Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Little Toot

Just as Sydney pressed Rabbit Hill into my hands when she found out I never read it, so I pressed Little Toot into her hands when she said she never heard of it. What she actually did was laugh out loud when I innocently mentioned the title, but I've forgiven her. She now says she enjoyed the book, but she still thinks Little Toot is a dumb title -- and, indeed, the other tugboats on the river do laugh at Little Toot, though not at his father, who is named, uh, Big Toot.

Don't laugh! This was one of my favorite books as a kid, one I frequently checked out of the public library in Batesburg, S.C. Published in 1939, it was the first children's book by Hardie Gramatky (1907-1979), who had been a comic-strip artist, a Disney animator and a magazine illustrator. He was best known as a watercolorist, with exhibitions at the Whitney, the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, etc. It's interesting to compare the brushwork of the Little Toot illustrations with that in Gramatky's waterfront paintings, like this one.

Gramatky's New York studio overlooked the East River, and he got the idea for Little Toot while watching the tugboats. While Little Toot's river is unnamed in the book, it seems to be not the East River but the Hudson, as at one point Little Toot gets in the way of a big tug "bound down stream to pick up a string of coal barges from Hoboken."

Throughout, I note as an adult, Little Toot is lauded for the amount of pollution he emits: "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." At the climax, Little Toot's "S.O.S." smoke signal helps save the day. Environmental qualms aside, I still love Little Toot.


Kris D. said...

Does Little Toot sail out the beyond the five mile limit at one point? I remember a teacher reading this story to us, and how shocked her voice was when she read that part. The class was really worried about that little boat.

Linda Gramatky Smith said...

Hey there, Andy! I'm "Little Toot's sister" (well, really Hardie Gramatky's daughter) and I loved reading your blog. And yes, Kris D, after not wanting to work and so tired of being made fun of, Little Toot did float aimlessly out to sea. (I think it was the Disney movie that added that it was beyond the five-mile limit.)

One exciting bit of news. I'd always felt bad to see what the book looked like after 67 years of reprinting the same film. So last winter when we had a meeting with Penguin Putnam, I brought a first edition and told them that my dream was to have it come out with Dad's original vibrant blues and reds (rather than the recent greys and oranges). And the head of Putnam's Young Readers thought it would be a great idea to do in 2007 for what would have been Dad's 100th birthday. A fabulous "restored classic edition" will come out in Fall 2007, with charming endpapers that haven't been seen in 40 years and a few color illustrations from the manuscript that are brand new! I think it will help new generations of children to grasp why Little Toot (funny name, but can you imagine kids teasing you about your name?) has lasted in print for 67 years.

My husband, Ken, and I live out in the home in Westport, CT, where I grew up, and now our grandkids love the mischievous tugboat. Glad you did too!

Best wishes and thanks, Linda (Gramatky Smith)