Saturday, December 18, 2010

Percy the Train

Thomas and his friends have invaded our home.

It all began with our Great Big Treasury of Beatrix Potter.  This is one of Smiley's favorite books.  I like it even though a few of the stories are beyond him.  It seems to help him learn and understand memorization and narrative, because the stories are slightly longer and have more text for each picture than most of his picture books, yet there are sufficient pictures from him to retell the stories to himself.

(Costco was recently selling a box set of all the Beatrix Potter stories for about $25.  We bought that even though we own the big book, so that my wife can read those stories to Smiley with less weight on her lap.)

Since those stories are so successful, when at the library I was looking for similar stories.  To my surprise, a very close match was the Thomas the Tank Engine Collection.  We checked it out, and it was an immediate hit.

Now, there are probably some folks who are aghast that anyone would hold side-by-side cute, little Peter Rabbit and big, cheeky Thomas the Train.  But the series really do have a number of similarities, especially for a toddler.  Not only is the blend of text and illustrations similar, but both sets of stories mix some very age-appropriate "Three Stooges" physical humor along with social lessons appropriate for a slightly older child.

An amusing side-effect is that Percy is Smiley's favorite character, because he is the engine that gets treacle dumped on him, that gets hay stuck to him, that falls into the ocean, and must keep a promise by driving through a flooded section of track.  Thomas is okay, but not as nifty as Percy.

(By the way, I have heard that the Big Yellow Treasury and the Big Blue Treasury, which have bigger pictures and less text per picture, would be an even more age-appropriate introduction to the Thomas mythos.  But I have never seen these myself.)

When my wife got sick in November, we needed something to entertain Smiley in the evenings so he would do a better job of letting her rest in the recliner.  So I checked out some Thomas the Train DVDs from the library after previewing their five-minute nature on YouTube.

Now, I have written before that we did not own a television, and on the computer were only allowing Smiley to watch the Flip videos we record about him and a few YouTube videos about trucks, farm animals, or his other current interests.  One theory is that children younger than two-and-a-half are still learning what constitutes "a single event", and families prone to ADD, dyslexia, and other attention-related brain disorders should have their young children avoid any film in which a single event includes flipping back and forth between multiple camera points of view--this can confuse a young brain.  Now, this happens all the time in cartoon and movie conversations: the camera point of view changes as the speaker changes.  It is hard to find kids' films that do not involve frequent changes of camera angle.  And my wife and I do care, since both our families have family members with ADD or dyslexia.

So these Thomas the Train movies were Smiley's first big exposure to "real" movies.  We figured that he was older than two-and-a-half, and we really needed something to keep mommy from being climbed on and jumped upon without exiling her to the bedroom.

I was quite happy that, as a first exposure to movies, the Thomas stories are as simple as I could imagine.
  • Smiley had already memorized many of those three- and four-page stories, and the movies are five-minute nearly-verbatim recitations of the story text.  So when the camera perspectives do change during conversations he follows along easily since he already understands that familiar situation.
  • The animation is carefully done but involves very little movement: normally only trains driving, their eyes moving, and steam or smoke.
  • In the beginning, we dutifully watched each movie with him, pausing the movies frequently to double-check that he was indeed following along.  He had some questions, especially since the movies remove the quaint British language ("guard" for conductor, "trucks" for freight cars, "coaches" for passenger cars, etc.).  But mostly he was recognizing and enjoying familiar short stories.
The Thomas movies are so much a success that we used AcidRip to turn each story into its own avi file.  Smiley has his own account on my laptop, so he cannot delete my files.  He has learned to open the folder of Thomas movies that sits on the desktop, and then pick the icon for the story he wants.  No need to mess with a breakable DVD, or to navigate a menu.

To be fair consumers, we've added a couple of Thomas DVDs to Smiley's Amazon wishlist.  These are not the same DVDs we got from the library, but the number of stories is equivalent and these two better focus on the stories Smiley enjoys most.  It seems a better way to give equal support to the franchise.  After Smiley outgrows these movies we can donate the two new DVDs to the library, to increase its collection.

For my part, I have learned a lot about tank engines, which I never had realized were so distinct in shape and purpose from the steam engines that used tenders.  Thomas is a side tank model.  Percy is a saddle tank, and proud of his rounder shape.  Duck is a typical Great Western pannier tankBill and Ben are more top-heavy saddle tanksToby is a steam tram, which I had never heard of before.

UPDATE: It's more than a year later, and during that time CostCo has had two bundle-packs of Thomas the Train movies on sale.  We purchased both, and have now done our fair share to support the franchise.  We did not make all of the purchased movies into avi files because some were computer animated instead of created with a model train set.  We prefer the latter because those have one narrator who reads the old stories verbatim (or in a few cases very slightly changed).

1 comment:

Heather said...

If you ever decide to get netflix ($10 a month unlimited download play to your computer + 1 dvd at a time) they have all the Thomas movies available for download play. Issac adored Thomas and loved to read the books and watch the movies.