Since the birth of our second son, our nightly rituals have shifted. While the baby is breast-feeding before bedtime, I read to our older son and then put him to bed. I read him two books and he frequently insists that the second book be Thomas the Tank Engine: On the Track, There and Back.
If you don’t know Thomas, he is a train with a gray face on the front. When my nephew first took an interest in him many years ago, I couldn’t fathom how this was not in some way frightening. Here’s a face on the front of a machine. No arms, no legs, just a face. Beyond the eerie visage, I was also puzzled that they were somehow able to milk such a situation for plots. It’s not like the trains can pick things up; they have no hands. Nor can they freely roam; they are limited to only where the track can go. Nevertheless, with a few human figures around, they’ve managed to produce what seem to be hundreds of stories in books and videos — all of which make for a large world that the kids can buy into, quite literally. Once the kids are hooked by the book$ and video$, which feature $core$ of train$, they will likely want to buy the complete collection of toy$, clothe$, bed $heet$,curtain$, and other decoration$ and knick knack$.
Alright, yeah, I bought tons of Disney over the years — Disney pioneered this character merchandising. However, I find Thomas’s world depressingly familiar. It reminds me of corporate life. Much is made of Thomas being a “Really Useful Engine.” Every story is about work and getting the job done, with the constant fear of things going wrong or falling behind schedule. With that in mind, On the Track, There and Back is the most prototypical Thomas story, since it follows him from waking up to going to sleep.
There is an immediate sense of urgency in the story, since on the first page Thomas says “I’m on my way. I have so much to do today.” And it never stops until he gets back to his shed for sleep. Along the way, we follow him on his morning commute to the station, “a route I know well.” He hauls some passenger coaches then heads for the quarry, saying “NO time yet for fun!” Of course, there is never time for fun.
The only book in which I have ever read about Thomas going off and having some fun is one titled Thomas Breaks a Promise (originally published as Thomas Tells a Lie, but just as there could never be a Revenge of the Jedi, I guess Thomas is above ever telling a lie.) In that book, the temptation to go to a carnival gets the better of Thomas in the middle of a branch line signal-checking assignment — and results in a near-disaster. Sir Topham Hatt punishes Thomas by making him check the signals on the entire railway system. While Thomas did deserve to be disciplined, at no point does Sir Topham Hatt express wonder at why Thomas might have felt the need to take a freaking break.
But back to On the Track… At the quarry, Thomas helps two other engines. And then come the most redundant sentence ever written: “The Troublesome Trucks give us all lots of trouble.” Maybe by this point, Thomas’ brain has gone onto auto-pilot? Does he get a much-needed break yet? No, having already hauled passengers and rocks, he now has to go make a freight run from high up in the mountains all the way down to the harbor. Those three tasks have consumed his entire day and all he gets at the end is a washing and put back in his shed — all the while smiling as though he has either sat through one too many corporate motivational presentations or swallowed a goodly dose of Prozac.
There were nights when I wanted to scream into the book: “Take a break, Thomas! Tell Sir Topham Hatt you’re sick of being his obedient little minion. Go play Frisbee, read a fun book, write a letter to a long-missed friend, take some photos of deer, find a girlfriend, or at least sit and enjoy watching the world go by somewhere! Stopping being so damned f***ing useful for everyone else!”
The best I could do was, on a few nights, persuade my older son to skip the Thomas book in favor of more fun-filled books like:
- Autumn Walk by Ann Burg, illustrated by Kelly Asbury
- When I Go To The Park by Jill Harker, illustrated by Jane Swift
- Micawber, by John Lithgow, illustrated by C. F. Payne
- Curious George Goes Fishing by H. A. Rey
- But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton
- Dad Mine! and Mom Mine! by Dawn Apperley, Jane Kemp, and Clare Walters
- Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton (a Little Golden Book Classic)
Don’t get me wrong; I do want my kids to have a work ethic, but I don’t want them to become mindless corporate drones. I want them to know that family matters more than career — despite anything the corporate world may otherwise try to subtly enforce upon them. Even where a corporation does not encourage a workaholic mentality directly or even attempts to actively prevent it, the meritocracy structure of performance reviews and bonuses often compels managers to put their own career performance and advancement ahead of their employees’ familial and even physical health by driving their employees into overworked burnout. The employees who fall prey to this the most readily are the ones who have been indoctrinated with an excessively strong work ethic that is out of scale with any other ethos they may have. That’s where, I fear, too much Thomas (as with too much of anything), may be a bad influence.
Hey, boys, if you ever read this, spend time with your family and go have some fun.