lois Lenski.
The now-famous Lenski went on to illustrate 50 more books. She also wrote and illustrated almost 100 of her own.
Watty Piper, on the other hand, wasn’t anybody at all. His was just a fictitious name made up by the publication company Platt & Munk.
“The Little Engine That Could” was so popular that the publisher sold one million copies in the 1930s and 1940s.
Then in 1949, Elizabeth Chmiel came forward and claimed that her cousin, Frances Ford, had written the story and published it earlier under a pseudonym.
As a result, in 1955, when Ford was 101 years old, Platt & Munk offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who definitely cold establish authorship. They found three people who claimed to have written the story, so the prize was divided by the three “authors.”
“The Little Engine That Could” is still a best-seller. And old versions are so popular that a copy of the 1930 book in mint condition sells for $920.
The original 1906 story begins like this: “A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches.”
Then one morning, a long train of freight cars asked a big engine to pull it up the hill.
“I can’t,” said the big engine. And all the big engines said the same thing: “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
At last, in desperation, the train asked the little switch engine.
“I think I can,” said the little locomotive, and began pulling. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
Then, as the work became harder and harder, the little engine said, “I–think–I–can–I–think–I–can.”
Finally, at the top of the hill, “I thought I could! I Thought I Could! I THOUGHT I COULD!”
The moral of this charming children’s story is clear. The question is, “Do you think you can?”
Marie Snider is an award-winning health care writer and syndicated columnist. Write her at or visit

Posted in Uncategorized