Beyond Sodor: Books About Trains You’ll Actually Want to Read to Your Kids!

This piece first appeared on GeekDad on 5/2/2016

trainmontageWhen I was growing up, I loved the Rev. W. Awdry books, these days better known as Thomas and Friends. Back then the books weren’t a marketing behemoth. There were no television series, no films, and no wooden railway. There were just twenty-six small hardback books, each containing four stories that centered around a single train.

I had a mismatch of books, from all sorts of places, some new and some hand-me-downs. I loved them with a passion, carrying them all over, wherever I went. My collection survives today and has found its way into my children’s bedrooms. If you can get a hold of some of the original books then, whilst dated, they contain nicely written stories that hark back to the golden age of steam in the UK. They have a warmth and wit that is lacking in the more modern stories. Particular favorites are book No. 2, the original Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and No. 16, Main Line Engines, featuring the first appearance of the mischievous Bill and Ben, the twin engines.

In the intervening years, lots more books and trains have been added. A few of the traditional type–hardback with four stories–but more to the Thomas Story Library, which comprises thin, single-story, softback books. Somebody brought us fifty of these a few years ago but now there are 65. Some of the Story Library books feature the original engines, with the stories largely copied verbatim from the original books, but many of the others are wholly new tales, which are, frankly, terrible.

Clearly, it’s been recognized that new book + new train = toy sales, with each train being sold in three major formats (Take and Play, Thomas Wooden Railway, and Trackmaster). Whilst each book might add to HIT Entertainment’s profit margins, it adds little value for us, the parents, who have to read the new stories.

You could be forgiven for thinking the new books had been written by a computer; there’s definitely a formula. New engine comes to Sodor, new engine can’t make friends. New engine proves “Really Useful.” Homily inserted about working hard. New engine assimilated into the “Fat Controller’s” bizarre dystopia, where fealty to the job is more important than having a personality. It’s easy to imagine “BEING REALLY USEFUL” stuck on a bill poster next to “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Having to read these stories night after night can make bedtime something of a chore, so if you are currently stuck in the seventh circle of Sodor, here are a few other train-related books that might distract your little ones from Thomaspeak.

little red train detail

The Little Red Train: Image Copyright Benedict Blathwayte

We’ll start with Benedict Blathwayte’s Little Red Train Books. The best thing about these books are the illustrations. The stories are readable, usually about the plucky red steam train and his driver, Duffy, overcoming the odds, but it’s the pictures that will keep children entranced for repeat visits. They’re filled with bucolic, quintessential, English countryside–farmyards, lakes, and crumbling stone castles, but the gems are in the details. The cows have hidden maps in them; sometimes the clouds are shaped like animals, and, in The Runaway Train, children who know the story can spot the troubles ahead in the background of each picture.

There are some beautifully illustrated children’s books out there, and The Little Red Train are among the best. Our favorites include the onomatopoeia of Faster, Faster Little Red Train, the Europe-touring Green Light for the Little Red Train, and the sheer excitement of The Runaway Train. 

Rather simpler is Child’s Play’s rendition of Down by the StationThis is a simple retelling of the popular nursery rhyme, but one that forms part of the publisher’s Classic Books with Holes range. Each page has a hole cut in it that reveals one more vehicle that is “down by the station” causing the station to gradually become more and more cluttered. There is also plenty of toot tooting and beep beeping for little ones to join in with. All the books in the series are great, and Down by the Station has had many repeat reads.

Another of my childhood favorites is Ivor the Engine, written by the team who created British television cult classics The Clangers and BagpussIvor lives in the “top left-hand corner of Wales” and the narration for the TV series has a wonderful Welsh lilt, which, if you’ve heard it, is impossible not to drop into as you read the books.

The writing is wonderfully lyrical–“Jumping cold it was too, that morning, but bright as a pin and Ivor felt glad to be alive and steaming.”–and the stories are great to read aloud. Ivor is the engine of the Merioneth and Lantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited, a beautifully archaic and evocative sounding name. The tales feature Welsh choirs, fish suppers, the incomparable “Jones the Steam,” and mythical, heraldic Welsh dragons. There are six books in all and they’re lovely, though they are now out of print and tricky to get hold of.

A more modern train tale, though still with steam is The Cat, the Mouse and the Runaway TrainThe title pretty much tells all. With vibrant illustrations, we follow the tale of a cheeky mouse and his nemesis, Carruthers the cat, and an out of control train hurtling towards the station. What follows will change the Stationmaster’s, the cat’s, and the mouse’s lives for ever.

After a couple of reads through, it’s easy to pick up the book’s rhythm–just like a train hurtling across the countryside. Reading it becomes very reminiscent of W H Auden’s classic poem The Night Mail.

More classic poetry can be found in Crossing, a modern reprint of Philip Booth’s 1957 poem of the same name. A friend brought us this book from a thrift store, and we had little or no expectations of it. Bagram’s Ibatoulline’s idiosyncratic illustrations don’t necessarily give the book immediate appeal and neither do the broken, staccato, and deceptively simple words of the poem.

Yet this book has become a firm family favorite. All of my boys have loved it and even now my ten-year-old will sit and listen to the poem’s hypnotic rhythm. Again, it takes a few reads to catch it, but the meter of the poem does match the slow rumble of a huge freight train as it clanks across the crossing in a tiny mid-western town. The illustrations fit the poem perfectly, and they too are deceptively simple. There’s lot’s going on, which we still notice after many, many repeat readings. I’ve often had to read this book ten times straight, and, such is its quality, it has never got tired.

So there we are, a journey around the books our somewhat train-obsessed family have enjoyed, but there are many others. Railways, buses, and trams are an endless source of fascination for children, and there are so many good books out there beyond the island of Sodor. Do you have any railway favorites? Which public transport tales have you had to read more times than you’ve had hot dinners? I’d love to read your suggestions in the comments below.

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Rules for A Knight

knightsuk

“There have always been two ways to be rich: by accumulating vast sums or by needing very little.”

Is chivalry dead?

Watching the news, reading comments on Facebook, and viewing some of the world’s entertainment offerings (those not covered by GeekDad), you would be forgiven for thinking so. Ethan Hawke begs to differ. With his little book Rules for a Knight, Hawke shows that knightly virtues such as courage, humility, and honesty very much have a place in modern life, whatever we are doing.

Rules for a Knight was written for Hawke’s four children. It’s a series of allegories told by a knight on the eve of the battle that claimed his life. Sir Tomas Lemuel Hawke writes a letter to his children, passing on what he learned from his grandfather, and explaining how he came to be a knight. He wants his children to live a good and noble life, even without his hand to guide them.

And who wouldn’t want that for their children?

Hawke walks the thin line between sage advice and over-sentimental homily, managing to stay on the right side throughout. There are many ways a Hollywood star giving out vaguely mystic advice could have gone horribly wrong, but Hawke avoids them. Much as Sir Thomas might have suggested, egos have been left at the door. The book’s gentle lessons are delivered in an easy-to-read and entertaining style.

Rules for a Knight is lovely to read aloud. The chapters are short and their message clear, but are interesting enough to debate their finer points as you head up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. The book is nicely presented: a small hardcover with a pleasingly tactile cover, and a bookmark ribbon. It would make a great, slightly different gift to mark a birth, christening, or Jedi knighting ceremony.

“A knight knows where he keeps his flint box…A knight does not need to be told how many arrows are left in his quiver. Responsibility, awareness and self-knowledge are his allies. Forgetfulness is his enemy”.

(The sort of quote you need when your son comes home without his coat, lunchbox, or tie. And it’s only Monday.)

Rules for a Knight is a great little book, that, whilst on the surface archaic, is often right on the money for the modern world. If you’re looking for a gentle way to show your children a more “mindful” way of living, then this book will probably do that–without making them throw up.

Rules of A Knight is available from Hutchinson. All royalties from sales of the book are being donated organizations working to help young people overcome learning disabilities. I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  

This review first appeared on GeekDad 1/2/2016

Concentr8

This review first appeared on GeekDad 30/1/2016

concentr8A few months ago I stumbled on this article by William Sutcliffe, published by the UK’s Independent newspaper. Ignoring its primary content for a moment, this was exciting for me as Sutcliffe is the author of one of my favourite books, Whatever Makes You Happy, a novel that offers a hilarious look at the mother-son relationship. I found it particularly apposite to my situation, and a whole lot cheaper than therapy. He also wrote the excellent Circus of Thieves books; hilarious stories for children aged 6+.

His new story promised a dystopian future based around a behaviour-altering drug given to children. This is the type of premise I enjoy in a book, written by an author I greatly admire, so I knew immediately I wanted to read, Concentr8. 

The novel wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. It’s not set on a future earth, with a striated society and a mad dictator calling all the shots. It’s a whole lot more subtle than that. Concentr8 is set in an easily recognizable London, with an easily recognizeable (to British residents at least), but entirely fictitious, media savvy, tousle-haired buffoon, as Mayor.

London is in turmoil. Its population is angry. Much like at the time of the 2011 riots, there’s a feeling that politicians and big-business are creaming off the top, at the expense of the little guy. The little guy has had enough.

Enter five teenagers from inner-city London. Disaffected and bored, with little prospect things will get any better. As London consumes itself, Blaze and his followers decide to start a fire of their own. They kidnap and hold hostage a lowly government worker. Hiding out in an abandoned warehouse, the teenagers soon find themselves the attention of the nation’s media.

As the stakes are raised, each child begins to analyse their reasons for being there; a heady mix of camaraderie, loyalty to a charismatic leader, and railing against a society that doesn’t want them. Each member of the gang questions their involvement in a situation that becomes more dangerous by the hour.

Sutcliffe uses several different voices to tell his tale, including members of the gang, a journalist, the hostage, a negotiator, and the Mayor of London himself. Some voices appear more then once, others are given but a solitary airing. Sutcliffe uses his mosaic of narrators to build up a picture of shifting loyalties and motives, revealing a group of young people that have started something they can no longer control.

Tottenham_riots

Concentr8 Feature a London in turmoil much like the city in 2011. Photo: “Carpetright store after Tottenham riots” by Alan Stanton

Sitting over the top of all this is fictional drug, Concentr8; a treatment for ADHD. As the novel opens, it has been discovered that Concentr8 has been controversially prescribed to countless children across the country, without proper testing. Due to cost cuts the drug has been suddenly removed from circulation. All of a sudden there are hundreds of school aged children suffering from withdrawl.

Sutcliffe states in his Independent article that one the inspirations for Concentr8 came from the current reality that, in Britain, it is possible to obtain disability benefit if your child is diagnosed with having ADHD. This, combined with the aim of the Concentr8 program being to ensure that, “The symptoms of criminality can be treated before they develop into the full-blown disease.” forms the central axis on which Sutcliffe hangs the rest of his novel.

In the novel, children are preselected by teachers to be given the treatment. Their parents are given financial incentives to take up the program, the result being that swathes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are medicated to keep them quiet. It’s chemical social engineering.

“Doctors have a huge influence and power to turn our social and cultural expectations for children’s behaviour into medical definitions of physical health, with those who do not conform to our social and cultural expectations being labelled as medically dysfunctional in some manner.”

Excerpt from Sami Timimi, Naughty Boys: Anti-Social Behaviour, ADHD and the Role of Culture. Quoted as a chapter heading in Concentr8 

Like the best dystopian visions, the world Sutcliffe outlines is only one or two comparatively sane-sounding steps away from becoming reality.

The subject of ADHD is complex and deeply emotive. For sufferers and the parents of sufferers, life presents a series of specific challenges that must be overcome. Within the family unit, potential pitfalls can be allowed for, mitigated, or avoided. In the wider world, indifference and misunderstanding of the problems faced by an ADHD can exacerbate them. Medication is one method to return control to the sufferer, but should the continual increase in diagnoses of ADHD be cause for concern?

In the UK right now, huge emphasis is placed on school attainment. Rigorous testing and continual comparisons of results are now the order of the day. Schools can be severely reprimanded if they don’t show continual improvements in test scores. If prescribing certain drugs to children can improve their performance in these, apparently vital, measures of competence, why wouldn’t schools push for them? But at what cost? As The Onion put it ‘Ritalin Cures New Picasso.’

What Sutcliffe’s novel shows us, as any decent healthcare professional will tell you, is that proper diagnosis is essential. Behavioral and environmental factors must be carefully weighed up and assessed. ADHD is tangled conundrum, difficult enough to negotiate for a family with a sufferer, without trying to weigh up the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, political expediency, and education policy.

With selected (and often horrifying) quotes from anti-Ritalin literature, it’s fairly clear where Sutcliffe is pitching his flag. To borrow from scourge of Big Pharma and the imprecise use of science, author Ben Goldacre, I think we’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. Concentr8 expresses a view, but what it shows is only coming from one angle.

Nevertheless, Concentr8 does pose difficult questions about medicating teenagers, particularly those whose lives and situations are difficult. Leaving ADHD aside, it highlights the difficulties faced by young adults that live in harsh urban environments, showing what few options they feel they have.

“If it was up to me I wouldn’t never met nobody like Blaze or Troy or any of them. I wouldn’t have ended up with friends that ain’t even friends. I wouldn’t have ended up like this, all on my own up some roof with no options, no choices, just boxed in on every side by different things I don’t want – that nobody would want.”

Vilified throughout the press, used as scapegoats by politicians, and excluded from much of the Capital because of its over-inflated prices, these children are bored and looking to entertain themselves.

Sutcliffe ably demonstrates how it’s easy for the establishment to brand the behavior as criminal without really considering any mitigating circumstances. Compassion wins few votes and sells fewer newspapers, and it’s children like the ones depicted in Concentr8 that suffer as a result.

This is a controversial and thought-provoking book, that asks difficult questions about how we treat our teenagers. Its position on ADHD medication will raise ire in some, but above all, Concentr8 shows the importance of ensuring that decisions about how and when these drugs are prescribed, remain in the hands of the clinicians. In a world where explosive political rhetoric can ride roughshod over common sense, it’s an observation well worth making.

Concentr8 is out in both the US and the UK, published by Bloomsbury. Many thanks to Bloomsbury UK for sending me a copy of the book for review.