We live in strange times. Most of us are hunkering down with our families, living life via Zoom, FaceTime, or status updates. It’s a time where the message of the classic children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, is perhaps more resonant than ever — despite being originally published 90 years ago.
The Little Engine That Could happens to be the very first book that any child who signs up for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library receives. And that’s no accident. The story’s message of perseverance is truly timeless, and its core message – “I think I can” – speaks volumes to the mostly disadvantaged kids who receive up to 60 books from birth to age 5, for free, through Parton’s incredible foundation. (Last I checked, the Imagination Library had shipped 133,899,247 books around the world).
The book has personal significance to Parton as well. “On many occasions, when my dream seemed far away, my Mama would tell me the story of the Little Engine to comfort and encourage me,” she’s said.
And this year, The Little Engine That Could turns 90 – an incredible milestone, in the ever-shifting landscape of children’s literature — for which Dolly Parton provides the introduction. Penguin Random House tapped Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator Dan Santat to bring the story to life anew in the 90th anniversary edition, and layer his 21st-century sensibility atop one of our country’s most treasured stories.
Brightly caught up with Santat to chat about this moment in time — for him, The Little Engine That Could, and for all of us, living through this pandemic. Here’s how he changed his own mantra from “I can not” to “I think I can,” just like the Little Blue Engine in the book.
What an honor, re-imagining this classic. Does The Little Engine That Could have any specific meaning to you?
If I reflect on my life, coming from a family that never really wanted me to be an artist or a writer in the first place, but knowing deep inside that was what I was passionate about…
You always knew?
I knew. Telling my parents I wanted to be an artist was almost like a coming-out party.
I remember applying to art school, after getting a microbiology degree and realizing that I wasn’t going to be a dentist. I was feeling like I was really behind the curve because you probably had a bunch of kids who were nurtured into being artists, and up to that point I was self-taught. I thought, “Gosh, is it too late for me?”
You know that moment when you just keep repeating your mantra until you actually believe it? That’s absolutely the thing that got me through art school and getting my first job, or just overcoming any kind of obstacle. Just telling yourself, “Yeah, I think I can. I think I can.” It’s a mantra that gives you some kind of peace. It says, there is going to be an end at some point and you’re going to be fine.
How appropriate, for what we’re living through right now.
In The Little Engine That Could, you’re the illustrator. But you’ve also written and illustrated your own books, like Beekle and After the Fall, both of which I just love. How is it different?
On one hand, when you’re working on your own project, a lot rides on you. It’s harder [if you get] a bad review for one of your own creations that you wrote and illustrated. With a classic, it’s almost like you have an advantage, like, who is going to hate The Little Engine That Could?
What kind of research did you do?
The previous edition, by Loren Long, he’s a friend of mine. I remember looking at that book and thinking, “This is a lot to live up to.” I remember reaching out to Loren and talking to him about what it was like, and just kind of relishing in the fact that we get to be these illustrators in the children’s lit community that get to put our contribution into this piece of iconic children’s literature. It’s a huge honor, and you don’t want to disappoint.
It’s also a little intimidating because there are so many versions out there that you could compare it to.
Did you pull them all?
I did. I got a lot of the older versions. It was like watching a time capsule, people coming in every 10, 15 years, putting in their part.
It’s like the rings in a tree. You get to be a part of the evolution. You know inevitably there’s going to be a 100th anniversary — and you will just be a ring in the tree.
Can we go way back for a bit? How did you get into children’s books? I know you’ve always drawn.
I always drew, but it was pretty much a hobby. My parents convinced me that art was just going to be a hobby and I was going to grow up to be a doctor. I went to a four-year college. I remember sitting in classes. I would take biology notes, and I’d have friends looking over at my notes and they’d see me drawing the most beautiful cell they’d ever seen. For a number of years, while I was in college, they’d always tell me, “You’re going to be a horrible dentist. This is a huge mistake. You shouldn’t go into medicine. Clearly, your passion is in art. You should see if you can get into art school. You should just see. You should try.”
And I did.
There was a children’s book course at the Art Center that I signed up for. I immediately fell in love because it was this palatable format. We’re talking about picture books. It’s 32 pages. There’s a word count. The publishing industry is a friendly place that encourages people to come and share their stories. They’re cheering for you. They’re like, “We hope that someday you get published.”
Then, I went to my first children’s book conference, where you can show your stuff off to editors and art directors. I remember being really nervous, not feeling like I was cut out for the business. It was just a lifetime of insecurity. I put my portfolio down. I had my dummy book down for a picture book that I had written. And this man comes up to me with my dummy book and he says, “I’m Arthur Levine and I really like this. I want to take it back to my publisher, and I want to give you a two-book deal.” And I didn’t know who Arthur Levine was. My teacher from the art school pulled me aside and said, “You better hop on this, son. Do you know who Arthur Levine is? He edits Harry Potter.” I was just like, “Oh my god, I better do this.”
Amazing. And what are you working on now? I saw on Twitter that you just finished inking your second graphic novel.
Right, so I’m wrapping a graphic novel called The Aquanaut, which I’ve been working on for 10 years. And it’s only been 10 years because I’ve been working on so many other projects, I keep shoving my own projects aside.
Another graphic novel I’m working on is about a three-week trip to Europe and the first time I fell in love, riding on a bus with the popular girls from junior high, and just wandering all over Europe and getting into all kinds of adventures.
And I’m currently working on another picture book. It’s my own. It’s about stereotypes.
So, it sounds like you’re doing more of your own projects now?
I made a commitment to myself as a new year’s resolution for 2020. I told myself, “I need to focus on myself.” I’m going to be 45 this year, and I think about all the books I’ve published, and I feel like I should’ve done more. I’m working on a lot of projects because I have a really hard time saying no. But as a result, you take The Aquanaut, it’s taken 10 years of my life.
And so, with the time that I have now, I just said,” I think it’s more important that I focus on the stories I have to tell.” There’s a little bit of anxiety I have about putting out my own work because you’re a little bit more vulnerable to the criticism. You’re putting a little bit of yourself out there, and you’re revealing your soul, and there are people who won’t hesitate to step on it or complain because Amazon delivered it a day late, and you get a 1-star review.
Are there still moments in your life where you employ the mantra, I think I can, I think I can?
I think everybody sees the little train in themselves.
My drive was always based on insecurity, which the little engine kind of had, like, “I don’t know if I can make it up this hill, I’m just this tiny little engine.” But in the process of doing, just getting so focused a little bit at a time, piece by piece, step by step, it happens. I’ve lived my whole life like that.
About Dan Santat
Dan Santat works as a children’s book creator and commercial illustrator. He is also the creator of Disney’s animated hit, “The Replacements.” Dan graduated with honors from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He lives with his wife, two kids, a rabbit, a bird, and one cat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.