Sunday, May 17, 2015

Can you tell me what you get, what you get from Sesame Street?

I Am Big Bird came to the Brattle Theatre this weekend. So did the filmmakers, star Carroll Spinney, his wife Debra, and Oscar the Grouch. And lots and lots of Bostonians.

The audience for the sold-out showing was composed almost entirely of adults--several decades' worth of adults. After all, Sesame Street's been on for 46 years. And I have no doubt that pretty much everyone in the room had grown in many ways since they were in the show's target audience. (When a passerby sounded amused at the length of the line for Big Bird, the woman behind me had some choice words that she probably wasn't using in preschool.) And the movie and Q&A made it clear that Spinney, along with his sense of wonder and understanding of children, has had plenty of adult concerns and joys, an utterly adorable marriage foremost among the latter. Big Bird and Oscar aren't always on our minds, not even on Spinney's. But when we were on the subject, the bird's and the show's importance was clear.

THIS is why I do children's books, I found myself thinking.

When we were little, Big Bird was a comforting presence for many of us. He was friendly, he was always there, and he showed us that it was okay to ask questions. At the same time, Oscar showed us a bit about how humor worked, and maybe let us imagine what it would be like to behave in ways we would never really behave. When we got slightly older, maybe we felt a little smarter than Big Bird and Oscar. Seeing that Big Bird still needed reassurance from adults and that Oscar needed some manners was comforting, too--it was okay if we still didn't have all the answers. And while they were at it, Big Bird, Oscar, and their buddies helped us learn some letters, numbers, and remarkable words.

Some people cried at I Am Big Bird. Whatever we took from Sesame Street in our earliest years, it's still in our brains, held there by a kind of emotional attachment inherent in young people who want to see the same characters over and over and over. For me, at least, the same is true of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein books, and Baby-Sitters' Club books, and books about redheads walking ridgepoles, all of which shaped my personality and my interests. That's why good content for children is important in all sorts of media. That's why I want books to be a place of comfort, why I care what children see while they're being entertained. Oh, and Sesame Street has consistently rocked that whole representation thing while being fun and educational all at once, so forgive me if I laugh at the idea that diversity doesn't sell.

Come and play. Everything's a-okay.