The Little Engine That Could is a famous children's story, used to teach children the value of optimism and perseverance. The story is said to be a metaphor for the American dream.
An early published version of the story, "Story of the Engine that Thought It Could", appeared in the New York Tribune, April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing.
A version of the story appeared in the six-volume Bookhouse Books, which were copyrighted in the United Kingdom in 1920 and sold in the United States by door-to-door sellers. Although this version contained no author attribution, it was edited by Olive B. Miller and published in Chicago. The Bookhouse version began, "Once there was a Train-of-Cars, and she was flying merrily across the country with a load of Christmas toys for the children who lived way over on the other side of the mountain."
In the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo, Casey Jr., the work train taking the circus animals to their destination, pulls his cargo up a hill repeating the well known saying, "I-Think-I-Can-I-Think-I-Can," and rolls down the hill saying, "I-Thought-I-Could-I-Thought-I-Could."
The best-known incarnation of the story The Little Engine That Could was written by "Watty Piper", a pen name of Arnold Munk, who was the owner of the publishing firm Platt & Munk. Arnold Munk was born in Hungary; as a child, he moved with his family to the United States, settling in Chicago. Later he moved to New York. Platt & Munk offices were at 200 Fifth Avenue till 1957, when Arnold Munk died. Munk used the name Watty Piper both as an author of children's books and as the editor of many of the books that Platt & Munk published. He personally hired Lois Lenski to illustrate the book. This retelling of the tale The Pony Engine appeared in 1930. The first edition attributes Mabel C. Bragg as the originating author. However, Mabel C. Bragg, a school teacher in Boston, never claimed to have originated the story.
In 1954, Platt & Munk published another version of The Little Engine That Could, with slightly revised language and new, more colorful illustrations by George and Doris Hauman. A 1976 rework featured art by Ruth Sanderson.
The book received two movie adaptations: a half-hour film released in 1991 by Welsh studio Kalato Animation and distributed by MCA/Universal Home Video, and a computer-animated one released in 2011, twenty years later, by Universal Studios. Both were direct-to-video releases.
The 1977 Rankin/Bass Productions Easter special The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town also incorporates the story into the plot, with the engine, Chuggs, delivering the Easter Bunny's cargo of eggs and candy.
- Anthropomorphic Food: The apples and oranges that the train is taking to all the little boys and girls.
- Arc Words: "I think I can, I think I can."
- Cool Train
- Determinator: She thinks she can.
- Foregone Conclusion: She can.
- Living Toys
- Non-Ironic Clown: A toy clown assumes leadership of the toys after the engine stalls out and asks other passing engines for help.
- The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
- Race Against the Clock: The train has to get over the hill by sunrise.
- Recycledin Space: The story is basically the parable of The Good Samaritan with anthropomorphic train engines.
- Survival Mantra: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...
- True Blue Femininity: The titular little engine is often stated to be female, especially in the two film adaptations.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Nothing is ever stated about what became of the broken-down train in the book. However, the 1991 film shows that a doctor engine was notified of what'd happened, and took the broken down engine back to the train yard.
- Adaptation Expansion: Like the 1991 half-hour special, this serves as one to the original novel, only it operates under the precipice of magic.
- Big Bad: The Nightmare Train.
- Gender Flip: The Tower, which was a male in the first movie, is a female here.
- The same goes for the clown.
- Kids Are Cruel: Two boys pick on Richard. They even steal his grandfather's watch from him.
- No Name Given: Some of the engines that show up in this one don't get proper names, unlike the first film adaptation.
- Pie in the Face: This is a favorite of Beverly the Clown's.