Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Celebrate the Classics: Thomas the Tank Engine

I must first credit my insightful husband for his thought-provoking observations which have greatly impacted our family appreciation for Thomas and my understanding of the collection for this review. (Thanks, honey!)

Our boys (5, 3, and 1) love books and trains. Occasionally a sweet friend will give them one (or several) of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, and we noticed that they were taken from the original stories written by the Reverend W. Awdry. Who was Rev. Awdry, and what were the original stories? My husband encouraged me to find out.

Lo and behold, our local library had a copy of Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection (ISBN 0517187868) which was met with great enthusiasm at our house, not only by my sons but especially by my husband; I was glad to find used copies available online. (Frequent handling thus far has required me to mend our copy once already, and I intend to pursue library binding so it will hold up under many years of use!)

Rev. Wilbert Awdry drew on his childhood love of trains and belief that they had individual personalities when his little son was ill and needed to be amused. His wife persuaded him to pursue publication, and finally the first stories about Edward, Gordon and Henry were published in 1945.

My husband has often commented on the enormous difference between the text of originals and the modern, super-abridged easy readers. Gone are the complex personalities, the depth of lessons learned, the gentle relationships developed between the engines and the "Fat Controller." A simple comparison of the texts will demonstrate my point. Here is the original opening of "Thomas Goes Fishing" from the collection of original stories:

Thomas' branch line had a station by a river. As he rumbled over the bridge, he would see people fishing. Sometimes they stood quietly by their lines; sometimes they were actually jerking fish out of the water.
Thomas often wanted to stay and watch, but his Driver said, "No! what would the Fat Controller say if we were late?"
Thomas thought it would be lovely to stop by the river. "I should like to go fishing," he said to himself longingly.

Here we find onomatopoetic words like "rumbled" and "jerked" and the conflict between duty and pleasure and the self-discipline learned by accountability.
Here is the opening of the easy reader edition:

Thomas chugged by the river.
He saw children fishing.
"Peep, peep!" Thomas said.
The children waved.

So much is lost. Even though this is an easy reader, I believe there is too much sacrificed in the text so that rather than engaging the reader, the child has little reason to care and the parent can't wait to get to the end.

At the conclusion of the original story we learn that the Stationmaster, Driver, Fireman and Fat Controller had a picnic of fish and chips, a merry fellowship dinner, which is so much more satisfying than the abridged version's simple discovery that  there were fish in the boiler. Think of all the examples in children's literature which celebrate food and eating with good company!

A few more of my husband's observations about the collection as a whole, in his words:

"Reading the originals you can learn something about railroads. I could go back to the stories to find railroad terms that I never heard before. The early stories revolve around engines who behave as children who must be disciplined in order to become “Really Useful Engines.” The later stories are a bit more somber, with tales of arrogant, sometimes vicious diesels taking over railroads, with the Fat Controller and others providing a safe haven for steam engines who manage to escape. Take a look at the superior artwork in the originals and how it changes over the years as different illustrators are used."

Great stuff. If you have children who love trains, we heartily recommend finding a copy of the original stories at a library or online!

What's YOUR favorite Thomas the Tank Engine story?

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