Working in his Manhattan studio in the late 1930s, magazine illustrator Hardie Gramatky often watched boats maneuvering on the East River. He was especially drawn to one small tugboat that seemed to have a mind of its own and appeared never to be in the right place at the right time. This appealingly errant vessel inspired the artist to create watercolors and sketches of tugs and to pen an accompanying narrative.
That story became Little Toot, which Putnam published in 1939. Never out of print, the book has been translated into seven languages and with its sequels has sold more than six million copies worldwide. Last month, the house published a new edition that restores the watercolor art's original vibrant colors, faded from decades of reprinting. The new version also includes never-before-published sketches from Gramatky's manuscript and the long-lost endpapers.
“It was total serendipity,” says Linda Gramatky Smith, the author's daughter, of the decision to publish this edition, released five months after the 100th anniversary of her father's birth. Smith, a former freelance book editor, purchased a first edition of Little Toot on eBay shortly before a meeting she'd scheduled with Putnam president and publisher Nancy Paulsen and associate editorial director Susan Kochan, and she decided to bring the book along. “I showed it to them and they saw how very different the colors were from the current edition. After so many reprintings, the colors had gotten to be grays and oranges, yet Dad's watercolors had rich blues, reds and yellows. We all thought, 'Eureka!' and decided to do a new edition to bring the art back to what it once was.”
Recalling that meeting, Kochan says that Smith's excitement about keeping her father's legacy alive was infectious. The editor notes that the company's access to Gramatky's original art for Little Toot, now archived at the New York Public Library, as well as the endpaper art of early editions and the manuscript sketches, were ample incentive to produce the new edition. Also affecting this decision was the fact that Little Toot was the very first picture book Putnam published. “That is a very big deal,” Kochan says. “We decided we couldn't not restore its integrity. The theme of a little person—or boat—helping out and being purposeful is universal and still very relevant, and we wanted to rejuvenate Little Toot so that today's kids would be more attracted to it.”
The mission to restore Little Toot became a collaborative effort that Cecilia Yung, v-p and art director of Putnam and Philomel, calls “a labor of love.” The project entailed scanning art from three sources: early editions of Little Toot, the author's manuscript and his original watercolors. The original art, Yung says, “was breathtaking to see. The paint still looks wet and leaps off the page.”
The final result, says Yung, is worth that effort. “As we went back and forth with the fragile pieces of art, we realized we were holding a part of history in our hands. We had to do it justice. And I think we did.”
Smith agrees. “The new art is punchy and once again full of life,” she observes. “Dad would have loved this.”
Her father was also much on Smith's mind during the September 26th launch party, held aboard a Moran tugboat chugging along in New York Harbor. A similar celebratory cruise took place 68 years ago in those same waters, on a tug provided by the same company. On that earlier expedition, Gramatky, his friends and colleagues toasted the publication of his first children's book.
On last month's cruise, Smith brought out various editions of Little Toot to celebrate the old and the new, while another tug nearby emitted smoke puffs and performed figure-eights worthy of Little Toot. “It gave us all the feeling of what it is like to be out there on the water, just like Little Toot,” says Smith. “And that reminded me of Dad, since he always said that Little Toot was very much what he was like as a kid. He really identified with that little tugboat.”