When they were very young, my children would often ask me to read them the Little Golden Book, Tootle. A beloved standard of kiddie literature, “Tootle” tells the story of the eponymous “baby locomotive” who is in training at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives. A diligent and ambitious student, Tootle works hard to master that most important of locomotive lessons, Staying on the Rails No Matter What. But one day, after being challenged to a race by a swift black horse, Tootle chooses to jump the tracks in order to keep pace with his competitor. The race ends in a meadow whose sights and smells captivate Tootle. In the ensuing days, Tootle visits the meadow again and again, leaving the rails so that he is free to chase butterflies and dance amid the buttercups.
It isn’t until Tootle is waylaid by a scheme carried out by Bill, the head of the Lower Trainswitch School, that the young locomotive realizes the error of his ways.
Bill supplies red flags to all of the townsfolk, who hide themselves in the meadow grass. When the young locomotive jumps the tracks and rolls into the field, a villager’s red flag is suddenly “poked up from the grass and waved hard.” When Tootle turns to the left, there is another red flag, and when he turns to the right, there is yet another.
“And of course, Tootle ha[s]to stop for each one, for a locomotive must always Stop for a Red Flag Waving.”
There’s an allegory here.
Right up until the black horse’s challenge, Tootle is able to distinguish right locomotive behavior from wrong locomotive behavior. He knows that going off the rails can never be justified. Yet his pride compels Tootle to make the wrong choice.
“I can’t let a horse beat me,” he says. “Everyone at school will laugh at me.”
After the race, as he is standing in the beautiful field of flowers, Tootle finds him bedazzled by the landscape. He momentarily forgets his brazen flouting of the Number One rule of conscientious locomotivery, Staying on the Rails No Matter What.
Later on, however, his conscience bothers him. Back at the school, Tootle says “nothing about leaving the rails,” but he thinks about it that night in the roundhouse.
And Tootle makes up his mind not to sin again.
“Tomorrow I will work hard,” resolves Tootle. “I will not even think of leaving the rails, no matter what.”
The next day, Tootle is dutifully practicing Staying on the Rails No Matter What. When the track curves towards the meadow, however, Tootle’s resolve is weakened by a “big yellow carpet” of buttercups.
“How I should like to play in them and hold one under my searchlight to see if I like butter!” Tootle thinks.
And so begins Tootle’s inward struggle. As he clicks and clacks around the Great Curve, his wheels – goading Tootle like little demons – begin to say over and over again, “Do you like butter? Do you?”
“I don’t know,” snaps Tootle. “But I’m going to find out.”
And Tootle gives in to the temptation of the open field. He “hop[s]off the tracks and bump[s]along the meadow to the yellow buttercups.” There the young locomotive frolics with abandon until the sun begins to set.
The next day, and the day after that, Tootle leaves the rails and rolls into the meadow to play. He no longer feels guilty about his wrongdoing. His conscience calloused by repeated transgressions, Tootle routinely “tootl[es} happily down the tracks” in anticipation of his daily meadow jaunt, hopping eagerly off the rails with no thought other than “what a beautiful day it [is].”
Aware of Tootle’s illicit excursions, Bill puts his plan into effect at Tootle’s next visit to the meadow. Tootle, faced with a waving red flag at every turn, has nowhere to go. “Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place?” wonders the young locomotive. The forbidden field has lost its appeal for the sorrowful Tootle. Tears of regret are “ready to slide out of his boiler.”
Suddenly, Tootle notices Bill standing on the tracks, holding a big green flag.
“This is the place for me,” says Tootle. “There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”
And the villagers shout, “Hurray for Tootle!” and hail the young locomotive as a lost sheep might be welcomed back into the fold.
Can you recommend any other children’s books that could be used as catechism tools?
Copyright 2017 Celeste Behe