Posted by Jessica Petersen on Feb 18, 2013
Most of the children’s books about trains in the snow out there are Christmas books. Not that the Little Engineer minds reading holiday books out of season, but it’s nice that there are a few stories that are set in winter without Christmas coming into the picture.
When I was thinking about winter train activities to do after Valentine’s Day, Thomas Gets a Snowplow came to mind. While it’s not one of my very favorite Thomas books (despite the stereotype about the quality of books about licensed characters, some of them are actually well written), there are parts of the story that are really fun to play out. We had a great time planning and building the layout to go with the book. I was also excited to see that some of the storytelling concepts I’ve been introducing him to have really started to sink in.
This book is somewhat mistitled: Thomas already has a snowplow. He just hasn’t worn it since last year, and doesn’t want to wear it at all. The reason in the book is that he doesn’t want the other engines to laugh at him. But I reword it in a few places to make it more relavent to my younger child, with the snowplow standing in for something like an unwanted but much needed winter coat.
While the writing is more or less middle of the road for Thomas books, the character development really shines in certain places. I particularly like Thomas’ driver, who has an uncharacteristically large part in this book. He deals with Thomas’ reluctance and embarrassment kindly and gently guides him toward what absolutely has to be done. I also like his intuitive nature. And while I’m not particularly fond of the teasing part of the storyline, I find Thomas’ reactions to it to be fairly real (if you assume his emotional maturity should be equated to a six or seven-year-old child).
After reading the book a couple of times over breakfast, I asked the Little Engineer if he would like to help me make some lists to plan what we were going to do. He was enthusiastic about the idea, so we started right away. I came up with four categories of information that would be useful for our project: Characters, Places and Scenery, Props, and Plot Elements. Being a writer, I try to share my love of the craft of storytelling with him, so he’s familiar with most of those concepts at this point, but I explained them to him again anyway.
Then we went through the book, page by page. I would ask him if there was anything on each page to add to our lists. I found it helped to prompt him with the individual categories: ”Do you see any new characters on this page to add to our list?” or “What’s different about the Sheds from how they usually look?” (The snow.) It was interesting to see how much more confident he was with identifying characters and plot elements we needed to write down. I usually had to guide him to discover the new locations and objects. I’ve focused more on character and plot than on setting when talking to him about books and what I do as a writer, so that showed me both that all that talking was probably making an impression, and that I should talk about setting more often.
One thing that really delighted me was that as we listed characters, he started casting the non-engine roles, as if this were going to be a play. He, of course, was to play Thomas’ Driver (I talked him into using a little engine driver figure by pointing out he could use it to represent himself in the layout). He wanted his best friends, Meekat and Strawberry Kitty, to be the innkeeper and the general store owner respectively.
Once we had our lists completed, we started to build the layout. We used a number of the tricks I shared in Seven Ideas for Bringing Snow into Train Play to create our wintery scene. There are only a few different locations in the book, so mostly we just had fun building with some new, unusual track we ordered from Meskotoys recently. All we really needed were Tidmouth Sheds, an inn, a store, and lots of winding track. So once we had everything connected up, we started to play.
The story begins with Thomas’ driver commenting that they’ll need the snowplow soon, but Thomas really doesn’t want to wear it. When his driver asks why Thomas doesn’t want to wear it, he confides that he doesn’t want the other engines to laugh. (I change the reason to the snowplow being heavy and uncomfortable when I read the book to the Little Engineer.)
Because it isn’t snowing right then, Thomas’ driver agrees to let him leave it off for now, but insists that they try it on to make sure it’s still in working order.
Obviously, it’s fun to have a Winter Wonderland Thomas with a snowplow to play out this book, but it’s not necessary. It might be a fun project to try to make your own snowplow to attach to a regular Thomas. (Might I suggest some residue-free duct tape to attach it?)
While Thomas is trying the snowplow on, James and Henry come out and tease him. (When I read this part, I change “‘Ha! Look, Henry,’ said James. ”Thomas is wearing a snowplow! It looks like a tin can!’” to “‘Look, Henry,’ said James. ’Thomas is wearing a snowplow.’” I also omit the line, “The two engines chuckled and chortled,” and read Henry’s dialog line with a little less of an insulting tone than the italics and exclamation points suggest.)
Thomas then whispers to his driver a quiet plea to take it off, and his driver agrees. This is a touching moment, especially since it’s so rare to see the drivers being emotionally sensitive to the engines on the rare occasions when they do appear in a book.
Thomas chuffs off to run his errands. The Little Engineer was really excited about getting to that part because he wanted to go under that bridge. I think he liked the combination of that and the long, straight track.
I made little felt blankets, mittens, and hats for Thomas to deliver. The one thing we didn’t have from the book was a snow shovel. I would’ve liked to use a Duplo shovel we have, but I had no idea where it was, and the Little Engineer was impatient to start playing.
Here’s Meekat the Innkeeper, receiving his extra winter blankets for the guests at the inn.
Strawberry Kitty came out to get the mittens and winter hats for her general store.
Next, the Little Engineer was in charge of making it snow on the Island of Sodor. We talked about how it needed to be a lot of snow to go with what happens in the book.
Thomas makes it back to the shed without his snowplow, and feels like he’s proved that he doesn’t need it.
Back at the sheds, the engines are talking about what a heavy snowfall it is when Sir Topham Hatt arrives.
He informs them that Toby is snowed in on his Branch Line, and insists that Henry go and rescue him because he’s the largest engine there. Henry tries to get out of it, but one look from Sir Topham changes his mind.
As Henry and Sir Topham go off in search of Toby, Thomas’ driver decides to put Thomas’ snowplow on due to a “bad feeling about this snow.”
Henry backs all the way back to the shed, covered in snow. He couldn’t manage it without a snowplow. Thomas decides to volunteer to save Toby, despite the way the other engines had mocked him before.
Here’s “Poor Toby,” as the Little Engineer always calls him in this situation, covered in cotton ball snow. It’s sort of a game the Little Engineer came up with last winter after reading this book, which usually involves me covering Toby in cotton balls and him driving Thomas out to rescue him, over and over. We only did it once this time around, in order to move on with the story.
Thomas cautiously plows his way out to Toby. The Little Engineer enjoyed clearing the tracks, as he usually does when we play “Poor Toby.”
And then Thomas pulls Toby back to the sheds.
Toby thanks Thomas for saving him, and wishes he could have a snowplow, too. (His cowcatcher won’t allow one to fit.) Sir Topham pronounces Thomas “a Really Useful Engine, and … a hero as well.”
Thomas Gets a Snowplow was a fun story to act out with our trains, and it was nice to do one a little less complicated than our retelling of Valentine’s Day in Vicarstown. By the end of the whole project, which only took an hour or two, the Little Engineer knew the story backwards and forwards, and he definitely had strengthened his understanding of storytelling concepts through the planning process. I’m looking forward to the next time we bring a train book to life with our toys.