Friday, August 22, 2008

Does Tootle the Train Somehow Bother You, Too?

Sadie unearthed this book from one of the shelves here at the farm. I guess I must have read it quite a bit when I was a child -- it's worn. Sadie, being obsessed with trains, wants to read it every night, so I've been obliging her, but... I'm really starting to hate this book.

Tootle the Train irritates me. The book has always bothered me, but I think I just realized why it bothers me as a parent.

The historic reason that Tootle the Train made me cringe was trivial and potty-related. When I was but a blonde little tot, my parents taught me to refer to urine as "tootle." Tootle was a noun ("There's tootle in this diaper!") and also a verb ("You're tootling in the toilet!"). As I was exposed to other colloquial uses of the word, I was often moved to giggle primly at phrases like when someone wants you to call them on the phone ("Give me a tootle when you're ready to go!") or when someone's planning a short trip ("I'll just tootle over to the post office on the way home.") or saying goodbye in a quaint way ("Tootle-oo!") -- you get the idea. If you're having trouble relating, imagine the train was named Tinkle or Tee-Tee or Pee-Pee or whatever you call it to your kids.

Incidentally, the other variety of natural excrement was called a turtle in our family. No, they eschewed chaste euphemisms like BM, and crude ones like brown bomber --they chose the cryptic and alarming "turtle." Try to imagine the painful confusion that this caused when I went to the zoo for the first time (IT CAN WALK?), or even the time when I was asked to sing a song called "Jenny Jenkins" in which Jenny states flatly, "I won't wear purple; It's the color of my turtle." I can't remember if I ended up singing it or not. I think I was too mortified. What decent six-year-old describes the color of her turtle to an audience at an elementary school?

Aren't you glad you stopped by this blog today? Class, that's what we deliver. Style. Elegance. Toilet angst.

Anyway, I think I have a new reason to be irritated with this Tootle the Train story. Allow me to refresh your memory on the plot.

Tootle is a cute little train who wants to grow up to be a big, fast locomotive. Hey, who doesn't? He is in training at the train school, where he primarily studies the following inspiring curriculum: Stay on the tracks. This brilliant bit of pedagogy is supplemented with the Eternal Wisdom of Trains II: If you see a red flag, stop. There's not much more to train school. Red flag means stop. And stay on the track. The straight, uniform, regulated track.

Tootle goes out each day to practice staying on the track and each day he gets distracted by something. Beautiful flowers in the field, a horse who wants to race, or whatever. Stuff happens, Tootle goes off the track, and the frowning trainmasters with the serious eyebrows at the train school are disappointed and alarmed. They cannot figure out how to deal with this issue. The train will like totally not stay on track. It's those damn flowers and that lousy horse. Distracting him from his job of track-staying and flag-stopping.

Finally the head engineer has a plan to completely traumatize poor little Tootle and scare him back onto the track for good. He gives red flags to everyone in town and hides them all around the fun meadow, so that when Tootle goes off the track to have happy times with Mr. Horse in the pretty flowers, he is met by screaming townspeople waving garish red flags in his face. Paralyzed with panic, he casts his gaze about the earth! He sees the head engineer waving a green flag over at the track, and returns to its sweet confines with relief, never to leave again. At the end of the story he is a big, fast locomotive who never ever leaves the track.

So many problems.

The moral is that you never leave the track, if you want to reach your destination. I get that. Don't get distracted, etc. Stay with your goal. Head down and do your work. Seems all very well, I guess, except that the levels of the parable don't exactly match up. For example, who built the track? Why do you have to stay on it? Where does it go? If you're a magical train that can actually move without rolling down tracks, why would you ever, ever, ever in this world want to go on the tracks again? Who are the people, in this story, and who are the trains? Are the people teachers? Are the trains human children? Do I want my child to value track-rolling over meadow-scampering? Do I want my tiny little four-year-old girl to accept this idea that the tracks made for her by teachers are the only acceptable way to learn about the world?

I'm sure the author meant well. The book is sweet and so innocuous in appearance -- it's one of the oldest Little Golden Books after all. One of the best-selling children's books of all time. But really, how complex is this message? A train coming off the track, in real life, means bad news. It shouldn't ever happen. But trains are machines and anthropomorphizing them is tricky. Children should come off the track, run around the meadow, race the horse, swim in the river, go back by a different route. My paranoid, skeptical mind is shouting at me that this is wrong programming. Be submissive. Follow the road. Be ordinary. Answer the appropriate flag with the correct behavior. Do not deviate. Being different is wrong. Pleasure and play are transgressions. Is Tootle the antithesis to "The Road Not Taken"? Am I overreacting?


  1. Anonymous8:09 AM

    i haven't read that book before - at least not in many years.

    i don't want to read that to my kid! horrible. i guess in the context of him being a train, no, he shouldn't just be leaving the track whenever he likes, obviously. but the bigger message is rotten. i don't think you're overreacting at all. i would disappear that book if given half the chance.

  2. Anonymous8:27 AM

    no, not over reacting. I'd probably conveniently lose the book and offer a different train book in it's place tonight.

    But really, sounds sort of like how I feel about the disney princesses. I hate how they always need a prince to come rescue them. Their whole worlds seem to revolve around finding a man, keeping a man, getting rescued, and thinking about the next big event (weddings, balls, whatever it is it usually means dancing in glass slippers all night.) I can not stand them, it grates on me to read any of their books or watch the movies. Vintage Cinderella - just fine, disney franchise crap - oh heck no!

  3. I loved Tootle when I was a kid. I'm not sure that kids actually get the messages that stupid books are sending unless we also drill it into them.
    Now for my own Book Bitch of the week. My neighbor loaned me 'The Giving Tree.' OMFG! What a depressing book. Message: Man takes all he wants, always. Tree gives without taking anything until it's dead. Men is still depressed and selfish. Tree is happy to have given everything, including it's life. Umm...hello? Is this a good message? Do I want my kid to be either of these characters? No. No way.
    Run Tootle! Get off the track! Fall tree! Fall on Man's head!

  4. Anonymous10:40 AM

    the giving tree = i thought i was the only one!

    everyone seems to love that book. my hubby read that book for the first time about two years ago. he said, yeah, ok um ... WHAT?!

    i read it when i was a kid and it always made me cry - poor stump.

  5. LOL! I know what you mean and you are not over-reacting!

    And don't get me started on Curious George. My older children love hearing me read it to my youngest because I point out all the errors. "George isn't a monkey sweetie, he has no tail. He's a chimp."

    Crazy old books!
    Peace and Laughter,

  6. Anonymous1:28 PM

    Lostcheerio - Your blog made me laugh out loud. I found it because I was looking for other's comments about the Tootle book. I read it to my four-year old son, after which I immediately said to myself, "Well, there's a subliminal fascist children's story if ever there was one." Out loud to my son, I said, "Well, that's a story that we will not be reading again!" The book really struck a negative cord with me and really bothered me.

  7. Two to three years ago my son (he must have been three) went through a train phase as well. Thomas served as the Gateway drug, but I spent a year watching Thomas, and then other train videos (many of them just hour long films of freight trains, with no elaboration - why is there an audience for these things?), taking trips to the train museum in Spencer, listening to train-song CDs, and hanging out with the derelicts down by the tracks. For some reason, we had the book you are referring to you, and I had a very similar reaction.

    Besides the obvious fascism and mid-century conformity, there are so many unanswered questions, and your post does a great job of scratching the surface. The scene when the mayor (is that who it was?) persuades ALL THE PEOPLE IN THE TOWN to participate in the elaborate red-flag charade is so odd. Why do they care so much? How are they so easily organized? It reminds me of one of those enormous North Korean spectacles, with the stupid masses obediently waving millions of ribbons in perfect synchronicity.

    And if he so flagrantly broke the rules, why is there no consequence? Of course, one could also read some hidden messages in the symbolic references - do the flowers and horses represent the lures of drugs and sex, respectively? And so, is the message that its ok to frolic off of the straight lines for a while, during (train) college, as long as one returns to dull respectability at the end?

  8. I love this book, I read it as a kid, and now read it to my children. I don't take the tracks as being a narrow way of thinking, but as morality, and more specifically, my life as a follower of Christ. But even without the religious overtones, it still has a great lesson in avoiding temptation.

    For trains, the rule is you must stay on the tracks. Trains don't belong off the tracks. They also have several other rules, like stopping for a red flag, don't spill the soup, etc... but the little protagonist in this story has a strong temptation with leaving the tracks.

    As in real life, we are all tempted by different things - what one person struggles with, another may find easy to dismiss. Tootle did pretty well with the other rules, enough that the Mayor Himself (I find that title funny) leveraged one rule to help Tootle "get back on track" with the other. (Groan, sorry for the pun)

    The lesson is that we all face temptation in different ways, but we can also face and overcome our shortcomings with the help of friends.

  9. Anonymous1:54 AM

    I think there's more to Tootles than the fascism. The book was written not too long after W.W.II. and the basic message is one that represents the general feeling after the war. Tootles had great potential and instead of letting this potential go to waste, the people around him worked together to help him "get on track." Our nation once had the "We can do anything" attitude if we worked hard and didn't give up.

    It would be great if we could return to that great yet simple attitude. Instead we're becoming a nation of status quo. Everything has to be quick and easy. If it doesn't come easy, we simply quit. The people of the town didn't give up on Tootles and with their help, he reached his potential.

  10. Anonymous9:50 PM

    I have to tell you that I love the book Tootle the Train because Tootle is my last name ! What really bothers me is that it appears that someone has renamed the train, Thomas ! Funny how Thomas the train looks an awful lot like Tootle ...hum....

  11. Anonymous8:07 AM

    I recall having the book in my preschool years in the 1940s. I loved trains and also had a collection of wonderful promotional booklets depicting equipment operated by different railroads. By comparison, the Tootles book struck me as phony. I knew that rigid steel wheels would not permit running around in a meadow. That tendency to realism probably accounts for the fact that, in retrospect, I have stayed on the track when it went where I wanted to go - and walked away when it didn't.

  12. Anonymous9:52 AM

    Like the first person on this blog, I did (past tense) feel that way! How horrible! I dont want to teach my kid that there is only one way. I want them to accept themselves and "enjoy the flowers and the grass and the horses" etc. I didn't read them this book.

    However now that they are spoiled discontented teenagers, I am looking for this book to put in their Christmas stocking.

    I want to remind them that happiness comes from doing the next right thing, no matter what it is. There are some things we should not compromise, like honesty and kindness and respect to others. Learning leads to more learning. Homework should be completed, until the time they can choose for themselves what to study. Personal hygene allows for more social networking opportunities later. Keeping some order prevents important things from getting lost. There are lots of opinions out there, and it is important to listen to the right voices that will lead to more impowerment and integrity and not personal destruction. There are actually more options, if we stay on the right track.

  13. Anonymous9:40 AM

    Lydia, I think you jumped off the perpective track and ran all around fun meadow being critical of trivial things! I'm waving a red flag at you! This is a book for children teaching a simple lesson. If your children are asking questions like "who built the track and where does it go?" at four, then you need to read them something more challenging. Otherwise, I don't think they're going to take much more out of it than "Sometimes it's important to focus on the task at hand". Also, it sounds like you need a night out with some intellectually stimulating friends-

  14. Anonymous12:40 PM

    We don't have enough people staying on the track. If everyone stayed on track we would all be better off. Then the townspeople wouldn't have to take time off from their own schedules. Tootle is harming the environment, chasing livestock, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, setting bad examples to other locomotives, wasting precious resources, maybe even displaying sexual orientation issues (is Tootle a boy or a girl?). Tootle should be dismantled/scraped.