Field Guide To ParentingOur A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop culture takes.  

T is for TRAINS

Before you had kids, you probably never gave trains a second thought, except perhaps as a mode of transportation, a way to get from point A to point B that’s speedier than a car, not as fast as a plane. After kids, more than likely, trains became the nucleus the rest of your household revolved around. For whatever reason, chances are that your young offspring are going to become obsessed with trains at some point. So here are some examples of the best (and worst) of that lot:

1. Why The Polar Express book is so good and the movie so terrible

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Chris Van Allsburg should already be taking up a large percentage of your picture-book library, if he isn’t already. The detailed Caldecott-winning illustrator crafts books that vary from charming (Two Bad Ants) to disturbing (Jumanji), sometimes in the same volume. Undoubtedly his most famous work is The Polar Express, where he achieves both of these moods. Our young narrator is roused from his sleep in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and taken on an uncertain journey, on a train where everyone is in their pajamas, and drinks hot chocolate “as thick as melted candy bars.” The mysterious train reaches the North Pole, of course, where the boy receives a special gift from Santa: a bell, which then slips out of his bathrobe pocket. Fortunately, Santa delivers the bell to him the next day, and in a conclusion that chokes up even the sternest of parents reading it aloud, as kids grow up, they can no longer hear the bell, but our narrator still can. Sad, sweet, and the best kind of sentimental.

When you hear this tome, do you automatically think: “Hey, let’s inject it with so much CGI as to make it almost unrecognizable”? Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the 2004 cinematic version of Polar Express. Tom Hanks and his pal Robert Zemeckis thought it would be an ideal vehicle to test out not only Hanks’ numerous vocal talents, but also the new world of computer-animation technology. So the movie is listed in the Guinness book as the “first all-digital capture” film, and Hanks is cannily drafted into a variety of parts, from the train conductor to Santa himself. The lulling, idyllic train trip turns into a nightmarish thrill ride. The nostalgic, sympathetic quality of the book is bludgeoned in favor of showy effects pieces, which make the dark and creepy animation seem more robot-like than anything else. Hand-drawn, perhaps, could have suited The Polar Express, but this bloodless computer-animation machine does not. Especially for a tale based on the simple and clear concept of faith, The Polar Express movie offers very little to believe in. But don’t let that taint your view of the book, which you’ll want to start reading to your kids every year before Thanksgiving even rolls around. [Gwen Ihnat]

2. The ideology of Thomas & Friends

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One in three small children (non-scientific guesstimate) will go through a train phase, which is another way of saying that they’ll go through a Thomas & Friends phase, seeing as the media and toy franchise is the Western world’s premier purveyor of cheery, talking steam engines. Thomas & Friends stories are set on Sodor, a fictional island in the Irish Sea shaped like the head of a chicken. They’re drawn from the Railway Series, a long-running cycle of children’s books written by Rev. Wilbert Awdry, a scarecrow-ish Anglican clergyman who had very strong opinions on diesel engines and the nationalization of British rail and was, like so many people in what we call “the past,” a touch racist.

The current, very formulaic iteration of Thomas & Friends, produced by Mattel-owned Hit Entertainment, has tried to broaden the cast and setting in an effort to make more toys and appeal to non-English-speaking viewers (including Thomas & Friends’ large Japanese audience), departing from the handmade look and measured voice of the TV series’ first two decades and the vision of creator Britt Allcroft. Thomas & Friends maintains a very strict continuity that covers the history of Sodor (demonym: Sudrian) all the way back to Roman times, and the fact that it’s passed through several hands means that it’s now an ideological mess.

A railroad, especially one as carefully mapped as Sodor’s, is a system, and it’s not much of a stretch for a grown-up to try to read it as a system of belief. In basic terms, Thomas & Friends stories are about toddler-to-kindergarten-age children being asked to help with chores or being given new toys, disguised as stories about locomotives being assigned special cargos or receiving fresh coats of paint. Typically, this is when Sir Topham Hatt—who resembles a capitalist from a Bolshevik propaganda poster—arrives to admonish the offending engine for causing “confusion and delay.” When things are set right, Sir Topham Hatt returns to praise the engine for being “really useful.”

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Sir Topham Hatt is a parent figure who literally owns Thomas and his friends, which makes Sodor seem like a totalitarian state of child slaves, existing in a perpetual cycle of punishment and praise, the only reward being more work. But since one authority can often stand in for another, Sir Topham Hatt is also, sort of, God—sometimes an Old Testament God, as in “The Sad Story Of Henry,” one of the best and earliest episodes of the Allcroft era, but more often than not a God who is peeved that the engines have screwed with the natural order of things, but is willing to welcome them back into the berths of Tidmouth Sheds once they atone. It should be noted here that the engines of Sodor don’t actually require crews; they have free will.

What else do today’s Sudrians believe in? Timeliness; the importance of businesses, especially those involved in quarrying; the benevolence of hereditary peers (Sir Topham Hatt is one); a distrust of technology like the newfangled diesel engine; knowing one’s place. Sodor is both rural and heavily industrialized, capitalist and fixated on worker productivity, and it supports many businesses and railroads and a seemingly high standard of life despite a continued reliance on steam power and, per the stories, rampant cronyism and favoritism. This has produced an entire subgenre of amused writing, mostly done by financial reporters with small, train-obsessed children. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. Who needs Thomas when your kid can watch YouTube videos of actual trains?

When people think of kids being obsessed with trains, it’s generally of the Thomas or choo-choo variety. My son has always been a hardcore proponent of public transportation, riding the bus, the El, and the Metra his entire young life. At some point, I think when he was around 3, we decided to look on YouTube for Chicago’s “Santa Train,” which is basically an El covered with Christmas decorations and featuring a live Santa riding in the middle. (It’s awesome.) Those videos were plentiful, but they led us down a rabbit hole of specificity that was shocking. My little dude, even at 3 and 4, was very articulate about what he wanted, so he’d say things like, “I want to see a Brown Line train at Harold Washington Library/State and Van Buren,” and I’d say, “I don’t know if that’ll be on here…” And then sure enough, pretty much any actual station/train combination was available. People shoot short and long El train videos, for seemingly no reason. Sometimes it’s just a tourist hopping off at Merchandise Mart, other times it’s the entire Purple Line run, all the way up to Evanston. There are hundreds of these, and presumably for any city with mass transit. Eventually he found a favorite—a Metra electric train arriving at Van Buren downtown, which is one of the stops he’s made fairly frequently in his life. It’s titled “Metra Electric And South Shore Trains At Van Buren St. Station.” It’s eight minutes long, and it’s been played more times in my house than any Thomas video. Nothing happens in it, but I eventually watched it so many times that it became like my personal Zapruder film. Why does the cameraman zoom down to the tracks at the end? Is the only guy waiting on the platform annoyed that he’s being filmed? (He kind of looks like he is.) Who’s the man with the umbrella standing on the grassy knoll? None of these questions matter, of course, when this kind of things brings so much joy to a 4-year-old. And, like all kids with all things like this, he eventually got over it. [Josh Modell]

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4. The murky but enduring legacy of The Little Engine That Could

If you received a copy of this book at your baby shower or kids’ early birthday and it looked really familiar, it’s because it’s likely the same version you grew up with. The first version of The Little Engine That Could that most of us know came out in 1930. Before then, however, the book’s origins are a bit murkier, even as the volume has entered our general vernacular (“I think I can… I think I can”). Last year NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed hobbyist researcher Roy Plotnick, who looked into the story for more than a decade. The book’s origins have been traced to a minister’s sermon in 1906, as well as a 1916 publication called The Pony Engine by Mabel Bragg. The author of the 1930 edition, “Watty Piper,” is a pseudonym of book publisher Arnold Munk. Platt & Munk received another claim that the story was written by somebody else around 1950, which was settled out of court in 1955.

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In any edition, the story has lasted this long for a reason. A train loaded with toys and other good things for the kids on the other side of the hill conks out. Other engines refuse to help the train, saying that they’re too important, until the little blue engine steps up, and pulls the train over the hill through the force of positive thinking.

Here’s a tidbit the NPR story revealed that many may have missed before: The little blue engine is female. Although some protested that the book had been updated for “political correctness,” apparently, she was always female. This has led some to saddle the little blue engine with the status of being a ”female martyr guilted into pulling more than she should” instead of the “poster engine of the can-do attitude.” This seems like an extreme psychological trapping to pin on a delightful picture book, whose bright, colorful illustrations (the clown! the dolls!) as well as simple story have entertained children for decades, while teaching them the possibility of turning “I think I can” into “I know I can.” [Gwen Ihnat]

5. A train-song playlist

The extreme level of your kid’s train obsession may actually help you as you head out on countless errands and try to keep the youngsters from screaming from their car seats. A train-song playlist can make these endless journeys a little less painful, so we’ve pulled together a quick list to help you kick this off, with selections more palatable than “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” (like “Rock Island Line”). First up, Ralph Covert’s rock band, The Bad Examples, became most famous for “Not Dead Yet,” a song put to effective use in Six Feet Under. Since then, Covert has gone on to create his own cottage industry of kids’ songs that parents can actually stand to listen to, under the imprint Ralph’s World. Knowing his audience, Covert included the catchy “Choo Choo Train” on his very first album, a nice throwback to classic train songs, even as he tosses out routes that are impossible, like Chicago to Amsterdam. The standard “Little Red Caboose,” while cute, can be cloying, so our favorite version is by Laurie Berkner, another kids-music staple, which is nicely streamed-down and twangy.

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But it’s never to early to start introducing your kids to the classics, like Arlo Guthrie’s version of “City Of New Orleans,” Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” and Boxcar Willie’s “Wabash Cannonball.” If you want to go the show-tune route, Judy Garland made the hummable “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe” famous in the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls. And The Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville” is never a bad idea.

Fortunately Johnny Cash offers us a treasure trove of train songs, like the deceptively boisterous “Orange Blossom Special,” featuring some of Cash’s best-ever harmonica work. His “Casey Jones” is the story of a brave engineer, while “Wreck Of the Old 97,” is a sad tale of a train crash, but hey, nobody said all train songs were happy (case in point: “Folsom Prison Blues”). You can round off this playlist with Cash’s love song to our subject matter: “I’ve Got A Thing About Trains.” Your kid will understand completely. [Gwen Ihnat]