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.