A Rave for Thomas the Tank Engine

The last time I wrote about my son’s toys, I talked about his infatuation with Fisher Price’s "Little People."  As is common with children, he has since turned his attention to other toys.  He is now a "Thomas the Tank Engine" fanatic.  I had never heard of "Thomas" before we borrowed a "Thomas" book late last year, and now "Thomas" is draining my wallet.  My little boy loves any and all vehicles, especially cars and trains.  Since he discovered "Thomas" he has grown more and more interested in trains and train sets.  I recently discovered that my son isn’t the only "Thomas" fan.  It seems that many children–both boys and girls–fall in love with "Thomas" and the fictional world of Sodor around two years of age.  Many outgrow it by the age three or four.  We now have a bunch of "Little People" toys and videos that are now collecting dust, and we have to keep investing in "Thomas" toys to satisfy our son’s insatiable appetite for anything "Thomas."  Here in Korea, "Thomas" toys are twice as expensive as they are in the United States.  A battery-powered engine, for example, costs around $30 in a Korean store.  Unfortunately, we can’t shop in the U.S., and many online vendors either won’t ship internationally, or they charge a very high shipping charge.

The world of "Thomas the Tank Engine" is fascinating.  Set on the fictional island of "Sodor," a place reminiscent of merry ol’ England, the "Thomas" stories details the adventures and misadventures of trains and vehicles that inhabit the island.  The trains are managed by Sir Topham Hatt, a portly, bossy gent who either compliments his engines for being "really useful" or scolds them for misbehaving.  (Personally, I think Hatt is an annoying Theory X-type boss.  Hey Hatt, how about sending your engines on a Hawaii vacation for a change or get in there and pull some of those loads yourself?)  "Thomas" is the "really useful" little blue engine most popular with children.  My son’s favorite engines are "Gordon" and "Henry," the bigger engines.  He also loves "Cranky," the cargo crane.  "Thomas" has a huge following among children and parents, although it is relatively unknown among people without children.  There are many online stores that sell everything Thomas, and the toys are also available in toy stores.  The toys are not distributed by a major toy company such as Fisher-Price, so they are not mass marketed or overly commercialized.  Their popularity seems to rest on buzz marketing (word-of-mouth) between parents and children.  I was surprised to learn that the "Thomas" phenomenon turns 50 years old this year.  The first story was written in Britain by the Reverend W. Awdry to entertain his ill son.  The phenomenon did not reach the states until Britt Alcott Ltd. introduced it to the U.S. market about 10 years ago.  "Thomas" has since spread to many countries, including Korea.  It sits next to "Yu-Gi-Oh" and "World Peacekeepers" in some Korean toy stories. 

Why did "Thomas" become so popular with children?  Why do celebrities such as George Carlin and Ringo Starr lend their voices to Thomas videos?  The story is old and somewhat dated.  Some of the language used is stilted (e.g. "You’re a really useful engine"), and until "Emily" and "Lady" came along all the engines were male.  I think "Thomas" captivates children nowadays like "American Flyer" trains did in the past.  My dad often reminisces about how much he enjoyed American Flyer trains when he was younger.  Trains fell out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s, replaced by new-fangled electric race tracks.  "Thomas" however brought trains and train sets back into vogue.  Children love things that move, especially planes, trains and automobiles.  The "Thomas" stories add personalities to the trains.  Each train has a different personality children enjoy.  The stories also tell interesting stories and offer morals that teach children how to be "useful."  The toys are also well-built (and expensive).  Some "Thomas" toys are made of wood, a material increasingly rare in toys.  That appeals to those of us who are nostalgic.  Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and "Thomas" toys are just about the only wooden toys you can find anymore.  They’re so much better than plastic toys.  If you have young children and haven’t heard of "Thomas the Tank Engine," give them a try.  Just be prepared to spend a lot on "Thomas" toys!

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