Is Thomas the The Tank Engine on Crack?

Hi Folks! Got this letter in response to the post about “Fannie” and “Dick” becoming Frannie and Rick in the updated Enid Blyton oeuvre. (Hardest thing  to spell since “hors d’oeuvres.” Which, come to think of it, is the same word.)   Anyway, this note comes to us from Sarah Thompson, who describes herself as a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom of two boys, ages 2 and 4.  — L

Dear Free- Range Kids: Since Enid Blyton has passed away, it does not seem fair to tamper with her work.  I would hate to think that if I’m ever fortunate enough to be published someday, someone would “update” my work after my death.  It doesn’t seem respectful to the writer.  Yes, times change, but can’t we just explain to our kids that these stories were written in a different time?  Why not give our children the perspective of times past?

My son is a Thomas the Tank Engine fan, and when he first took interest in the train series I searched for the corresponding books.  The difference between the older ones and the newer ones is pretty striking.  In the old stories, the engines get grumpy and snap at each other, and any misbehaving engine is punished, perhaps in ways that might seem harsh.  (One engine is sealed into a tunnel with brick walls when he refuses to run in the rain.  He is eventually let out.)  The engines actually haul coal and things you would expect trains to transport.

In the newer stories, they are all cheerful and happy all of the time.  No one ever seems to get punished.  Indeed, there isn’t much need, since everyone is always so eager to please.  The trains haul cargo like jelly, toys, and party supplies.

I read both the newer and older stories to my son, and he enjoys them both.  I don’t know why they felt the need to sanitize the characters, though.  It’s just not realistic.  No one is happy all of the time, and sometimes (gasp!) real work has to be done.  I think a balance of older and newer perspectives is important in helping to show our kids that times change, but we can still learn something from the past. – Sarah

Happy all the time!

“When Dick and Fannie became Rick and Frannie” – Guest Post!

Hi Readers! I’d never yeard of Enid Blyton, but I’m sure a lot of you have. So enjoy this essay by Kate Browne, a journalist based in Sydney, Australia. Kate is the mother of two little girls and hopes to cure them of their Disney Princess obsessions one day. She can also be found blogging, occasionally, at! – L

When Dick & Fannie Became Rick & Frannie, by Kate Browne

When I was a kid one of my favourite writers was Enid Blyton, the much loved British children’s author. Her books featured terribly English children having terribly marvelous adventures in the 1940s and ’50s and have sold over 600 million copies worldwide.

As a youngster in Australia I devoured her books, and the ones I loved best were The Faraway Tree series, where three young children (Fannie, Bessie and Jo) move to the country and discover an enchanted wood, including a magical tree. The kids, and sometimes their cousin Dick, regularly headed off to the woods for adventures.

If that wasn’t cool enough, at the top of the tree magical lands came to visit. Some were nice, such as the Land of Take What You Want, and the Land of Treats, while others struck a delicious fear into my 5-year-old heart, particularly the land of fearsome Dame Slap, who wasn’t averse to doling out corporal punishment to anyone naughty.

Another thing I loved about these books was the almost entire absence of adults. While the children’s mother popped up occasionally to demand that they do some household chores, they were often then rewarded entire days in the deep, dark woods, unsupervised.

Now I’m a grown up with a 5-year-old daughter.  Keen to share the Enid Blyton love, I took her to the local bookstore to buy a new copy of the Faraway Tree, as my childhood copy had fallen apart. At bedtime we opened the book, so excited, but from the first page I knew something was horribly wrong. In this new version Jo had become Joe, Bessie had become Beth, and worst of all Fanny was now Frannie and cousin Dick had been turned into some kid called Rick.

It seems that an overly politically correct publisher somewhere down the line had decided that the names Dick and Fannie (giggle, giggle) were far too rude for today’s small children. Outraged, I head to the internet for more info.

Thanks to Wikipedia, the picture becomes clearer. Sometime in the ‘90s the names were changed by the publisher because of their “unfortunate connotations.” For good measure Jo became Joe because that’s a more common spelling these days, and Bessie became Beth because it’s more contemporary. What’s even worse is when I read that the fearsome Dame Slap is now the totally lame Dame Snap who instead of smacking children, she just shouts at them.

I take the book and chuck it in the recycling. While I can manage to change the names back to the original ones as I read to my daughter, I don’t think I’m up for revising an entire chapter of Dame Snap back into Dame Slap. And who knows what other overly PC touches I might find further into the book –- would the land of treats now be the “Land of ‘Sometimes Food,’” or even “The Land of Fruits and Vegetables”?

Of course, as I’m ranting and raving, my daughter wonders, “Mummy, what’s wrong being called Dick and Fannie? I think they sound nice.” And that’s why I realize I’m so mad. Apart from messing with a childhood classic thanks to an adult’s perspective on these names, suddenly it’s an “issue.” I’d never thought twice about the names when I was a kid, either. It’s only when I became an adult that they became funny and or rude. So now I have to have a conversation about dicks and fannies. Great.

And that’s just the problem. When we start projecting our adult perspectives onto the world that kids live in things can get more confused than if we’d just left them alone. And where do we draw the line? Should Jane Austen’s “Emma” become “Britney” to make it more “contemporary”? How about Tom, RICK and Harry?

And as for Dame Slap turning into Dame Snap, my daughter sums it up perfectly: “That’s dumb.” So now I’m off to search eBay for some old editions of Enid Blyton tales — Dicks and Fannies and all.

Children’s Bible Missing a Certain Key Point

Hi Readers: While we’re on the subject of whitewashing the classics for kids’ delicate sensibilities, here’s the one that takes the cake:

Dear Free-Range Kids: My kids have a children’s bible which says “and Jesus went away.” Kind of destroys one of the central tenets of Christianity.

Yikes! For God so loved the world that He gave His  only begotten son a long vacation? “Judas! What is this ticket to Bermuda for?” The possibilities are pretty endless. — L.

P.S. Hi folks! Can we practice a little “turning the other cheek” right here and be kind to each other in the comments?

I posted this as as example of how our society bends over backwards to “protect” kids from pretty much everything, as if they can’t handle a bump, a bruise, or a sad story that other generations seem to have been able to tolerate.  The whole Free-Range idea that our kids are more resilient than we’ve been lead to believe (in part by sanitized children’s books!). That’s what I was hoping we’d talk about — overprotection. Not religion.

The (Updated, Safer!) Cat in the Hat

Hi Readers — A recent note from the frontlines of overprotection:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I spent a few years as an assistant teacher working with kindergarteners and the amount of mollycoddling the school did was ridiculous. We couldn’t read “The Cat and the Hat” without interrupting the story to mention how no real mother would leave their kids alone at home. I thought it was really bizarre. Isn’t the six foot tall bi-pedal talking cat enough of a clue that it’s a made up story?

One of my favorite moments was when one of the teachers was reading a picture book biography of Dr. Martin Luthur King Jr. and skipped the page where it mentioned that he was killed. I was dying to say something and was so pleased that the one bi-racial little boy in the class yelled out “He got shot!” and the teacher had to address it.

Katy Perry Too Hot (and Cold) For Sesame Street

Cave, cave, cave.  Apparently Sesame Street has decided not to air this Elmo/Katy Perry duet thanks to Katy’s own duo — the ones in her skin-tight outfit that had grown-ups worrying about kids seeing “Cleavage Street.”

Or so the rumor goes, according to the folks at TMZ. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Look, I don’t use them as my source for MUCH.) Anyway, this was too cute a clip not to show you. So voila:

School Uses Laptops to Spy on Kids: The Update. Really Weird Update.

Hi Folks! Just read this bizarre new wrinkle on TechDirt about the case of the Pennsylvania school that gave its 1800 students laptops and then used them to spy on the kids — 42 times! While the school claims it activated the cameras only when trying to track down a lost or stolen computer, nonetheless the original student we were talking about here was disciplined for selling or taking drugs. That’s an activity the kid did in his own home, as witnessed by a school administrator  via a secretly activated laptop.

And the administrator witnessed wrong! The drugs turned out to be Mike & Ike candies, says TechDirt! And now my worry is not just that the school was spying, and not just that it got it all wrong, but that someday kids WILL be spied on and WILL be disciplined for eating candy! Or, God forbid, homemade baked goods! (See below.) Aieeeee! — Lenore

School Bans Dictionary

Hi Readers — As many of you have pointed out today, a grammar school in California has banned the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary because it contains a definition of “oral sex.” I guess the parents who complained would much rather their kid get his sex information from the geniuses on the monkey bars.

Here’s the local story. And here’s the one in the Guardian, which points out:

The Merriam Webster dictionary joins an illustrious set of books that have been banned or challenged in the US, including Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which last year was suspended from and then reinstated to the curriculum at a Michigan school after complaints from parents about its coverage of graphic sex and violence, and titles by Khaled Hosseini and Philip Pullman, included in the American Library Association’s list of books that inspired most complaints last year.

When I was growing up there was a movement to ban Huck Finn, and I’ve heard of pushes to ban Harry Potter, too. Doesn’t seem to have hurt their popularity. All I know about the dictionary scandal is that there is one term all those California kids are going to be buzzing about tomorrow. — Lenore

The Free-Range Cat in the Hat

Hey — quick, cool point, brought up by reader Rich Wilson: In The Cat in The Hat, which is hardly what you’d call subversive literature (oh, I’m sure some of you will, but let’s continue this point), the two tots are HOME ALONE! Mom has clearly gone out to shop, solo. And yet the book does not start with a disclaimer: “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play/But never leave kids by themselves for the day!”

In the 2003 movie version, meanwhile, the kids were home with a (sleeping) babysitter. And the movie bombed.

That’s what happens when you tinker with a Free-Range classic.

Outrage of the Week: Humpty Dumpty SAFE???

Dear Readers: Cracked! That’s what the folks are over in Britain where one of the BBC’s kiddie programs (created for children with special needs but a big fave with all the under-fives, apparently), is teaching the kids that Humpty Dumpty did indeed sit on the wall. And he did have a great fall. BUT all the kings horses and all the kings men somehow “Made Humpty happy again.”

And not in tasty omelette form!

Good God, are we SO AFRAID for our children that we think they will be traumatized by hearing of an egg that broke? Are they going to have flashbacks the next time they see a piece of French toast? Are our kids more fragile than the eggs themselves?

Bigger question: Why do we think we are HELPING our kids by assuming that a nursery rhyme that delighted several  hundred years’ worth of children is suddenly too much for this current generation to bear? 

And wait’ll the kids hear about Little Red Ridinghood!! (I’m sure she and the fox will open an organic bakery together.) — Lenore

Yikes! A Speech!!

Next Tuesday is Pres. Obama’s speech to children, urging them to stay in school and read books and, for all I know, brush their teeth. It’s about that controversial…or so you’d think.

But of course, nothing is uncontroversial in these hyper-umbrage-taking days, so we’re hearing from some parents and school administrators and concerned citizens that this is wasting “valuable” school time and amounts to “brainwashing.” They’re treating the speech like it’s a heroin demo for first time users.

Can we please calm down? This is our President, the guy we elected to lead and inspire our nation, and here is his stated agenda for the speech (outlined on the U.S. Dept. of Education website): He hopes to encourage students to “work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.” The only thing kids are really in danger of is hitting their heads on the desks when they fall asleep.

One radio talk show host (the avatar of all things rational, of course) was quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”

Uh, sir? Obama is talking to kids in their classrooms, not in a bathroom stall at Great Adventure. And if we stop talking to our neighbors AND listening to our President, this is just one weird, sad, crazy country that needs to be less totally paranoid about everything and everyone.

 But I guess we sort of knew that. — Lenore