When I first read the name Tessa the Tank, I instantly thought of another children’s book character with a similarly alliterative name. I’m sure Tessa’s creator, Stoke-based writer Jen Phillips, wouldn’t mind this, as she has stated in interviews that Reverend W. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine was the inspiration for the book. The good news is that while there are several obvious similarities between the two, Tessa does ultimately succeed in having a charm of her own.
At just 28 pages long, many of which are made up of illustrations (also by Phillips), Tessa’s story is a short and simple one. She is an old WWII tank (a Tetrach light tank, to be precise) who is spending her retirement in a tank museum. When the opportunity to attend a classic vehicle show comes knocking, she is over the moon. However, Tessa and Brian the boastful tank transporter have an accident en route, and unless they work together to find a solution, they’ll miss the event altogether.
The story is textbook Awdry: two anthropomorphic vehicles behave badly until circumstances force them to reflect on their actions. They see the error of their ways, atone for their sins and everyone’s happy at the end. It’s simple and effective, and your kids will love it.
So what gives Tessa the Tank its own identity? First of all, the central character is female. Yes, some of Awdry’s vehicles were girls too, but the overwhelming majority were boys, and I think it’s fair to assume that if he had created a tank, it would have been male given the era that Awdry lived in. Tessa the Tank has a more modern feel as a result, despite the tank herself being from the 1940s, and it will arguably make the book more appealing to young girls, too.
The other defining aspect of Phillips’ book is the quirky, almost childlike illustrations, and in my view this is both a strength and a weakness. While it helps to differentiate Tessa the Tank from the comparatively realistic artwork found in The Railway Series, and while it also prevents Tessa from looking menacing like an actual Tetrarch tank surely would, Phillips’ illustrative style doesn’t quite live up to the standard of her writing, which is very polished by comparison.
Overall, I think Tessa the Tank is a strong debut from Jen Phillips and will appeal to young boys and girls alike. It’s also worth mentioning that there is an accompanying website with puzzles, games and some additional information about Tetrach tanks.