Written by Karen Hinz


Mabel Caroline Bragg was born September 15, 1870 in Milford, MA and died April 25, 1945. Her mother passed away when she was eight years old and at that time she went to live with an Aunt in Bristol, Rhode Island. There she graduated from Rhode Island State Normal School in 1889. Her first position was at the Rhode Island State Normal School where she taught for the next 20 years.

She was recognized by her students as being gifted with a fine sense of humor and a knack for storytelling. She was especially interested in speech and encouraged her students to speak well. Her great interest speaking came from the fact that she hated her own name. She decided the only way to deal with this situation was to roll her name, Mabel Caroline in such a positive way that listeners would be stunned into thinking her name was an asset. I like her way of thinking.

In 1909, Mabel Caroline Bragg joined the firm of Newson and Company, publishers of a new reading system. She traveled all over the country to schools that had adopted the system. In 1916, she was made Assistant Superintendent of the Newton Public Schools, Massachusetts. She also taught storytelling in summer school at Chautauqua, New York. In 1930 Mabel Caroline Bragg left the Newton School System for the School of Education at Boston University, where she held a professorship until her retirement in 1940. She continued to act as an unofficial consultant in education until her death in 1945.

This is the frontispiece of The Little Engine That Could illustrated by Lois Lenski..

Mabel Caroline Bragg's most well known literary work is The Little Engine that Could. As of 1976, over 5 million copies have been sold. The story itself was published under the title, The Pony Engine, published by George Doran, & Company. In 1930 Platt & Munk bought the book from Doubleday, published it as The Little Engine That Could, retold by Watty Piper and illustrations by Lois Lenski. Other story illustrators include George & Doris Hauman, George Prestopino, and Ruth Sanderson.

However, the origins of the story are unclear. Sources suggest that the story was first published as a Sunday School tract. However, there is no printed information as to what the tract might be titled, if it was published as a children's tract or an adult tract. The story itself would most likely be based on the story of the good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke 10:25-37. And it seems that the story line was most likely used in oral story telling. In 1955, Platt & Munk decided to offer a reward to anyone who could offer proof of an earlier authorship than that of Mabel Caroline Bragg. The prize was divided by three parties all claiming authorship. John Tebbel writes about this incident as follows:

Another firm with a single title successful enough to carry it for awhile, even if no other help had been available, was Platt & Munk, with its The Little Engine that Could, a story whose origins became a matter of dispute in 1955. Although the house had copyrighted its version of the tale in 1930 and published it under the house pseudonym of Watty Piper, subsequently selling more than 1 million copies, the claim was made that the story was first written and published by Mrs. Frances M. Ford, of Drexel, Pennsylvania, who was 102 years old in 1956.

First titled "The Little Switch Engine," it was said, the story first appeared in a newsletter of the After School Club of America on April 18, 1912. Platt & Munk offered a $1,000 award to anyone who could offer proof of authorship, discounting the Ford claim that was made through the efforts of her niece, Mrs. Elizabeth McKinney Chmeil, of Tucson, Arizona, but the results were indecisive, although the award was split among three people. It was determined only that the basic story had been told and retold under different titles, that it had appeared in print before 1911, and many have originated in Europe before the turn of the century. According to Mrs. Chmeil, it was probably used by Mrs. Ford in lectures given during the eighties and nineties. In any case, the book was a constant seller for Platt & Munk, affirm that became an imprint of Grosset & Dunlap in 1978.
--John Tebbel. A History of Publishing in the United States. Vol. 4. The Great Change, 1940-1980. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1981, p. 476.

Mabel Caroline Bragg said her name with flair because she wanted one to be impressed. And yet the simple phrase, "I think I can, I think I can," has given more than just a flair to many. Its simple inspiration has gotten more projects completed than one could record. Perhaps the next time you think you can not do something, you might want to speak the words, "I think I can," with such a great flair that it will surprise you when the project is complete!

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Created March 31, 1997, Last Updated April 7, 1997 and is continuously revised