Nautical children's book is re-launched

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You’ve never seen “Little Toot” quite like this before.

You’ve never seen “Little Toot” quite like this before.

You may remember the tale of this lazy little tugboat by writer and illustrator Hardie Gramatky. Over years of reproduction, however, the color has faded from the author’s distinctive artwork.

 

So G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Reader’s Group, has published a restored edition of “Little Toot” — Gramatky’s first foray into children’s writing — to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday earlier this year.

“Tugboats are one of the few things that haven’t changed dramatically since the ’30s and ’40s,” says Linda Gramatky Smith, the author’s daughter and a former freelance editor who lives in Connecticut. “We never had a boat, but he always loved being out on the water.”

Gramatky Smith, 64, says her father had wanted to join the Navy, but the military wouldn’t take him because of a slight curvature in his spine. That didn’t stop him from gazing at, painting and going out on boats. Gramatky got the idea for “Little Toot” when he was working as an animator for Walt Disney Studios in New York.

“His studio was right near Wall Street, right near the East River, and he always wore glasses when he was painting,” says Gramatky Smith. “Sometimes he would look out at the water to rest his eyes, and he would watch the boats and tugboats out in the harbor. He was really attracted to one tugboat that would go out … and then come back to shore. It would sometimes do a figure eight before it went back, and it was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

That raised a whimsical question in Gramatky’s mind: What happens if a tugboat doesn’t want to tug? “He did a watercolor of it and started writing the story,” says Gramatky Smith. “He submitted it to a contest, and among 1,400 other applications he came out in the top 10.”

However, he failed to attract publishers. Gramatky Smith recalls one publisher saying that a living tugboatwasn’t going to cut it for that year’s young audience. “He said, ‘Children aren’t thinking that way this year,’ ” she says, with a smile.

Fortunately for Gramatky, Little Toot was discovered by a friend of a friend who worked for Putnam, and the first edition was published in 1939. Gramatky would go on to illustrate and write 15 more books before his death at age 72 in 1979.

Last year Putnam asked Gramatky Smith what she would like to do to commemorate her father’s 100th birthday, and her decision was simple: bring “Little Toot” back to its original splendor.

“In February of 2006, I went into a meeting at Putnam,” she says. “I showed them the first edition and how the colors were so fresh, but after decades of printing they had faded dramatically. Many of the editors were so surprised. They had never seen what the real ‘Little Toot’ looked like and had no idea what the colors were like.”

Putnam and Gramatky Smith worked together on a new edition of “Little Toot,” sifting through archives of her father’s sketches and drawings. The “restored classic” edition also features end papers depicting a bird’s eye view of Little Toot’s harbor, which haven’t been seen in 40 years.

“I was so pleased when it came out,” says Gramatky Smith. “I’m amazed at how even though the drawings became so faded and lackluster that it was still selling. This edition has a note from me and all full-color pages.”

Gramatky Smith says that her father had an innate understanding of the way children thought and tried to include little inside jokes — “secret winks,” as Gramatky Smith calls them — throughout the text and illustrations. For instance, when Little Toot’s grandfather tells him about his mighty deeds on the river, Little Toot is rolling his eyes in the illustration.

“It’s so rare that a children’s book gets published today with the author as the writer and illustrator,” says Gramatky Smith. “If someone else had illustrated Little Toot, they might’ve had him listening very intently to his grandfather. But that’s not always what little children do.”

Gramatky has also been recognized for his watercolor paintings and was named one of the 20 great artists in his field in the fall 2006 20th anniversary issue of Watercolor Magazine. “He always just loved what he did,” says Gramatky Smith. “I like to think that somewhere my mom and dad are just delighted to see this book introduced to a new generation of children.”

For more information on “Little Toot” and Gramatky, visit www.littletoot.org and www.gramatky.com.

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