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!

48 Responses to Is Thomas the The Tank Engine on Crack?

  1. Heather G June 4, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    My almost three year old LOVES the old stories. He likes the new ones too, and is pretty obsessed with anything related to trains since the first time we got stuck waiting for a passing train. Although he enjoys the new stories the ones he requests over, and over, and over and over are the older ones. Not an easy feat finding the older books at the library. My husband and I much prefer the older ones too and we often joke that if any business was run as the Sodor railways are in the new ones they’d be bankrupt by the end of the first year.

    Maybe it was because my great grandmother was a school teacher from the time of the one room school house and gave all her beloved books to be read to her only great grandchild (at the time of her death) but I grew up reading stories written long before society “thought better” about various practices. Like Sarah and the older Thomas stories we talked about what we read, what life was like then, why people thought and acted the way they did and how it differs from now.

  2. Heather G June 4, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    I should also admit that we prefer some of the slightly older Thomas videos too, but that is because my husband and I get a chuckle George Carlin narrating a children’s show. One day my son will be old enough to understand why.

  3. KMary June 4, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Heather G, my husband and I are the same way. We chuckle almost as much at the ones narrated by Alec Baldwin and Ringo Starr, but the Carlin ones are by far, the most ironic :-)

  4. Marcy June 4, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Off topic, but Thomas hits home for me. Thomas fans may like this:

  5. AW13 June 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    I get a kick out of the older Thomas videos, too. for George Carlin reasons. It’s just funny to hear that voice narrating the tales of Sodor! I have never looked for the older books. I know that in some of the older videos, the punishments were harsh, and he started crying on a couple of occasions when he thought something might happen to one of the trains, so for him, I think I might wait another year before introducing the older stories :)

  6. tdr June 4, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    The old stories and illustrations are far more interesting to kids and adults. After awhile I simply refused to read the dumbed-down ones.

  7. MITBeta June 4, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    Did the letter writer just describe talking trains as “just not realistic”? 😀

  8. Rachel Banzhaf June 4, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    Related to a bookstore rather than books, but an article for ya:
    Grandfather alone in the children’s books section gets kicked out of the store for being a male alone in the children’s section.

  9. Ann in L.A. June 4, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    I always thought of TTTE as an allegory for slavery, with the engines working hard for their master, getting minimal rewards like a washing down, and with punishments like getting locked up in a tunnel. It’s a little creepy.

    Worst of all….the fact that the DVD’s we had when the kids were little automatically started over when they got to the end–an infinite loop of TTTE to keep the kids quiet all day long.

  10. Uly June 4, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    Rachel, B&N has a longstanding policy that adults without children aren’t allowed to linger in the children’s section unless they’re actively shopping.

    Browsing – fine. Sitting and talking on your cell? You’ll be directed to another section.

    I’d be very surprised to find that this particular store is applying that policy only to men, because I’ve been hit with it at multiple stores, and they often have signs regarding this rule.

    I’m not saying the policy is right or fair, but that I think he’s very mistaken if he thinks it’s only because he’s a man.

  11. socalledauthor June 4, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    The sad thing is that stories like Thomas being made cheerful– or more prominent, Eeyore being less gloomy– is that these stories were originally included in the children’s shows to illustrate that feelings other than happy were normal and OKAY. The shows not only showed it as a normal part of life, but also often addressed those emotions, including how to deal with them. There is a Mr. Rogers episode (a two parter) on “The Mad That You Feel,” but in this new sanitize world, I’m sure that wouldn’t allowed.

    The new Thomas shows– which I won’t watch because I don’t like the CGI, or the use of different voices for each character– are very similar to Chugginton in that everyone is happy, even to the point of being cheerful when scared or laughing when caught misbehaving. I actually recall that when Barney and Friends came out, so many years ago, it was criticized because of it’s sugar coating. Apparently that’s the new normal…

  12. octavio June 4, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    I thought I would like the old stories as they would provide some nostalgia, though I couldn’t enjoy reading them with my son because not only are the trains grumpy (the stories are pretty mean-spirited as a whole), but the trains are cruel to each other, and call each other names, like ‘idiot.” I agree we need perspectives of the past, but how do you explain to a three year old the definition of an idiot and why it’s appropriate for one train call another train one? (Yes, you could substitute the word, but I assure you the first time you come across it you weren’t expecting it).

  13. socalledauthor June 4, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    @octavio: why would you explain that it’s okay to call another person (train) an idiot? If it was me, I’d explain that it’s not okay– and sometimes people do things that are not okay (like calling names.)

  14. Spazztastic June 4, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Some things from the old stories needed to be changed; there’s the story “Henry’s Sneeze” where the engine blows a load of soot out his stack to punish boys fro dropping rocks on him…the boys are then described as being ‘black as niggers’. But I liked the older stories too. Even my son, who has outgrown Thomas and is now interested in REAL trains, didn’t like the new CGI versions when he tried getting his two-year-old cousin interested. “That’s not the REAL Thomas!”

  15. gondolaqueen June 4, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    My oldest had the original Thomas videos- where James is a jerk- and I didn’t mind them. I had the opportunity to watch a newer on TV the other day with my youngest, and couldn’t tolerate it.

    What message is a perpetually happy character sending to our kids? That it isn’t nice, or kind to ever get upset? To ever have a bad day? Good thing I can tell my kids myself it’s fine to get “pissy”- mommy certainly does sometimes.

  16. Sarah June 4, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    MITBeta, I meant the personalities of the characters are not realistic. Of course talking trains are not realistic in the first place. :) Despite that, children take characters like this pretty seriously, or at least my older son does, so I just want him to see that no one is happy and cheerful all the time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Yes, perhaps the characters in the older stories are a little too grumpy and harsh, but then the newer ones have swung pretty far in the opposite direction. Why not a little more balance?

    BTW, I’ve had a hard time actually finding the older books, too. I’ve stumbled on a few by accident (his preschool had some old copies in its library), but if I actively search for them at the city library or at Amazon they’re pretty hard to track down. It’s funny because the newer ones still use Reverend Awdry’s name, but they are not written by him or his son (who has also written for the original series) and they are nothing alike at all in terms of writing style. I almost feel like this is lying to kids in the name of “updating.”

  17. Amanda Matthews June 4, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    @octavio You don’t know the meaning of the word idiot? I’d pull out the dictionary and teach the 3 year old to use it, if that was the case. I’d also take that as an opportunity to talk about the fact that calling other people names isn’t nice, and that some people aren’t nice, and how we can deal with such people.

  18. pentamom June 4, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    “I always thought of TTTE as an allegory for slavery, with the engines working hard for their master, getting minimal rewards like a washing down, and with punishments like getting locked up in a tunnel. It’s a little creepy.”

    They’re TRAINS. One of the things that makes slavery wrong is that you don’t treat people like machines. Trains ARE machines.

    Children can anthropomorphize without going all the way to thinking that acceptable train behavior/treatment of others = acceptable human behavior/treatment of others. If not, we have to throw out everything from Black Beauty to the animal fairy tales.

  19. Uly June 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    You know, Pentamom, I don’t think it’s right to brick up any sentient being without its consent, even if it’s “just” a train.

    In the real world trains can’t think, but clearly on Sodor they can. Why anybody would want to create thinking trains boggles the mind, but we have to accept the outline we’re given.

  20. Sarah June 4, 2012 at 11:49 pm #

    The whole “thinking train” thing brings up a point about other kids’ media like Disney Pixar’s Cars. I have to admit that when Cars 2 came out on DVD, I watched it on my own and decided my kids shouldn’t see it (at least not yet) because of all the violence. An argument I heard was that these were CARS and we shouldn’t worry about the torture and killing that takes place on-screen because they are machines and not actual living creatures. But, they talk and have personalities, don’t they? They are characters. I didn’t want my four-year-old to ask me why anyone would threaten to kill Lightning McQueen. (He’s just not ready for that, IMO.)

    That said, I think the older Thomas stories are a little easier to explain in that they took place in different times. No, it wasn’t right for Henry to be bricked into a tunnel, but he did get out and he was okay in the end. It’s a little harder to say, “No, it wasn’t right for that character to be killed,” because of course that character wasn’t okay in the end.

    Again, I’m not for overly-sanitizing things, but some things do go too far (at least for very young children) and it’s up to us as parents to decide what we’re ready to explain to our kids.

  21. Emily June 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    Yeah, I’m with Uly. In a child’s mind, Thomas the Tank Engine is more of a living, sentient being than a train, because he has a name, he has emotions, and to a little kid, that counts more than the fact that he also has wheels and an engine. I watched the show as a kid (as part of Shining Time Station, which has long since gone off the air), but I never really got the “slavery” allegory–it was just a typical kids’ show with “morals,” except using mostly trains. There were still people in the stories, like Sir Toppem Hat (remember him?), but since the story mostly revolved around characters that were machines, kids would empathize with them, and probably not want to see them sealed into a tunnel with bricks and mortar.

  22. Emily June 4, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    However, I do agree with the sentiment that it’s good to teach kids that emotions other than “happy” are normal, and it’s okay to have them, as long as you work through them in appropriate ways.

  23. Leanne Kemmler Palmerston June 5, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    I’m surprised no one has pointed out the more obvious parallel between the updating of Fannie & Dick and TTTE: Mr Toppem Hat was originally written as “The Fat Conductor” and his wife was called “The Fat Conductor’s Wife”.

  24. David L June 5, 2012 at 1:05 am #

    Also see: – a funny look into the economics of the Island of Sodor.

  25. QuantumMechanic June 5, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    If you want to read the original, as-written-by-Awdry stories (i.e. “The Fat Controller” instead of “Sir Topham Hatt”, “trucks” instead of “freight cars”, etc.) you can try to find this on Amazon or in used book stores:

    It also has the advantage of having the original illustrations (though in a small format) rather than having them be cropped or otherwise modified. Don’t be fooled by newer books claiming to be complete Railway Series collections.

    I also see the asking price has gone up considerably since I bought a copy a few years ago :(

  26. Lollipoplover June 5, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    My son loved the train Percy, and always hated Gordon. Memories of listening to Alec Baldwin telling the story at 6 in the morning while my son watched quietly (so the baby could sleep) are so sweet. This was his favorite, the Percy’s Chocolate Crunch-

    I remember someone said they should make a breakfast cereal called Percy’s Chocolate crunch for train obsessed boys. That and Alec’s Shweddy Balls (which Ben and Jerry’s made into an ice cream) make me a Baldwin fan. I liked Carlin’s too but it was tough for me to grasp the irony without coffee . Never knew about the Fat Controller but I have to laugh about that edit.

  27. Busy Dad June 5, 2012 at 3:40 am #

    The old stories and the new stories are for two completely different generations. The book audiences are different between the to old and new series as well as how the stories are told.

    A heavy kid might be insulted and feel down on themselves after reading the books where Sir Topham Hatt is called “The Fat Controller” instead of “Sir Topham Hatt”.

    There is a reason why the books are changed. The new generation of kids are more free to do things without punishment than our generation was. This is caused by the parents being punished if they get caught correcting their child in public because someone doesn’t believe in the same punishment. And then there are parents that take the punishments to far as well.

    Just look back a generation behind your generation and you will be surprised how much books changed.

  28. Elizabeth June 5, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    I think kids need to learn that we do need to treat others with kindness and respect and compassion. I think these are important lessons. I think when small children are watching shows/reading books they should see the difference between good and bad. They should see their heroes acting with decency and kindness. I don’t think characters acting bad should be sheltered from kids at all. It’s just there should either be a clear cut line between the good and bad characters or it should show the good characters making a bad choice and then being showed it was wrong and learning a lesson from it. (Something that didn’t seem happen in the few old Thomas books I have come across.) Being grumpy and angry are part of life, but I think, as decent people, it’s our job to try and exhibit self control and rise above those feelings so we don’t act meanly to those around us.

  29. Cass June 5, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    I download the first season of Thomas for my daughter. Loved it when Thomas’s driver didn’t call te police on some naughty boys who smashed all of Thomas’s windows… Instead they pulled a prank on them covering them with coal dust. I loved that they “handled it themselves”.

    I am also a Thomas fan. I genuinely enjoy the stories. I haven’t seen much more than the first season though.

  30. Jenn June 5, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    Many young children and particularly, autistic children enjoy TTTE because the faces hold an expression that makes it easy for the kids to read the emotions. Old or new, it’s helped many kids decode what people are feeling in a situation which can help them to read the emotions of the people around them.

  31. AW13 June 5, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    @Sarah: I was babysitting for an older boy, and he loved Cars, so my son decided that he loved Cars also (he was about 2 1/2). We went to the video store to rent Cars 2, and as soon as Finn McMissile was captured, before the “torture” began, but when the other characters were clearly being menacing, my son got very upset and asked me to turn it off. He did the same thing during TTTE “Races, Rescues, and Runaways”, when there was a story that featured Percy getting stuck in a cave-in and showed him being scared. So my son is clearly sensitive to that sort of visual stimulation. I was the same way as a child – my mom tells a story of when I was about 2 1/2, there was a Garfield Christmas special on, and Odie was sent to the pound. I began to sob because I was so upset about what might happen to Odie, and we turned off the program. It’s all about knowing your child. But I think he might get a kick out of the older Thomas books. I’ll have to check those out. (And I totally appreciate the Fat Controller and the Fat Controller’s Wife!)

  32. CrazyCatLady June 5, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    AW13, my oldest son does get overloaded on “sensitive” stuff, and has to leave the room with many TV shows. Things like, Curious George, on PBS, when he does things that would get most kids in trouble.

    My daughter and younger son, however, would totally be rocking to the punishment stuff – they totally get that because they want to punish their siblings from time to time.

  33. bmommyx2 June 5, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    sorry I haven’t had time to read the other responses. When my son was born I came across a DVD of the first two years of Sesame Street & when I watched it there was a disclaimer saying that the DVD is purely for adult entertainment & doesn’t meet the needs of today’s pre-schooler’s. How different is the 3-6 year old? I though this was crazy. Also I have some old Little Rascals VHS & Tom & Jerry DVDs that start with a disclaimer about how they were made in a different time & would not be considered appropriate today. I guess I should be happy they have not been sanitized to today’s standards.

  34. Liam June 5, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Here’s something that makes me wonder: if the engines of Sodor all have drivers, do they really have free will?

  35. Metanoia (@metanoia_chan) June 5, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    While there are comparisons of trains to slavery and that a car movie is too violent, my favourite movie as a little girl which I’ve had for as long as I remember (I’d say about 3 years old) is The Last Unicorn. The unicorn is locked up, spelled, chased by a magical bull, turned into a human, cries, falls in love and is nearly killed several more times. I know the film word for word and can’t watch Mia Farrow movies because she is the voice of the unicorn and I can’t imagine her any other way. I’m glad my mum let me watch such a “violent” movie. It still tear up at the end. I think as long as a childs story has a positive ending, what happens in the middle shouldn’t be covered up and sanitised. They can get to the George RR Martin “everyone dies” view later on, but I don’t want my kids to have a always happy nothing bad ever happens version of the world in books/films because someone somewhere once thought a beloved book represented slavery. They’re trains!

  36. AW13 June 5, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    @Metanoia: It all depends on the kid. I’m not advocating that everything be whitewashed because my little boy is sensitive. And I’m not advocating that he only see/read movies/books with no conflict and happy endings – that isn’t reality. But since he is sensitive to the sadness and fear that he sees in anthropomorphized trains and cars right now, I’m going to turn off movies when he asks me to turn them off. What my cousins could handle watching and reading at 3 and 4 was far different than what I could handle watching at 3 and 4. Each child is different, and parents should behave accordingly.

  37. oncefallendotcom June 5, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    I always knew there was something wrong with Thomas. He was always on the wrong side of the tracks.

    Track Kills. Say no to Track.

  38. Sarah June 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    CrazyCatLady, Curious George really bothered my son, too, for a while! (He’s over it now.) Same thing–he really didn’t like it when he got into trouble. I agree with AW13 that you just have to know your child. I certainly wouldn’t (and didn’t) force my son to watch anything he didn’t want to. That would just be mean and he did get over some sensitivities over time on his own.

    Even though I decided not to let my kids watch Cars 2, I wouldn’t want it to be sanitized. I’m just going to have him wait until he’s a little older. I think the problem arises when people think they know better than parents what’s best for their kids. Sure, parents make mistakes but sanitizing the world doesn’t do anyone any favors, either.

  39. Selby June 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    If you don’t like name-calling I would steer very clear of Roald Dahl.

    “The Centipede roared with laughter. ‘Those imbeciles couldn’t hear anything,’ he cried. ‘They’re deaf as doorknobs….Idiots!’ he yelled. ‘Nincompoops! Half-wits! Blunderheads! Asses!….'”

    (My kids LOVED this part!)

  40. EricS June 6, 2012 at 12:04 am #

    The thing is, time HASN’T changed. We still experience the same things our parents did, our grand parents, our great grand parents. We have stress, we have work, we have crimes, we have fortunes, we have losses, we have joys and pains. Love, debt and death are still the same from thousands of years ago. The only thing that has changed in the last 20 years, is the way people think. And the way they think is greatly influenced by what other people tell them, NOT from their own experiences and common sense. If anything, all the things people fear most these days, are actually less frequent than they were in the past. Pretty ironic how crime rate is down, but paranoia and insecurities keeps climbing. There is much to be learned the “old school” way. It makes children far more resilient, than the way they are being raised now. We were taught to toughen ourselves mentally and physically, by trial and error. These days, children are treated like fragile glass. Where they aren’t allowed to get dirty, or put into a situation were they could “break”. The parents, whether they realize it or not, want the best for their children but in reality, they are just setting them up to fail. Fear makes people do the most illogical and craziest things. It’s like crack to them. They know it’s bad, they know they shouldn’t succumb to it, but for some reason they keep injecting it into their system, and their children’s.

  41. Tanya June 6, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    I find it funny that in the UK, where this was made, the guy in charge is called The Fat Controller whereas in the US he is called Mr Topham Hat. I’m from the UK and live in US and everytime I hear than name it makes me laugh. Political correctness gone crazy IMO.

  42. Bob Davis June 6, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Just the name, Thomas the Tank Engine, caught my attention. Thomas (the full-size, standard gauge version), comes to visit at my “home railway museum” in Southern California every November. I’m usually assigned to be Sir Topham Hatt’s assistant. He is brought to life like Mickey Mouse and his compadres are at Disneyland, and we have a setup where kids and families can get their photos taken with him. Some children are a bit intimidated and will have nothing to do with the whole idea, and some of the parents are embarassed that after waiting in line their youngster doesn’t want to be photographed. I assure them, “It’s OK, Sir Topham is bigger here than he is on the TV screen. If you come back next year, there probably won’t be any problems.” Some of the adult visitors ask if Thomas really pulls the train, because we have a Santa Fe diesel on the rear end. My explanation is that Thomas is used to pulling short, English style trains and that he needs some help with heavy North American passenger cars. Then if somebody asks “How does he get to your museum?” I tell them, in my best spy-story voice. “It’s a secret! It’s so secret that not even Bond, James Bond, Agent 007, has a high enough clearance to know about it.”

    And, I’m not sure I like the thought that Thomas might be “on crack” instead of “on track”; it reminds me of a story (from South Africa, I think) in which the local “narcs” wanted to dispose of some confiscated marijuana. They loaded the weed into the firebox of an old steam engine and light it off, giving new meaning to the old railroad term “highball!” One railfan conjured up an image of several of the local potheads gathering around the smokestack and inhaling deeply.

  43. Tamaya June 7, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    It isn’t the only series that is different. My son likes Dinosaur Cove books and here in North America they are different from the UK version. A friend went there and picked up some for my son and the UK ones are a little more graphic in that the carnivorous dinosaurs actually eat other dinos.

  44. 1 Day Attta Time June 7, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    My 10 month old and I both love watching Thomas. We have 2 seasons of the original series (you know the ones that are only 15 minutes long) and, even though I know Felix is too young to understand yet, it’s the morals and lessons that I really appreciate. It’s often about being polite, kind, respectful and hardworking. I remember one episode where a character, I think it was a crane by the docks, was rude and horrible and hated the trains. He learned that they had to work together and even tho he still didn’t like them he should just keep his mouth shut! That is a GREAT lesson for kids to learn!; You’re not gonna like everyone in your life but if you have to be around them then you should keep your mouth shut if you don’t have anything nice to say. I have never seen any of the older books or shows based on Thomas and I’m not going to seek them out. Original is always best.

  45. Heather G June 7, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    1 Day, Cranky Bugs is the episode (I’m reasonably sure) and it is one of my son’s favorites. My in-laws have it on tape and it’s only a matter of time until the tape brakes from over use.

  46. singapura June 13, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    Funny, I thought I was the only one who saw the slavery theme in Thomas the Tank Engine but also in Bob the Builder. My son loves both of the though although not as much as the Power Rangers.

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  48. Adamvs June 17, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    I loved watching Thomas with my son. Thomas often made errors- he was often short tempered, and a bit of a egoist. Yet he wanted to do well, so I suppose the fact that he learned, and would apologise and make amends was much the point, at least in the early series, and the original books.
    The books were written just at the end of the Second World War and you can see some British cultural references. Awdry was addressing the Engines as “Officers” or “Civil Servant” class. The “trucks”( rail cars) were the ill educated working class, and the diesel engines were the unreliable moderns with their selfish ideas. Awdry was writing to inculcate values of dedication, hard work, and self-sacrifice because two world wars and the great depression, and creating resilient leaders to deal with such hardships, was on the mind of Britains. This was especially true of the Anglican clergy who often taught them in public schools such as Eton and Rugby.
    In some ways, these are cute stories of talking engines who try to resolve problems. But the writer wasn’t just doing this for kicks. He had moral points to make, the same as Aesop’s fables and stories like Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin.