Could the books we read to our children influence their political leanings? We compare the right-wing bent of Thomas the Tank Engine to Dr. Seuss ’99 percent-friendly Yertle the Turtle.
My two-year-old digs the usual two-year-old stuff—y’know, Spiderman, robots, dinosaurs and Thomas the Tank Engine. But the latter, alas, is totally in the tank for the 1 percent.
Emile had a bad cough this past week, so we spent a lot of time on the fictional Island of Sodor—reading books, watching Netflix and playing iPad apps based on The Railway Series by the late Rev. Wilbert Awdry, an Oxford-educated Anglican son of a vicar who grew up near The Great Western rail line.
The series’ socio-economic subtext rose to the surface while reading Day of the Diesels, based on a 2011 Thomas and Friends TV movie. Awdry’s kiddie-culture empire, begun back in 1945, has always been fuelled by Britain’s oft-criticized class system as it romanticized the posh steam engines while demonizing the new blue-collar diesel engines.
But this new Thomas tale took that even further with a surprisingly prescient occupation of the Steamworks by the lower-class Diesels.
“Steamies don’t go to the Dieselworks,” spat Thomas, with shocking venom for a kids’ book. “It’s dark and dirty, and Diesels can be devious.” This class division is encouraged by rotund railway boss Sir Topham Hatt, an aristocratic industrialist in top hat and tails. Also known as the Fat Controller, he rules the rails with an iron fist and plays Steamies and Diesels against each other to ensure no one questions his authority.
Thomas’ best friend Percy is portrayed as naïve for thinking, “it wasn’t fair that they should live in a dirty, dingy place” and for staying overnight at the Dieselworks, something no steam engine had ever done before. Naturally, when the uprising begins with the Diesels taking over the Steamworks, they’re portrayed as evil despite their legitimate claims. And when Sir Topham Hatt arrives, he plays the typical politico, saying he always planned to build a new Dieselworks, but “everything takes time. And everyone must wait their turn.” Yep, in Sodor they practice trickle-down economics, and the Diesels are at the bottom.
The series has been criticized in the past for its right-wing bent. Most notably, I discovered, by Canadian academic Shauna Wilton, who wrote a paper attacking the show’s “conservative political ideology” and rigid class system. The UK Spectator, meanwhile, argued that was precisely why kids like it: “Children, and especially little boys, are conservative, when they are not actually fascists.”
But does that mean they have to be?
The award-winning book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type tells the story of a bovine labour dispute. Finding a typewriter, the cows post a demand on the barn door: “Dear Farmer Brown, The barn is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows.” Ignored, the animals go on strike until a neutral third-party (the duck) negotiates a deal.
It’s a cute story that sees the workers get some concessions without actually upending the power structure, unlike Yertle the Turtle, the most 99 percent-friendly children’s story of all time.
Dr. Seuss opposed consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) and discrimination (Horton Hears a Who) while promoting an environmental agenda (The Lorax), but he delves deepest into politics with Yertle. I read it a lot to E, initially because Seuss’ poetic dedication to anapestic tetrameter makes his writing the most enjoyable to read aloud.
But when the Occupy movement kicked off last fall, it took on a deeper meeting.
Yertle is the king of the pond, but initially “the turtles had everything turtles might need. / And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.” Then Yertle got greedy. As he was “the ruler of all [he] can see,” Yertle decided he needed to see further, so he commanded his turtle subjects to stack themselves into a throne that would lift him higher. Eventually hundreds of turtles obeyed, moving him ever upward. But at the bottom was a plain little turtle name Mack. “Your majesty please, I don’t like to complain / But down here below, we are feeling great pain. / I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, / But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
Seuss was warning that the increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and powerless, would lead to disaster. Eventually this rather literal pyramid scheme collapses, leaving Yertle the king of the mud while the “turtles, of course… all the turtles are free / As turtles, and maybe, all creatures should be.”
Now, Emile is a toddler, and he just likes trains and turtles. But even if the political underpinnings of the Yertle and Thomas books are way over his head—not hard, as he’s only about two feet tall—they still impart moral lessons. One reinforces class divisions and imperiousness while the other promotes equality and compassion.
So who wouldn’t rather read Yertle the Turtle 99 times than Thomas the Tank Engine even once?