Before Finn was born — you know, when I had time — I scored a giant laundry basket full of children’s books on freecycle. I had to drive far away to get them, but it was full of gems: The Napping House, several Carl books, Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
And then there was Tootle.
I didn’t really think too much about it and tossed it aside with all the other “not board books,” like a Disney Princess one called Thanks, Dopey (which has since become a refrain around here: Can you find my shoes? Thanks, Dopey!), and an Arthur book containing the original old school artwork. At some point, Finn grew up enough not to eat all his books, or at least not right away. And then he started loving trains. And then he found Tootle. And then we had to read Tootle fifty times a day.
I don’t say hate a whole lot. But I hate Tootle.
Tootle was one of the first Golden Books, which you can tell because he is on the back of every other Golden Book you’ve ever seen. Him and that strange tugboat. So, maybe I should cut Tootle some slack for being old as the hills. But I don’t want to.
The plot of Tootle is this: Tootle is a young engine at train school where he is supposed to be learning how to pull trains. The only lesson he can’t quite understand is Staying On The Rails No Matter What, and yes, that is what they call it in the book. He likes to jump the rails so he can frolic in a meadow full of flowers. Based on the illustrations, you might think this is code for doing drugs, as someone was clearly high when they did the pictures.
Just when you think the moral is going to make an appearance, and that Tootle will end up being a “special” train who is allowed to drive wherever he wants, the townspeople get together to trick and bully Tootle (he cries, seriously) into getting back on the rails. Then he learns his lesson and never thinks about leaving the rails ever again. THE END.
The subtext is pretty clear to me. Trains are destined for a pretty strict purpose. An engine might have a choice here or there, like whether he wants to go fast or haul a lot of freight, but trains are really just meant to be like all the trains that have come before them. Trains are not supposed to have dreams of being different. Trains are not supposed to experiment. Or maybe Tootle teaches us that trains can experiment sometimes, like at school or when they are very young, but Tootle is pretty clear on the point that only “traditional” trains will be successful. Get jobs. Be happy. Fall in love, maybe? I know I am projecting right now, but this book makes me mad, y’all.
So here is my addendum that I wish I could paste into the back of every copy of Tootle — which, BTW, was re-released as part of the Golden Books Classics series, so it’s readily available for purchase right now: traditional trains are limited in where they can go and what they can do, and because of that they have been replaced in many cases by cars, which are more fluid, more versatile, and more diverse in how they get from place to place. Take your life off the rails if you feel like it; frolic among the flowers if you want. Just get yourself from right now to the end of your life in a way that makes you happy.