Wednesday, July 24, 2002

A REALLY USEFUL ENGINE: When my niece started living and breathing the Thomas the Tank Engine videos, books, and toys, I was dismissive of the whole thing -- but then, I wasn't a parent. Then along came my son, a boy who is fascinated by all things mechanical, who lives and breathes planes, trains and automobiles. I kept him on a very tight TV leash and didn't let him watch anything at all until he was over two years old. But during a trip to Portland last winter, out of desperation to save our host's house, I broke down and bought my son a Thomas the Tank Engine video that came with a Thomas toy train. And since then, our lives have been filled with Thomas: Thomas video sessions for potty-training rewards; the original Thomas stories for bedtime reading. What makes all of this Thomas-mania tolerable is that the stories are pretty funny and interesting, and the videos are made using wonderfully detailed and beautiful toy train sets. Yes, Thomas really is a useful engine. (For the uninitiated, that's the tag-line in Thomas stories: everyone wants to be "really useful" -- pronounced with an English accent for best effect.) [Note: None of this praise of the Thomas series applies to the feature film, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, which stars Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda and is a miserable waste of time and money that should be avoided at all costs -- which anyone could probably tell just from reading the cast.] All of which is to say, I was bemused by some of the reader reviews of Thomas stories on Amazon that Cut on the Bias republished. Many of the reviewers complained that Thomas and his friends get grumpy sometimes and make snide remarks about one another, and they don't want their children to learn that kind of behavior. Good grief. First, little kids don't have to learn how to be grumpy, defiant, and twerps -- it's innate -- and besides, they're going to run into grumpy people. Second, one of the main themes of the Thomas stories (and of lots of children's literature, come to think of it) is that uncivil behavior is, to use another Thomas tag-line, "naughty," and that we should all strive to be good, i.e. "really useful." I guess some parents are just nuts.

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