15. Thomas the Tank Engine

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

Contributor: Patrick Cox

PhD Candidate, Childhood Studies


Thomas is originally a British train, first appearing in Thomas the Tank Engine in 1945, the second book of the Rev. W. Awdry's Railway Series, illustrated by Reginald Payne. In the US, and since the series was adapted for TV in 1984, Thomas has become a truly multi-media superstar and is very much a part of the lived experience of American childhood. His usually smiling visage graces lunchboxes, clothing, bedsheets, toys, DVD’s, books (new and reproductions of Awdry’s). He’s an important part of children’s culture not simply because of his popularity, but because of the conception of childhood that his popularity represents.

James Kincaid documents the rise of  “The Child Botanical,” a Victorian conception of childhood as innocent, vulnerable, trainable, and lacking will, depicted in imagery that associates children with plants or in bucolic settings, linking children with “the natural.” Thomas is the most popular example of a new common image of children: trains anthropomorphized as children (including the Disney series Chuggington, The Little Engine that Could, the Little Golden Book Tootles, Virginia Lee Burton’s Choo Choo) and other machinery (Handy Manny's tools, Bob the Builder’s construction trucks, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Budgie the Little Helicopter, The Brave Little Toaster). “The Child Botanical” has been joined by a new visual metaphor: “The Child Mechanical.” The proliferation of Child Mechanical imagery demonstrates a perception of childhood as teeming with power, and therefore in need of restraint not for his own development but for adult’s safety.

Neil Harris claims trains in children’s literature in the first half of the 20th century connote power, freedom, and mobility. What is connoted in images of those engines morphed into children, especially when those images multiply exponentially in the second half of the 20th century? How is “power” or “freedom” reconciled with the presence of a child in the same image--in fact, as part of the same object? In images of The Child Mechanical, cultural fascinations with the transportation revolution become cultural anxieties around children and childhood. During the Industrial Revolution, such images made machinery seem softer, more human and accessible (see op de Beeck). Today, they embody a view of children as more powerful and dangerous.

Images of The Child Mechanical demonstrate an adult awareness of the child’s will, ability, and potential power, which were all absent from images of The Child Botanical. Thomas and friends tower over human superiors, and boast of and frequently prove their strength by hauling heavy freight or moving at great speeds. More often than not, though, they lose control and rocket down hills or off track, illuminating the fact that large, heavy train engines are dangerous and need to be properly controlled. The moment of losing control is always chalked up as the child-engine's fault, condemning him or her for being unwise yet powerful, full of potential energy and strength but prone to losing control and producing great damage—a popular view of childhood reflected in the popularity of Thomas himself.


Works Cited

Harris, Neil. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Transportation Revolution in Children’s Picture Books.” Exhibition catalog, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Transportation Revolution in Children’s Picture Books. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Library, 1995.

Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hodson, Ltd. 1998.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

op de Beeck, Nathalie. Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.


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Categories: AC25
Keywords: Thomas, childhood, AC25