A (very) critical examination of the narrative structure (as if) of A Crack in the Track featuring Thomas the Tank Engine.
So let’s talk Thomas. You know him, the ubiquitous nerdy talking train with the eternal puppy dog personality. I’m not sure why I’m so into Thomas books, the same way I’m not sure why I like Elmo so much. I think it’s insidious, but then I’m a natural cynic, so I don’t even trust yogurt, even though I eat it like McEnroe ate up the line judges. Anyhoo, despite my confounding attraction to Thomas and his exploits, I constantly find myself distracted by the inconsistent narrative structure of the stories, especially “A Crack in the Track”, released in 2001. Like a small child — a topic on which I have some expertise — this story doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up, or even what its identity is now. It starts out with Henry the Green Engine having a boiler ache. Fine. I can suspend disbelief as easy as the next guy. Henry the Green Engine had a boiler ache, it begins. Okay, we think as we settle down with some warmed up milk on mom’s lap: a straightforward factual prose book. Fair enough, let’s do this. And it continues like this for a few pages, as Thomas unsurprisingly offers to take the people where they want to go. (No explanation why Thomas was free to sub for Henry– maybe his day off, or maybe he’s just a floater, but a little mystery is always a good thing in fiction.)
Anyway, things are going fine for Ol’ Thomas until clouds gather, the sky turns dark, and Plip plop. CLUNK! Hail began to fall! Nice! The story has taken a dark turn, and now we want to know what happens. Does Thomas make a detour into a tunnel to get out of the storm and meet a comely she-engine (maybe a cross-over cameo from a Boynton book, but that would have to be a goat or something, and Thomas’ readers probably aren’t sophisticated enough to handle that type of storyline, although I’d be game for it if was handled maturely. Who am I kidding, I’m always up for some Boynton.)
Anyway, despite the harrowing new development, as you can see, we’re still in basic prose. That is, until this: Suddenly, Thomas stopped. (Wait for it.) The hail had made a crack in the track!
Wait, so…..was that an incidental rhyme, or are we changing the format of the narrative? See, this is what bugs me. We’ve stopped caring about what happens to Thomas and all of the passengers who depend on him to get them where they need to go because we’re thinking about the mechanics of the language. You never see this in a Boynton book.
The next section is straight prose, so maybe the crack in the track was just incidental, although it still demonstrates a disturbing lack of quality control in a fairly mainstream publication.
So because of the cracked track, the passengers have all de-trained and climbed aboard Bertie the bus, until [s]uddenly, Bertie stopped. There in the road was a bright green toad.
Seriously? Another random rhyme? Is this amateur time!? (Okay, that was me being funny.) The travesty continues: Bertie’s driver called out, ‘There’s a toad in the road! We will have to unload.’ (That toad in the road caused a fuss on the bus.).
Like an intoxicated fraternity member, the story is veering wildly between prose and rhyme. And then back to prose: The people walked to another train station. But the trains were not running.
And to add insult to injury, now we’re halting an entire trip because of a toad in the road? I know we’re young, but we’re not idiots. No one can suspend that much disbelief, even at 16 months. Come on, guys. How hard is it to kick that toad off that road?
In prose, we read that the people walked to another train station. But the trains were not running. First of all, this prose is worse than watching grass grow. Clunky, boring, blecch! But then we’re treated to a nice rhyming section that contains a pleasant rhythm:
Thomas was still stuck at the crack in the track/Percy was stuck at Thomas’ back/Gordon was stuck behind Thomas and Percy/James, with two freight cars, was in quite a hurry.
Nice, right? We can even forgive the rough Percy/hurry non-rhyme that wants to be a rhyme.
But then things go terribly awry:
The foolish freight cars refused to back up/’No, no, no!’ they said/We will not go!’ they said.
So now we’re at a Vietnam protest rally? Just brutal and completely inconsistent with the previous rhyming structure. It’s cheap, is what it is. There, I said it.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Let’s get something straight: We’re kids, we’re not morons. We have certain baseline expectations, and also, kids’ books can be really good. Like, really good. So let’s keep in mind as we peruse the virtual bookshelves on Amazon or the real ones at B & N that quality books are out there for kids, and quality books make for quality kids. We shouldn’t have to eat the Thomas gruel when we can have Filet of Boynton. Know what I mean, jelly bean?
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time! Go Bears!