Cover for "Tales of the Little Engine". A cartoon steam train looking happy.

Tales of the Little Engine

Release Date: 8 October 2014
Pages: 67

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Jan would like nothing more than to carry people across the mountains like the big trains do. When the steam train gets the chance to do just that, will it manage? And will it find happiness?

Together with its canine friend Mister Whiskers, the bravest little engine finds itself right in the middle of several magical mysteries. The narrow pass between its hometown of Vawick and the city of Dunnsbridge is haunted by the Nethertrain and its minions, but the bravest little engine isn't afraid. When the Nethertrain learns of the little engine's intrusion, it is furious. Can the bravest little engine and Mister Whiskers find a way to stop the Nethertrain once and for all?

Accompanied by two essays on the influences and ideas behind the stories, "Tales of the Little Engine" collects some of the adventures of two very different little steam engines. Join Jan as it learns that, sometimes, dreams come true slightly differently from how we think they should or tag along with the bravest little engine as it travels around Vawick and Dunnsbridge.


trains, sentient trains, evil trains, playing with omniscient narrators, two storylines for the price of one, collection, always be mindful of context when encouraging people, the train died, but it got better, dogs, cats, bravery, discovering your dreams, realising sometimes what you want doesn’t work out exactly how you dreamed and that’s okay, storytelling trains, exciting train adventures, trying to save the world when confined to train tracks is hard, read-aloud


The Little Engine That Couldn't

ONCE UPON A time in a small town in a small country there was a small train station in which there lived a little engine. Its name was Jan. Jan did not have much to do in the small train station. There were bigger trains, shinier trains, newer trains, stronger trains, and faster trains that got all the work. Jan would entertain the children that came to the yard as they waited for the other trains to be ready, but it would love little more than to work like the other trains did. Jan wanted to carry people in its carriages to where they wanted to go, over the hills and across the mountains maybe, so it trained diligently to become stronger and able to pull more weight. And on that day two of the bigger, shinier, newer, stronger, faster trains broke down and were put in the yard to be repaired, and it snowed and snowed and snowed. Suddenly, the great many people who had come to visit the small town could no longer leave. The mountains were gleaming white with snow and were dangerous to cross by any means other than the trains, and they could not all stay for the little town was filled to overflowing with people visiting. There wasn’t enough space for everyone.

The station master paced along the platforms, crying ‘What shall I do?’ and pulling at his greying hair as if making his headache worse would help him find a solution. He was not a man used to dealing with great problems for he only lived on a small station in a small town in a small country. “What shall I do?” he cried and cried, and no one had an answer.

All the trains heard him and gossiped to one another. Could not Big Bertha and Florenzo each take an additional carriage? But the two trains said that they could not. It was too cold and the carriages would be too heavy and the people would be too cramped, and the trains too lamented with the station master. Eventually, gossip got to little Jan where it was huffing and puffing its steamy heart out to become faster. Jan was a little intimidated by the big trains, for, you have to remember, it was only a very little engine compared to them and it looked grubby and dated and cumbersome. But Jan thought as it huffed and as it puffed. It thought about the problems that the station master faced and it thought about its own problems. “If I show them that I can pull all the people over the mountains,” Jan said to itself, “then they will see how good and strong I am, and they will give me work.”

So Jan set off to find the station master and said, quite timidly, that it could help. Florenzo was nearby, explaining again how it couldn’t possibly cope, and it scoffed at the little engine. “You are so little,” it said. “You aren’t strong enough to handle the weight! And who would want to sit in such a dingy old train?”

Jan puffed out some smoke, feeling very small and very sad and very silly, but it stayed where it was. The station master patted Jan’s side and said, “Thank you, Jan.” He looked at Lorenzo. “You could learn something from little Jan.” Then he looked at the little engine again and smoothed back his hair. “But Florenzo has a point. There are too many people. You cannot pull the weight.”

“I want to try,” said Jan. “I can do it. I have practised ever so hard, station master, and no one else wants to do it.”

“All right then. I shall see what we can accomplish with your help, Jan. I shall need to make new calculations, I suppose.” The station master did not want to overtax Jan and he was certain that the little engine would try to do too much if no one intervened. He asked all the people to wait just a little while longer and when he was done with his calculations he would tell them how they were to get back to the grand capital over the mountains.

So it was that Jan had to be fitted with four carriages instead of its usual three. “I cannot do it!” Jan cried, for despite its many days practising it had never actually had to connect to a fourth carriage and it was scared. None of the trains had left yet and everyone was looking at Jan. What if it made a mistake? What if people would tell the station master that they would rather sleep out in the cold and wait for the big trains to return than ride with a grubby little steam engine like Jan? Florenzo had said so, after all.

“You can do it!” the crowd cried out. And Jan’s conductor, who was one of its best and only friends, said, “You have practised this so often, Jan. I have faith in you. You can do it if you believe in yourself too.”

And so Jan told itself ‘I can do it. I can do it. I can do it’ all the while that it backed against the fourth carriage. People shouted encouragement at it. Jan didn’t get it right the first time, nor the second, nor the third, but no one laughed at it. All the people chanted that it could do it and finally Jan did it. When the crowd erupted into a cheer, Jan’s steamy heart whistled with joy.

“I can do it!” shouted Jan along with the crowd and the people began to disperse to their designated trains. Jan waited patiently for everyone to board and for its tender to be filled with enough coal and water to last the journey to the grand capital over the mountains. The townspeople also made sure that the passengers had all the food and drink they could need and the children came to say a fond farewell to Jan. They begged him to return soon for how would they know it was morning without Jan’s whistling?

The little steam engine was both impatient and afraid to leave. It had never been over the mountains before. Once, when it had moved into the valley, it had gone around the mountains, but it had never gone much farther. Jan couldn’t remember what life beyond the high peaks was like, and so it was eager and scared to leave its home behind even for a little while. Finally, finally, it was time for Jan to go. Jan got to leave last of all the trains because it was the slowest and the station master feared Jan would only have delayed the other trains. He had not told Jan this, because he had not wanted to hurt the little engine’s feelings.

With a great effort — the carriages were really very heavy, much heavier than Jan had anticipated — Jan began to pull out of the station. Everyone cheered and some, noticing that the little steam engine was struggling, called out to it. “You can do it!” they cried again and Jan did not have the strength to tell them that he could not, that the carriages were too heavy. More and more people picked up the cry and Jan felt worse and worse. It wanted to return to the small town a hero, so it pulled and it strained and after a while it got going.

Jan was ecstatic and, when it whistled in triumph, the people cheered. Its passengers settled into their benches and did what people on trains anywhere do. Some enjoyed the view. Some enjoyed a book. Some enjoyed a good conversation. Others slept or made puzzles or played games. Whistling every now and again to let out some of its happiness, little Jan puffed along the tracks. Pulling the carriages was easier now that it had got going and it went merrily along the path the bigger trains had cleared. Jan strained up the first hill, fighting the weight that wanted to pull it down. It won. It struggled up the second hill and conquered the weight pulling it back down. But then the little engine came to the third hill, the last and the steepest hill before it would start to huff and puff through the mountains proper.

“I can’t! I can’t!” it sobbed.

“You can! You can!” the passengers said when they heard the little engine.

“It’s too heavy!” it cried.

“You can do it if you have faith in yourself!” the passengers said. “You crossed the first hills!”

“Oh, I can’t!” shouted the little engine.

“Be strong!” the passengers encouraged, but Jan did not know how. “We’ll help you!” And, having said so, the conductor and many of the strongest passengers got off the train and pushed and pushed against the last carriage until the little engine got to the top of the steep hill.

“We told you you could do it!” the people who had helped Jan called out and everyone patted the carriages that Jan was pulling as they filed back inside. They stomped snow all over the floor, but thankfully the little engine didn’t notice. Its conductor was sad to see it, though, for he loved Jan very much.

“I could do it!” the little engine sobbed, though this time it was a joyous sob, and it went along the train tracks as fast as it could and as happy as it had ever been. ‘I can do it!’ the little engine sang, but its steamy heart wasn’t in it for long. Dark clouds were gathering in the sky and it knew that that meant more snow. The conductor worried too for he did not know if Jan could deal with snow. They had not equipped the little engine for that.

Because the tracks had been very well-laid, all that the passengers noticed when they entered the mountain range was the scenery. The little engine was very grateful for that meant it was not having as many problems as it had with the hills, despite the mountains being higher. But the further Jan went, the darker the clouds got until they spilled snow onto the world.

“Oh, no!” the little engine exclaimed.

“What is it?” one of the passengers asked.

“The snow is falling too fast and too thick,” Jan said. “I will never make it. It isn’t possible. I don’t have a snow plough.”

“You have done so much already,” the people responded. “A little snow won’t stop you.” Even the conductor spoke those words for he wished to give his friend courage. The further they went and the more snow there lay, the slower Jan huffed and the slower Jan puffed. The conductor worried that they should have added another tender, but he did not tell Jan. He feared that it would scare the little engine and then they would all be stranded in the mountains until the next day.

Jan could feel the cold seeping into its metal, but it huffed and puffed onward, ever closer to the grand capital that was its destination. It became slower and slower because the snow kept piling higher and higher. The people called out encouragements and they ran out to clear the path as well as they could. It was so cold that they had to move in small groups, to give everyone enough time to warm back up. Jan’s steamy heart despaired.

“I cannot do it!” it cried out. “The snow is too thick. I cannot get through.”

“It is only a little way further,” some of the passengers said. “It is only up one more hill. You can do it.” Jan braked a moment to see where it was and, indeed, it was past the mountains and well through the foothills near the grand capital. One more hill and the land would flatten out, the conductor and the passengers told it. It was almost there, but...

“I am so cold,” Jan said. “The snow is too deep for me. My metal will break if I try to go up that hill. I know it will.”

“It won’t!” the passengers cried. “You’re almost here! You can do it! You can! You can! If only you believe in yourself, Jan. You must be brave and strong a little while longer. You’re almost there.”

And so the little engine soldiered on through the cold and the snow and hoped that it was wrong. At least the snow had stopped falling now. Jan huffed and Jan puffed. Jan strained and Jan groaned. It got to the hill and it was the steepest hill that it had ever seen, but it pulled and pulled. When at last it got to the top of the hill there was a loud sound of cheering from the carriages. People sang and danced in the aisles as best they could and some told Jan that they had not helped it this time, but the little engine crawled forward even more slowly. In the distance, the night lights of the grand capital winked into existence rapidly. Jan was cheered, but the little engine was now moving so slowly it was barely moving at all.

“What’s wrong, Jan?” the passengers asked.

“It is still so very far,” the little engine said. “And I have so little coal and water left. I don’t think I can make it to the station.”

“You have come so far and done so much,” the passengers said, and even the conductor pointed out how much that Jan had already overcome. The conductor trusted Jan’s judgement, but the little engine was so close. He could not bear to see his friend fail now. He told Jan that he and the passengers would help it. He made the passengers gather all the water they could find. He made them fetch all the loose wood they had on board, and he even told some to forage near the tracks. They loaded all they found in the tender for the little engine to use and Jan was cheered.

“I shall try!” the little engine said when everyone was back inside the carriages.

“You will succeed!” the passengers said, and they were off again.

It wasn’t long before the sound of metal fracturing and breaking was heard in the quiet night and the little engine ground to a halt again. “I cannot do it! You will have to walk,” Jan said. “I cannot take you farther for my chassis broke.”

“It’s only your imagination,” the passengers cried. “You are such a sturdy little steam engine, Jan, and you are so strong. It cannot have broken.”

“It has! It has!”

“It’s not cold enough!” called one of the passengers. “And I should know for I am a steel manufacturer. Your chassis cannot have broken.”

“It has!” Jan sobbed back. “I know it has! Go see!”

“But, Jan,” the steel manufacturer said, “we cannot. There is too much snow. You must trust us on this.”

Jan was miserable. It was cold and it had failed and no one was listening to it, so it did not repeat that its chassis had broken. Instead it tried to pull itself forward. The little engine strained and strained, but it got no farther. “I cannot do it!” it cried, but the passengers would not hear it.

“You have done so well! You can do a little more, Jan! You can! You can do much. Just try again.”

And so it went and Jan tried and tried and tried until it had used up all its coal and much of its wood. Every time that Jan cried and sobbed that it did no good, the passengers cheered it on. Jan explained again that it was broken and its fuel was almost gone. It said that someone had to get help from the grand capital, but the passengers didn’t listen. Jan wasn’t trying hard enough, they said. Jan wasn’t using enough fuel, they said. Jan had used too much fuel, they said. Jan had dealt with hills and mountains, so surely a flat track could not pose such problems. Jan would manage it the next time. All Jan needed was a little push…

On and on the passengers went. The conductor tried to talk to them, but they would not hear what he had to say. He shouted himself hoarse at them, but they would not listen. He would have gone for help himself, but he dared not leave the little engine alone. He stood outside the train and rested his hand on the cold metal of Jan’s side. According to his watch they were very late indeed, so he hoped that the station master of the grand capital would send someone to look for them. He hoped they would be found before Jan ran out of wood and water.

Some of the passengers got very angry and everyone was yelling back and forth at one another, and it might have come to blows if Jan had not whistled as loudly as it could to get everyone’s attention. It could not stand to see the people so upset, and it hated that it was to blame. “I will try one more time,” it told the passengers. “I will give it everything I have one more time. But you have to promise — promise — that, if I cannot do it even then, some of you will walk to the station and get help.” Secretly, it hoped that it had whistled so loudly the sound had been carried all the way into the capital and Big Bertha or one of the other trains would realise that Jan was in a lot of trouble.

Grudgingly, the people agreed and settled back into their seats. Jan strained and strained and pulled and pulled until the very last water and wood had gone from the tender. It did not move as much as an inch. The little engine had struggled and tried until the very last of the fuel in its heart had run out. It had not moved as much as half an inch. Jan whistled once, softly, and it was quiet. The passengers too were quiet for a long time. “Jan? Jan?” the conductor called into the silence, but he got no answer from the brave little steam engine. Then the passengers joined in, but still the little engine did not respond.

The hardiest of passengers decided they would do as little Jan had asked. They borrowed more clothing against the cold and set off through the snow. The people who remained tried to coax the conductor inside the carriages where they were huddling for warmth, but he would not budge from beside the engine. He tried to keep Jan’s steamy heart from cooling, tears freezing to his cheeks.

Meanwhile, the passengers that had left stumbled their way into the station of the grand capital. When they found the station mistress there, they told her their story. Quickly, as quickly as possible, two of the larger trains, still equipped with snow ploughs, were called into action. They raced to the broken little engine with as much speed as they could muster. One of them pulled little Jan into the station as gently as it could while the other carried the passengers. They were very glad to be in the big, warm train, but the conductor still would not leave his friend.

The station mistress had woken several of her best mechanics to be on hand, so they rushed to check on the little engine as soon as the big train had come to a halt. It had run completely out of fuel and its chassis had broken under the cold and the strain. The station mistress managed to convince the conductor to leave his friend for he was very cold and needed to see a doctor as soon as possible. He left his friend in the yard and people gathered around the little engine.

The very first thing the mechanics did was light up Jan’s heart with new fuel. That’s a very important thing if you wish to keep a steam engine alive, for without fuel it cannot live, and if you are not quick enough to light its heart anew the train will die. It may still run along the tracks, but it will never be able to do so on its own like before. Nor will it ever speak again or whistle the start of the day for you.

The second thing the mechanics did was hope and wait, though some of the religious ones prayed instead. The other trains and the little engine’s passengers slowly gathered around the yard to see what would happen and they too waited, silently. They waited and who knows what they were all thinking.

After a while, they heard a faint whistle and the mechanics fed the little engine more wood, and then some more until the fire in Jan’s heart was burning hot and bright. “Where am I?” said Jan and the whole train station burst into cheers for the little engine that couldn’t had spoken. The station mistress bade everyone be quiet and to give the little engine some peace, but the cheers only died down slowly. Then the mechanics explained to the little engine what had happened, how its chassis had broken and how its friend the conductor might lose some toes and fingers to the cold.

Many people in the crowd slunk off during the explanation, darting through the shadows to their homes and hotels with shame in their hearts, but some of the people stayed and patted Jan’s side. “We’re sorry,” they said. “We should have listened to you.”

Jan was silent, but the mechanics said that yes, yes they should have listened to the little engine for who knows their body better than the person it belongs to. They were very angry with the passengers and so they almost had a fight, but Jan whistled and hushed both groups. It said, “I wish you’d listened to me better, but it is done now and cannot be undone.” Jan hoped that that would soothe matters for it did not wish anyone else to be hurt.

Before the people could think of something to say, Big Bertha spoke up. “We will take you home when the snow clears, Jan,” it said. The mechanics said that Jan could not leave before its chassis was fixed and they wanted to look Jan over at more leisure to make sure the little engine could make the journey home. Jan was very pleased to be confined to the grand capital because it did not want to leave without the conductor, but it was also sad for it wanted to go home. By now only a few of its passengers were still in the yard and they promised the little engine that they would clean the carriages that Jan had pulled for they were very sorry to have caused it so much grief and wished to make amends.

Then the station mistress and her people escorted everyone out of the station because it was very late and there were no more trains coming in. Jan sat in the yard and watched the sky. It would never be a strong, fast train. And when it got home it would never leave the yard again for it could not do anything. That much was clear.

“We’ll talk to the station master,” Florenzo said as it rode up the track beside Jan’s. The big train stopped beside the little one. “Maybe you can’t pull big and heavy things so far through the mountains, but you can do other things much better than we.”

Jan wondered what it could possibly do better than the big, strong and fast trains, but it said nothing.

For a while, Florenzo did not say anything either, but when the little engine that couldn’t did not respond, the big train said “Like showing people the valley or making children smile.”

“We are too fast, too big and too busy to do such things,” Big Bertha added as it came to a halt on Jan’s other side. “I think you’d like it, Jan.”

The little engine did not respond for a long time, but it knew they were right. It loved its valley and the children at the station. “I think I would like it too.” It whistled softly at the big engines beside it and slept.