Tootle: Worst Children's Book Ever?

Tootle book cover

One of the fun aspects of having a kid is revisiting media from your youth and discovering how awful everything is. In this case, I'm talking about the 1945 Little Golden Book "Tootle" — quite possibly the worst children's book ever.

If you're not familiar with "Tootle," it was the third best-selling children's book of all time, according to Publishers Weekly back in 2001.

You've probably heard of Thomas the Tank Engine. Well, it's basically that and suspiciously published the same year as the first Thomas the Tank Engine book.

In the story, the protagonist, a tiny train named Tootle, is going to school to learn to become a big locomotive. One of the most important lessons is "Staying on the rails no matter what." Makes sense so far, right? Trains that go off the rails kill people. But here, that message takes a sinister turn.

As sure as Chekhov's gun is fired, Tootle goes off the rails. There isn't some horrible accident resulting in a tragic derailment: Tootle goes off the rails to check out the flowers and play in a field. That's right. He's a little train that just wants to play in the fields.

Eventually word gets back to the old white guys who run the train school. The mayor sees Tootle chasing butterflies and declares it "very silly." This where things get really awful. They get the whole town together to teach Tootle a lesson. A bunch of people with nothing better to do head off to shame a little train for wanting to play. And they make him cry. Seriously.

The trains are taught to stop whenever they see a waving red flag, so the villagers hide in the field with red flags and wave them whenever Tootle gets close. And, I repeat, they make him cry.

It's right about here that I expected the story to shift. The villagers realize what horrible bastards they've been to a little train who just wants to play and they apologize. But no, Tootle swears off playing and gets back on the tracks.

"This is the place for me," said Tootle. "There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks."

Even if you don't interpret "Tootle" as anti-gay — which I most certainly do and others agree — there is certainly a terrible message here about conformity: Keep your head down and do as others do.

Is that something we should still being teaching children? How many great figures in the history of the world kept their heads down and accepted things as they were?

I say anyone who owns a copy of Tootle, tear out that last page and write your own. Make the villagers apologize. There's nothing wrong with going off the rails — unless you're a runaway train with toxic cargo, of course.

children's books wtf