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In 'Little Engine That Could,' Some See An Early Feminist Hero

Was "I think I can" the great-grandmother of "lean in?" Some readers see the plucky locomotive as a parable about working women, but some versions of the story feature a male protagonist instead. (Platt & Munk, Penguin Young Readers Group)

"Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong."

The beloved tale of the little blue engine — who helps bring a broken-down train of toys to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain — has been chugging along for a very long time. But despite the locomotive's optimistic refrain — I think I can, I think I can, I think I can — the story has a somewhat checkered past: In its tracks, The Little Engine has left both a legal battle and a debate over whether the little blue engine is male or female.

The exact origins of the plucky, blue switch engine are a mystery. Variations on the tale have been around for more than 100 years.

"Interestingly, the oldest version of the story I could find was published in 1903 in Sweden," says Roy Plotnick, who spent 10 years investigating the little engine's back story as a hobby. (By day, Plotnick is a paleontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago).

Another version he found appeared in a New York newspaper article in 1906 about a church in Brooklyn that had finally paid off its mortgage after 39 years. The article reported on the minister's sermon: "They had a mortgage burning," says Plotnick, and the minister told a parable that is recognizable as a version of the story of the little engine:

He then went to another great engine and asked: "Can you pull that train over the hill?"

"It is a very heavy grade," it replied.

The superintendent was much puzzled, but he turned to still another engine that was spick-and-span new, and he asked it: "Can you pull that train over the hill?"

"I think I can," responded the engine.

The most familiar version of the tale was inspired by a story called "The Pony Engine" and published in a children's magazine in 1916 by Massachusetts educator Mabel Bragg. She added new elements to the story including the broken-down train carrying cargo for kids like toys, peppermint drops, and — every child's favorite vegetable — spinach.

The first time The Little Engine That Could was published as a book was in 1930 with the credit "as retold by Watty Piper," a pseudonym for Arnold Munk, who died in 1957. His daughter, Janet Fenton, was never too fond of the pen name.

"I think it's ridiculous, but he seemed to like it so that's what he used," says Fenton.

With all of the different versions of the engine story being told in one form or another, small wonder that Munk faced a legal battle. In the 1950s, a woman claimed that it was her cousin — Frances Ford — who wrote the story in 1910. The details of the case were sealed but Fenton says her father prevailed.

"I don't know if he sued somebody or somebody sued him, but he won," says Fenton.

Still, publishers of The Little Engine That Could did agree to let another company print an adaptation of Ford's story under the title The Pony Engine.

Now, to the next controversy: Children who read the story may not think much about whether the little blue engine is male or female. But adults do. If you remember the story, three trains — all male — refuse to help the broken-down engine over the mountain. They are too important, too busy, or too tired to pull an engine full of toys. ("I won't carry the likes of you!" they said to the disappointed dolls and stuffed animals).

The little blue engine who (after significant cajoling) agrees to help is female — and also self-deprecating. "They only use me for switching trains in the yard. I have never been on the other side of the mountain," she protests.

My colleague Beth Novey says that The Little Engine That Could was "leaning in" long before Sheryl Sandberg was. Francesco Sedita, president of the Penguin division that publishes The Little Engine That Could, likes the characterization.

She was "literally the first to lean in! She really is the poster engine of the can-do attitude," says Sedita.

Now, over the years, some versions of the little blue engine have been male. And some folks have gotten pretty steamed over the issue. When the engine is a "she," people have assumed the gender was changed to make the story politically correct. But in fact, she was a "she" as early as 1930.

Blogger Lara McKusky argues that the little blue engine is a do-it-all, Supermom martyr who is pressured into pulling more than she signed on for — while male trains had no problem setting boundaries and saying no.

Whatever your views on the little blue engine — male or female — the idea of a small train beating the odds through sheer will and determination is so old and so recognizable, it just had to be parodied. In 1976, Saturday Night Live did a bit about a little engine who has a heart attack and dies.

The more innocent, healthier Little Engine turns 85 in 2015.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One of the most beloved children's stories of all time has a checkered past. Turns out "The Little Engine That Could" has quite a trail behind it that includes, among other things, a legal battle and debates about gender. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this report for our series, Book Your Trip, about modes of travel in literature.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The little blue engine who helps a broken down train make it over the mountain has been around for a very long time.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 1: (Reading) Chug, chug, chug, puff, puff, puff, ding-dong, ding-dong - the little train rumbled over the tracks.

BLAIR: And you can hear its famous refrain in several languages.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BLAIR: But the exact origins of the plucky blue switch engine are a mystery. Variations on the tale have been around for more than a hundred years.

ROY PLOTNICK: Interestingly, the oldest version of the story I could find was published in 1903 in Sweden.

BLAIR: Roy Plotnick spent about 10 years investigating the little engine's back story as a hobby. Plotnick is actually a paleontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Another version he found appeared in 1906. A New York newspaper wrote about a church in Brooklyn that had finally paid off its mortgage after 39 years. The article reported on the minister's sermon.

PLOTNICK: They had a mortgage burning, and he told a parable. And the parable was a recognizable version of "The Little Engine That Could" story. (Reading) He then went to another great engine and asked, can you pull the train over the hill? It's a very heavy grade, he replied. The superintendent was much puzzled, but he turned to still another and that was Spic and Span new, and he asked it, can you pull that train over the hill? I think I can, responded the engine.

BLAIR: The version that most of us know was inspired by a story called "The Pony Engine," published in a children's magazine in 1916 by a Massachusetts woman named Mabel Bragg. She added new elements to the story, including the broken down train carrying stuff for kids like toys and peppermint drops and spinach. The first time "The Little Engine That Could" was published as a book was in 1930, with the credit, as retold by Watty Piper.

JANET FENTON: I think it's ridiculous, but he seems to like it so that's what he used.

BLAIR: Janet Fenton is the daughter of Arnold Munk who used the pseudonym Watty Piper, but in the 1950s a woman claimed that it was her cousin who wrote the story, not Janet Fenton's father.

FENTON: I don't know whether he sued somebody or somebody sued him, but he won.

BLAIR: Now to the next controversy - boys and girls who read the story probably don't think about the little blue engine's gender, but adults do. If you remember, three trains refused to help the broken down engine over the mountain. They are all male.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I am a very important engine indeed, and I will not pull the likes of you.

BLAIR: The little blue engine who does help his female.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The little engine was pulling just as hard as she could.

BLAIR: As one of my NPR colleagues puts it, the little blue engine was the first to lean in.

FRANCESCO SEDITO: Literally the first to lean in (Laughing).

BLAIR: Francesco Sedito is president of the Penguin division that publishes "The Little Engine That Could."

SEDITO: You know, she really is the poster engine of the can-do attitude.

BLAIR: Now, over the years in some versions the little blue engine is a he, and some folks have gone pretty steamed over the issue. When the engine is a she, people have assumed the gender was changed to make the story politically correct. Recently, a woman blogger complained that the little blue engine is a kind of female martyr guilted into pulling more than she should.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Reading) Oh, little blue engine, cried all the dolls and toys. Will you pull us over the mountain? Our engine has broken down, and the good boys and girls on the other side won't have any toys to play with or good food to eat unless you help us. Please, please help us.

BLAIR: Whatever your views on the little blue engine's gender, the idea of a small train or a small business or a small athlete beating the odds through sheer will and determination is so old and so recognizable it just had to be parodied. This bit is from Saturday Night Live in 1976.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Soon little train was whizzing right up the mountain, and now the wheel said, I know I can. I know I can. I know I can. I know I can. Heart attack, heart attack, heart attack, oh, my God, the pain...

BLAIR: The more innocent, healthier little engine that could turns 85 next year. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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