I remember crossing paths with Thomas the Tank Engine when my son, Ayhan, was about a year old. Our local library had a weekly story and Lego Time, which became a regular Saturday morning outing for my son and me. Ayhan was instantly attracted to the Duplo train set, which happened to take on the persona of a certain blue engine. At first, I kept said train nameless, but many children at Lego Time loved Thomas (and how can you not love a train with a happy big-eyed face?) and many were sporting Thomas’ likeness on their feet (boots), backs (backpacks), or in their hands (toys of all sorts).
At that early stage I had kept Ayhan relatively free of almost all commercialism. No screen time, no advertising, no modern franchised characters like Dora or Elmo, though Curious George got a stay-of-execution, probably because I loved him so much as a kid. But Thomas wasn’t part of my childhood and all the ‘merch’ on the kids at the library put me on the defensive, so we kept our distance from Thomas and his friends. But slowly, products and characters can worm their way into peoples’ lives.
At Christmas in 2013, when Ayhan was 18 months old, we visited my sister. She loves Christmas, but respects our request to keep only to second-hand gifts. She surprised Ayhan with four of the original Thomas books by the Reverend W. Awdry found at a thrift store. If you haven’t read Awdry’s 26 stories and think only of Thomas from his recent cartoons or the dumbed down books available in most libraries, Awdry’s stories are a-whole-nother world. Laden with Puritanical ethics of being “a really useful engine,” they’re filled with strong lessons of what is today typically known as Servant Leadership. (Though many would argue that the lessons are overly authoritarian, even colonial, and push obedience over free thinking).
Along with being a bit moralistic, Awdry’s writing, at least when reading to a one-and-a-half year old, seems verbose, hence why I “forgot” two of the books at my sister’s. However, to my surprise, Ayhan really enjoyed the two that did make it home, and I read about “silly old Gordon” falling into a ditch and Thomas falling into a mine dozens of times (though I always removed the last bit about how since they were both “in disgrace” they could be “allies,” just saying that they were friends now because they both fell into holes).
The more I read (and the more my son enjoyed me reading these two stories), the more my heart softened to Thomas, and proud Gordon, and simple Toby, and I even allowed Ayhan to watch an occasional Thomas cartoon once we introduced a bit of screen time after he turned two.
Then for his second birthday, he got his first Thomas magnet train. Up to this point, he had simply named other trains after characters, though they were all generic trains with no faces—a red Lego train became James, a little plastic train became Hiro, a wooden block train became Stephen, and Thomas wasn’t even in the picture. (Some even got the full upgrade, with a smiling paper face taped to their fronts.) Then we added Thomas, and all was still fine, though he did become cherished above others.
Not long after, a good friend brought us a used copy of the complete collection of original Thomas stories, and we read through all 400 pages several times. Of course, some of the stories try too hard—was the dear Reverend Awdry just trying to keep writing more stories for his son, Christopher, or did he suffer from the serial author syndrome where his livelihood depended on producing yet more content?—but most were fun to read. Much better than many of today’s kid’s books. So Thomas, I can say, became my friend.
Then our relationship started to sour again. While the original stories are interesting, complex, and filled with strong messages, the more recent Thomas stories are mostly derivative, focused more on introducing new characters to sell more toys than on reveling in life on Sodor or teaching valuable lessons. Same goes with the cartoons: while the old stop motion videos are well-paced, entertaining stories with good moral lessons, the new ones are primarily vehicles to sell new characters and their $25 wooden embodiments. And sadly, it’s the new stories and cartoons that pepper the shelves of my local library.
Most likely, this shift in style and focus is because Mattel bought THOMAS & FRIENDS in 2012—becoming the railway’s new “fat controller”—and invested lots of dollars into the brand to strengthen the company’s sales to the pre-K market. But in the process, Mattel commercialized the franchise significantly, pushing dozens of new products, apps, and videos filled with lots of new marketable characters. At the same time, the company gutted the good stories and moral lessons from the format. While I still got along with Thomas, I’d started to see more of his new dark side, and I now no longer fully trusted him. Yes, we had become frenemies.
But with my relationship with Thomas the Tank Engine almost three years old now, I can say I’m happy with him being a small part of my son’s life—even if our relationship has been a bit tumultuous. I like Thomas—and his friends—they’re good, innocent trains, helping each other and the people of Sodor day in and day out. But Thomas the Franchise I dislike deeply, and I encourage parents who have yet to let the shadier side of Sodor into their homes to keep their doors closed to it. Clearly that’s not easy, with kids covered in Thomas stuff and new DVDs lining library shelves (at toddler eye-level of course), but I have found it is possible. By not exposing Ayhan to Thomas and Friend’s apps, games or their heavily promotional website, and by choosing which books to read and cartoons to watch with him—namely Awdry’s original stories and the cartoons based on them—I can guard my son from Thomas’ high speed race to commercialization. And learning how to walk the fine line in the modern world of branded play might be the most useful lesson Thomas has taught me yet.
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and is currently directing State of the World 2017, which will focus on how we need to rethink education for life in a warming world.