Last Sunday the Boston Globe ran a piece on the rise of right-wing books for children, “Bedtime for Little Patriots” by Tom Scocca, an author and blogger for Slate. His funniest case is shown to the right, where the National Oak Flooring Manufacturing Association tries to convince kids that logging off forests isn’t so bad, in spite of what Dr Seuss’ Lorax says. His other main example is a series of Coulter-esque humor books by Katharine DeBrecht with titles like “Help Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed!” These feature bits like the Ted Kennedy Car Wash, which may amuse conservative parents who still care about Chappaquidick, but is going to baffle six-year-olds. Bits like that are standard in right-wing lit but hardly prove that conservatives are aiming to win back children seduced by the New Deal values of Dr. Seuss.
However, there is a hugely popular kid’s series which does seem to embody conservative values – Thomas the Tank Engine. The island of Sodor, “a magical place where engines can talk and the trains run right on time”, is a happy, peaceful island where everyone knows exactly their place under the wise and benevolent rule of Sir Topham Hatt. The engines’ main goal is to be Really Useful, as defined by what Hatt wants them to do. They worry constantly about being scrapped, but are always told by Hatt that he’ll find a place for them. Thomas is always getting into trouble by failing to concentrate on his job. Social classification is strict, as when Duck the Great Western engine tells Gordon “We engines have our differences, but we would never discuss them in front of the cars.” The cars are all lazy and trouble-makers. The only female engine is Lady, who doesn’t actually do any work but spreads magic gold dust wherever she drives. The main villain is Diesel 10, the technically advanced engine, who thinks that he should run the railroad instead of the traditional and aristocratic Hatt. Heaven forbid that filthy and dangerous coal-burning locomotives should be replaced by clean and fast diesels.
The stories themselves are odd and disjointed. The original books were written in the 1940s by Wilbert Audry (who is always referred to as Rev. W. Audry, I suppose because Wilbert sounds dopey and the Rev. reassures parents), but the modern versions are heavily skewed towards the stop-motion animation series “Thomas and Friends”. There are no authors listed on the picture books, just company names. The original creator of the TV series, Britt Allcroft, was forced out of the firm in 2000 after the failure of the Thomas movie, and the property has changed hands several times since then. It’s not surprising that Chinese-made Thomas products turned out to have poisonous lead in their paint – they’re squeezing every penny they can out of this franchise.
However, the animation of the TV show is nicely done, and is a great relief from the snarky and eyeball-grabbing style of most kid’s cartoons today. There’s one thing that unites parents on both the Right and Left – a dislike of modern commercial kid culture. Parents on the Right look at, say, Bratz dolls and say “Those girls are dressed like hookers,” while parents on the Left say “Those dolls teach girls that only appearance matters,” and they’re both right. But the Thomas videos look so old-fashioned and hand-made, and have enough natural charm that people don’t see the stiletto of an authoritarian message behind the bright colors and happy characters.
Still, my kids love the books and shows, and what can I say, I’m a soft touch. Fortunately, they’re even fonder of the gentle, communitarian “Little Bear” series. That’s all Canadian let’s-all-get-along-and-be-nice-in-this-diverse-community stories, instead of Thomas’ obey-or-you’re-fired Thatcherism. Thomas might actually be a more accurate depiction of the adult world, but Little Bear is a lot easier for this parent to sit through.