Profile: Roy Plotnick
Professor, paleontologist and 'Little Engine' fan
Roy Plotnick: classic children’s book “a retelling of the Good Samaritan parable.”
Photo: Kathryn Marchetti
Why did Roy Plotnick, paleontologist and professor of earth and environmental sciences, become an expert on the children’s book The Little Engine That Could?
Because he thought he could, he thought he could, he thought he could.
With its signature phrase “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” the beloved children’s favorite turned 100 years old last year.
No one knows who wrote the original story. Plotnick has a photocopy of the 1906 version, from a newsletter aimed at young people, but it’s not signed.
In the 1930s, a woman named Frances Ford began claiming she was the author and published her version. That led publisher Platt & Munk to sue her publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, with the result that she was allowed credit for the story but only under the title The Pony Engine.
“Millions and millions” of copies of The Little Engine have been sold just how many millions no one knows, Plotnick said. That’s because Platt & Munk’s records were lost in a fire.
“It’s certainly one of the most-read children’s books,” the professor said. “I recently bought a copy in Israel translated into Hebrew.”
Plotnick has been collecting Little Engine artifacts since 1990. He has at least 20 books of the various versions and 15 recorded versions, “plus a large paper trail” of newspaper and magazine articles and letters.
Part of his collection is on display in the exhibit “One Hundred Years of Thinking I Can! A Brief History of the Little Engine Story,” shown in the center of the first-floor lobby of the Daley Library through Feb. 28.
He has other collections as well, including American Flyer toy trains dozens of engines and 200-odd pieces of rolling stock laid out as the Yellow Brick Railroad (motto: “We send you over the rainbow”).
The professor collects Thornton Burgess’s charming nature stories, featuring talking animals. He has 20 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum and his successor, Ruth Plumly Thompson.
Plotnick is also an amateur astronomer, searching the heavens with three telescopes.
As a paleontologist, Plotnick studies the origins of animal behavior, specifically foraging, by examining burrows, borings and other fossilized evidence. He’s a distinguished lecturer for the Paleontological Society and a participant in the international Paleobiology Database, which collects data for marine and terrestrial animals and plants of any geological age, and CHRONOS, a collaboration of scientists working to integrate geoscience databases and tools into one cyberinfrastructure.
Plotnick lives in Oak Park with his wife, Deborah Stewart. Their sons Daniel, 19, and Jonathan, 16 had The Little Engine read to them as kids, as did their father before them.
“That and The Little Red Caboose were two of my favorites,” he said.
How to explain the enduring popularity of the book, which tells the story of a little switch engine’s success in pulling a heavy load up a hill when bigger engines have refused the job?
“The American idea that if you try hard enough you’ll have success is part of it,” Plotnick said. “Also it’s a retelling of the Good Samaritan parable, where others won’t help but he will.
“And kids love trains.”
If you’d like to suggest a student or colleague for a future profile, contact Gary Wisby at email@example.com