SCOTT SIMON, host:
Classic children's stories never die. They just fade away sometimes, literally. "Little Toot" was published in 1939, written and illustrated by Hardie Gramatky in black and white and bold primary colors. But over the years, with frequent printings, those primary colors faded to pastels. Now, there's a new restored edition of "Little Toot" that brings those bold watercolors back to life.
Daniel Pinkwater, our ambassador to the world of children's literature, joins us from his home in the Hudson River Valley. There are no tugboats, but he certainly is known as big toot.
DANIEL PINKWATER: Scott, I am old enough to remember the last few little puffs of the Age of Steam. And when I came to live in Hoboken, New Jersey, after I got out of college, the steam-powered, built-in-the-19th-century Hoboken Ferry would carry me across to Lower Manhattan. There would be some few steam tugboats still in the river. And there was also a Disney cartoon.
PINKWATER: Gramatky, the author-illustrator, worked for Disney in the good old days. And in 1948, there was a Disney compilation of short films called "Melody Time," including "Little Toot." And I think that "Little Toot" may be the ancestor of "Thomas The Tank Engine" and various other personified machines that kids enjoy today.
But, yeah, it's a real, honest-to-goodness classic, beautifully restored to the old, fantastic color.
SIMON: I guess I didn't know that that was a problem but that with frequent reprintings the color fades.
PINKWATER: Well, you know, plates get old, publishers don't pay attention, and it faded. And what they did is they went and they got his original color sketches. His daughter and the publisher…
PINKWATER: …found a lot of material, and they restored it to the way it first looked. And, boy, does it look good.
PINKWATER: Look at the frontispiece, Scott.
PINKWATER: That's a painting. That's fantastic.
SIMON: Yeah. It really is. It's a harbor scene.
PINKWATER: And it is my old neighborhood. That's what I saw out my windows.
SIMON: Between Hoboken and Lower Manhattan.
PINKWATER: Yeah, yeah.
SIMON: Oh my gosh.
PINKWATER: Shall we read some of these?
SIMON: Yes, I think we should, yeah. Where do we — do we just begin at the beginning?
PINKWATER: I think at the beginning would probably be considered right.
(Reading) At the foot of an old, old wharf lives the cutest, silliest little tugboat you ever saw - a very handsome tugboat with a brand-new candy-stick smokestack.
PINKWATER: (Reading) His name is Little Toot. And this name he came by through no fault of his own. Blow hard as he would, the only sound that came out of his whistle was a gay, small toot, toot, toot.
SIMON: (Reading) But what he couldn't create in sound, Little Toot made up for in smoke. From his chubby smokestack, he would send up a volley of smoke balls which bubbled over his wake-like balloons. Hence, when he got all steamed up, Little Toot used to feel very important.
PINKWATER: (Reading) Then the flag at his masthead would dance like the tail of a puppy dog when he's happy. And he flaunted his signals like a man-o'-war.
SIMON: (Reading) Now the river where Little Toot lives is full of ships. They come from ports all over the world, bringing crews who speak strange tongues and bringing even stranger cargoes - hides from Buenos Aires, copra from the South Seas, whale oil from the Antarctic and fragrant teas from distant Asia. So there's always work for tugboats to do, either pushing ships into the docks to be unloaded, or else pulling them into the stream and down the channel to the ocean to begin a new voyage.
PINKWATER: Let me interject, Scott. Do you notice something that this language is not dumbed down?
SIMON: Yeah. Absolutely not.
PINKWATER: This is not assuming that every kid has got a very limited vocabulary. And it's assuming that there's going to be some conversation perhaps with the adults reading this.
PINKWATER: (Reading) So a tugboat's life is a busy, exciting one, and Little Toot was properly right in the middle of it. His father, Big Toot, is the biggest and fastest tug boat on the river. Why, Big Toot could make more smoke and kick up more water than any two of the other boats put together.
SIMON: (Reading) As for Grandfather Toot, he's an old sea dog who breathes smoke and tells of his mighty deeds on the river.
PINKWATER: (Reading) You'd see that Little Toot, belonging to such an important family, would have his mind on work. But no. Little Toot hated work. He saw no sense in pulling ships 50 times bigger than himself all the way down to the ocean. And he was scared of the wild seas that lay in wait outside the channel, beyond where the harbor empties into the ocean.
SIMON: (Reading) Little Toot had no desire to be tossed around. He preferred the calm water of the river itself, where he could always find plenty of fun. Like gliding, for example.
PINKWATER: (Reading) Or playing thread-the-needle around the piers. Or, what was even fancier, cutting figure eights.
SIMON: (Reading) Although his antics annoyed the hard-working tugboats awfully.
PINKWATER: (Reading) He kept on making figures eights that grew bigger and bigger until one day, carried away by the joy of it all, he made one so big it took up the whole river. Indeed, there was hardly room for it between the two shores.
SIMON: (Reading) And no room at all for a big tug named J. G. McGillicuddy, which is bound downstream to pick up a string of coal barges from Hoboken.
SIMON: (Reading) J. G. McGillicuddy had little love for other tugboats, anyway, and a frivolous one like Little Toot made him mad. As witness…
PINKWATER: By witness, you see in the illustration that J. G. McGillicuddy is bellowing at Little Toot.
PINKWATER: (Reading) This by itself was bad enough. But, unfortunately for Little Toot, the other tugboats had seen what had happened. So they began to make fun of him, calling him a sissy who only knew how to play. Poor Little Toot. He was ashamed and angry, but there was nothing he could do about it except blow those silly smoke balls.
SIMON: Alas, we have to end the reading there. But let's just stipulate that Little Toot goes on to figure out a way to save the day.
PINKWATER: Scott, when I lived in Hoboken, my dream was to be a deckhand on the steam-powered Hoboken Ferry that went from Hoboken to Barclay Street. And I called the Erie Lackawanna Railway every week to ask if a slot had opened for a deckhand. And, of course, it never did.
SIMON: We got an e-mail from Erie Lackawanna Steam Ship Company. They've had a vacancy. They told us they're ready for you now.
PINKWATER: I'm down. I'm going. I've got my own mop.
SIMON: And a little something about the artwork, if we could.
PINKWATER: It's gorgeous.
SIMON: Yeah. It really is.
PINKWATER: It's - it's…
SIMON: Conveys such personality.
PINKWATER: It's sophisticated. It's light and funny. It's just as good as it gets. This begs description, you have to go and buy the book, folks.
SIMON: The book we've read today, "Little Toot" by Hardie Gramatky, has been restored and re-issued now by Putnam. Daniel Pinkwater is the author of many fine books for children and for adults. The latest is "The Neddiad."
SIMON: Good bye.
PINKWATER: Good bye.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.