Posted by Jessica Petersen on Feb 4, 2013
The Little Engineer and I enjoy taking what we read and acting it out in play. Often, this means playing it out with our wooden trains. (Big shock, I know.) I think there’s a lot to be learned from adapting a book to another form of storytelling. This is the first in what I hope will become a series of book reviews coupled with our ideas for wooden train layouts and other activities to go with them. Also, we’re hoping the photos of our layout might be fun to share with your young train lovers.
The Thomas in Town series of books have long been some of our favorite Thomas & Friends reads. Each of the four titles — Halloween in Anopha, Christmas in Wellsworth, Valentine’s Day in Vicarstown, and Easter in Harwick — tells a holiday story set in a town on the Island of Sodor. In general, these books feature good, descriptive writing while avoiding many of the pitfalls of the recent seasons of the TV show and its related books. The illustrations by Richard Courtney, my favorite Thomas artist, are especially lovely.
One of the best things about this series is the map of the Island of Sodor inside the front cover of each book. The Little Engineer and I have spent a lot of time going over these maps, tracing the rail lines, sounding out the words, talking about cardinal directions and distances. We also managed to figure out where Sodor would be on a real map from observing the real landmasses included on the Sodor map, which helps place things for him whenever I mention something about “the United Kingdom, where Thomas comes from.”
Before we built our layout, the Little Engineer and I read the book several times over the course of a few days. After each reading, we would talk a little about what we would need in a layout to be able to play out the whole story. Locations, scenery, characters, props — not unlike planning for a stage adaptation of a book.
One of the interesting things about Valentine’s Day in Vicarstown is that it’s the only one in the series with an engine other than Thomas as the main character. The book opens with Percy returning home after a long winter’s night pulling the mail. That meant that the first location we needed was Tidmouth Sheds. The Little Engineer just got the Sheds for Christmas, so we were able to use that specific roundhouse, otherwise it would have just been our trusty old Imaginarium roundhouse. You can make your own out of a cardboard box if you don’t have one. Cardboard box engine sheds are fun even now that the Little Engineer has more than one wooden one.
Next, Thomas asks Percy how his night went, but as soon as Percy begins to answer him, Thomas interrupts him to say that he has to leave right away to go work at Brendam Docks for a few days and chuffs away. He does apologize to Percy, and promises to listen at the Valentine’s Day party in Vicarstown, but Thomas, why did you ask him if you didn’t have time to hear his answer? On the other hand, it really fits the way Thomas’ character comes across much of the time, and protagonists need flaws. I mostly find it funny, but I do like to point out to the Little Engineer that Thomas could have handled the situation in a different way.
After Thomas leaves, Percy asks some of the more experienced engines about the Valentine’s Day party. True to their characters, Edward gives a helpful explanation, James brags about how many valentines he got last year, and Gordon claims to be too important for a Valentine’s Day party.
In the books, you don’t see Thomas at Brendam Docks, but we wanted to put it in the layout. First of all, it’s Thomas, so he wasn’t just going to disappear from the tracks while we were playing. And second, it worked out nicely with the geography of Sodor. Let’s take a look at the full layout from above.
There’s Tidmouth on the left in the west coast of Sodor, and Vicarstown (well, really Knapford Station with its sign covered up, plus the Vicarstown Dieselworks tucked in the very back) on the right on the east side of the island. To the south of the mainline between the two towns are the Docks. This was a good opportunity to compare our layout with the map and talk about directions again, and also to talk about how our layout differed from the geography shown on the map.
Another reason to add the Docks into the layout was to have that big sea area. The Little Engineer got a couple of really water-related presents for his wooden trains recently for his birthday, the Brio Ferry Ship and the Brio Cargo Harbor Set. I try to rotate room for them in and out of the layout because we both like playing with them, especially the awesome ferry.
And finally, who could resist the opportunity to decorate Cranky? Especially for Valentine’s Day. He looks so happy with his little shiny heart there.
Okay, back to the story in the book. The morning after a huge snowstorm, Sir Topham Hatt comes to the Sheds to tell Percy that Thomas is snowed in at the Docks, and Percy will have to try to use Thomas’ snowplow to clear the line during the day and pull mail cars at night.
And off goes Percy wearing Thomas’ snowplow. It’s slightly too big, but Percy tries and works his hardest, and helps the bigger engines clear the snow from the line.
This Snow Covered Percy with a snowplow was my Christmas gift from the Little Engineer and his dada. I really wanted it (you’ll notice I said “our wooden trains” way up at the top), but normally it’s only available as part of the massive (and expensive) Rumble and Race Mountain Set. Thanks to eBay, my husband tracked it down as a far less costly addition to the collection. A regular Percy would be fine here, of course. It could be fun to try to make a snowplow for him out of blue Play Dough or construction paper. A blue one because it’s supposed to be Thomas’ snowplow; I’m still not sure why the wooden trains’ snowplows are boring gray.
Meanwhile, here’s Thomas snowed in at the Docks, still hard at work shunting Troublesome Trucks in the snow because…well, what fun would it be to let him rest?
The book doesn’t say why the Docks were so busy that Thomas would be there for days, so I filled in the blank with something fun and fitting to the story, if not the reality of what real trains might really pull. Sodor has very little to do with reality these days, after all. We made all of this freight following the easy steps I explained in Easy DIY Valentine’s Day Freight for Wooden Trains, and it turned out so cute.
Finally it’s Valentine’s Day, and Percy arrives at Vicarstown Station. When he sees his valentine mailbox the tired little engine worries that there’s more mail to pull. His driver explains what’s going on. Then Percy worries that Thomas won’t make it to the party.
For the mailboxes, we used some wood blocks from the craft store and with various heart stickers attached. As you can see, we had fun decorating the station for the party. These were all stickers out of the dollar bins at Target. I’ll be posting my secret for decorating wooden trains and accessories without damaging them tomorrow, so if you want to do this, keep an eye out for that. Update: Damage-Free Decorating for Wooden Train Layouts is up now.
Sir Topham Hatt addresses the crowd: high grade coal and wash downs for all his “Really Useful valentines” — hooray! Then the children sing and exchange valentines and chocolate hearts and fruits. I think we’ll do some of that when we play through the story again later this week. I really wish I had more little wooden train people who could pass for children.
Finally, Thomas shows up. Percy is so relieved. And then the engine drivers count the valentines. Thomas has twenty, and Percy has, as he peeps, “twenty one! The most of all!” This is the other part of the book that used to bother me, the focus on having the most. ”Most” is a word that I think the new people in charge of the Thomas & Friends show should strike from their writers’ vocabularies, especially when combined with the words, “of all,” because it’s gotten to the point where everything is “the most of all!”
However, it’s natural for Percy, who is supposed to be one of the youngest engines and represent that level of maturity, to be excited by having the most valentines. And what comes after that line is possibly the more important part. The valentine that puts him over the top comes from Sir Topham himself, in recognition of Percy’s dedicated work plowing the tracks by day and delivering the mail by night. Percy earned that last valentine by going above and beyond his normal duties, and doing so without complaint.
And then, the last two paragraphs of the book are about Thomas’ reaction. Thomas isn’t jealous at all of Percy, neither for winning the valentine count nor the praise from Sir Topham. In response to Sir Topham commenting that Percy is pretty good with Thomas’ snowplow, Thomas laughs and offers it to Percy. And then Percy smiles, feeling lucky that Thomas is his friend.
Which is, of course, the overarching theme of the book: friendship, and reconnecting after some distance — both real and metaphorical — comes between two friends. Thomas sort of brushed Percy off at the beginning, and Percy seems a little uncertain and sad through the book (something that is subtly handled through the illustrations in many places), but their value and bond as friends is reestablished at the end.
I think the Little Engineer’s favorite part of playing out the story was the party at the station. I had started setting it up while he was still shunting valentine freight with Thomas and Salty. When he noticed what I was doing, he came and took over, removing some of the engines I had put in the background who he didn’t think would be at the party and rearranging the valentine mailboxes and the engines in the front row. Then, without being reminded of the story by me, he started setting valentines by the engines and counting them. Of course, in his version, Thomas got most of the valentines.
His other favorite part of the process — and I don’t have a picture of this, sadly — was playing with the two full spectrum desk lamps I was experimenting with to help light our layout for the photos. I’m not sure if they were two suns or if one was the sun and one was the moon because he was talking so quickly, but he was very excited about turning them off and on and holding them up above the trains.
One last thing I included was the Sodor Engine Wash (bottom left above), so that the engines could go get their celebratory wash downs at the end. Wash downs are extremely important to engines, if you ask the Little Engineer, so there was no way we were going to leave them out when they were mentioned. Fortunately, they can be satisfactorily accomplished with just a cloth to “scrub” and polish the wooden trains.
So, that’s our take on Valentine’s Day in Vicarstown. I hope you enjoyed it, because we enjoyed creating it. As I mentioned before, tomorrow I’ll have a post up about decorating wooden train stuff without ruining it (Update: Damage-Free Decorating for Wooden Train Layouts is up now), and soon thereafter I’ll follow with a post full of ways to incorporate snow into your train play. Or train play into your snow, if you’ve gotten some this year. We’re still waiting. By next week, I should have one last Valentine’s Day in Vicarstown play idea ready to share, so I hope you’ll come back check it out.