nonfiction · television

Book Review: Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

I’ve spoken here many times before about my love for Mister Rogers, but Sesame Street and its history are also pet subjects of mine. I love reading about how the show grew from nothing but a flash of an idea into the cultural institution that it has become. I love hearing the actors’ stories, how the songs came about, how the puppets were created and the sets decorated, and how it changed the lives of everyone who was not only involved with it but who watched it from the comfort of their living rooms. I needed a book with a bird on the cover for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and as I searched the Goodreads’ groups lists of books that fit this prompt, I was delighted to find that Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp (Simon Schuster, 2020) fit the bill AND was on my TBR AND my library had the ebook! (I had to wait a few days for it, but that’s okay.)

David Kamp has written a beautiful book that covers the glory days of early children’s television, from its first anemic offerings, to the slightly better Captain Kangaroo, to the powerhouses that were Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock, Zoom, Free to Be…You and Me, and a few others that ran on more local channels. In a vibrant, upbeat manner, he chronicles how the shows came about, from conception to either today (in the case of Sesame Street) or completion, how the teams worked together (so many of the shows’ creators either didn’t have children or weren’t particularly interested in children or children’s programming, which I find fascinating, but which probably contributed heavily to these shows’ never talking down to kids), and how the political climate at the time was ripe for the creation of educational television for kids, something that would be extremely unlikely to happen today.

This is an utterly joyful read. While my parents assure me I watched The Electric Company, I have no memories of the show; I do, however, have a brain full of memories of early 80’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (including a song I’d forgotten about but that came right back to me when the book mentioned it: I in the Sky. Such a great song), and reading interviews with the actors, musicians, and creators that grew these shows from the ground up fascinated me to no end. There’s so much planning and hard work that went into these shows, and it doesn’t seem like anyone working on them got rich, but to be part of such cultural monoliths must have made all of it worth it.

It’s never overt, but Mr. Kamp illustrates over and over again how such innovative children’s programming would never be possible in today’s political climate, and that’s something that hurt my heart as I read. Too many people have dismissed the need for the government to get involved in helping to create quality educational programming, especially for the preschool set, in our hyper-individualistic society, dismissing the idea that we are a society and we can’t fully function unless all of us are able to participate. And when there’s a skill gap starting in kindergarten that only grows wider over time, we’re effectively kneecapping a large portion of society (and then blaming those people instead of working out solutions to solve this problem). Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sought to be solutions, and in a time when most people were on board with the government helping to fund that, they achieved it. In an age when I’ve heard multiple politicians (local and national) support closing public schools entirely (“Parents should be entirely responsible for fully educating their children! Don’t have them if you can’t teach them entirely at home!” was something I heard often when we lived in the south), that this ever even happened at all seems almost magical.

Such a lovely book of a time when people worked together to achieve a common goal. Would that we could return to such an age.

If you’re interested in Sesame Street and early PBS programming, other books that might catch your fancy (which I’ve read and can vouch for!) are as follows:

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs by David Borgenicht et al

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life On the Street by Louise Gikow

If it’s Mister Rogers you’re interested in, check out these books:

I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long

Do you have any great memories of PBS programming from your childhood?

Visit David Kamp’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Books I’ve Loved About Mister Rogers

Today, I want to talk about Mister Rogers.

It was around three years ago when I first started thinking deeply about the iconic children’s television host. Things were getting more than a little chaotic in the world, and it seemed that everywhere I turned, people were being terrible to each other. Really terrible. Some of them were even people I knew personally, and often more than not, this behavior was shocking to me. I sat in my cozy living room, watching a lot of disturbing events unfolding, listening to people I grew up with laughing at the pain of others, and I wondered where it had all gone so wrong. I wondered what was so different about their lives that had made them turn out like that, instead of the loving, caring people they had been raised to be, and in order to distance myself from the hurt they were causing, I began searching for something to bring me a sense of inner peace, something that would calm the distress that the social media schadenfreude and the constant influx of bad news had caused me.

And then I remembered Mister Rogers.

Fred Rogers was more than just a staple of my TV diet when I was a child. The zip-up cardigans, the tie shoes, his gentle way of speaking, they were all part of the soft fuzziness of my childhood. I remember curling up in front of the TV and watching those orangey yellow crayons whizzing by, being fascinated at how things were made and grateful to Mister Rogers for making it possible for me to see that. And the sounds of the show are seared into my memory: the cheery ‘ding ding’ of Trolley as it rolled from the house into the Land of Make Believe; Lady Aberlin’s airy voice; the rising piano as it burst into the theme song; Mr. McFeely’s chirp of “Speedy delivery!”; the jam sessions at Negri’s Music Shop; Fred Rogers’ quiet, placid way of speaking. All of these made up such a special part of my youth, so it’s not a surprise that my thoughts returned to those days of visiting the crayon factory when things got a little too crazy in real life.

Part of Fred Rogers’ reappearance in my life was in thanks to reading down my Goodreads Want-To-Read list. I’d marked a few books about him as want-to-read who knows how long ago, and this was when I gladly began picking them up. First up on the list was one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. The premise of the book sounded wonderful: a reporter, struggling with his personal life, strikes up a friendship with Fred Rogers. Madigan’s marriage was crumbling, and his relationship with his own father was rocky, and so he turned to the gentle television host, writing him and asking if Fred Rogers could be a stand-in surrogate father and be proud of the person Madigan was trying to be. I opened the cover, flipped to the first page, and began reading.

Within several sentences, I was full-on sobbing.

It’s not often that a book moves me as deeply as this one. The friendship- the love– between Madigan and Rogers was deep, rooted in faith and the firmly held belief that we are all worthy of being loved exactly as we are right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow and change and become better versions of ourselves: it just means that it’s okay to be who we are and that we’re loveable solely for being that. As their friendship progressed, Madigan was able to repair the rift in his marriage and even become closer with his father, all with Fred Rogers reminding him in the background, through phone calls and letters and visits, that he was proud of him.

This book is deeply moving. It’s a reminder to us all that we’re loveable just the way we are- and so are the people around us, a message that is sorely lacking in society these days. When I look around me, a lot of what I see being pushed is that others are not worthy of our love, our care; they’re too poor, too foreign, too different, and thus should be treated differently, the exact opposite of what Mister Rogers taught and stood for. Much like John Pavlovitz’s A Bigger Table, this book was a good reminder for me that love is indeed the answer and that I need to act out of kindness, always, even when it’s difficult. I’m Proud of You is absolutely a five-star book for me. While I’m not particularly religious, I did enjoy the faith-based aspects of this book; the faith of Fred Rogers is more akin to the religious teachings I grew up with: love others, treat them well, accept and love others for who they are, and help them to grow into their best selves. It’s not something I’ve seen enough of lately, and it was a comfort to find it in this book.

Soon after, I picked up Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long. Make no doubt about it: the soft-spoken Mister Rogers was indeed radical and subversive. Not in an in-your-face way; never once did he scream his message or incite violence to make a point. Fred Rogers quietly nudged the culture around him in the way he knew it should go. He regularly included people of color and people with disabilities on his show because he wanted society to accept them more readily and with open, loving arms. He advocated for peace and against war, turned the idea of traditional gender roles upside down by highlighting working mothers and diaper-changing stay-at-home fathers, showed that eating a vegetarian diet was one way to care for the planet (did you know Fred Rogers was an original financer of Vegetarian Times magazine?), interviewed disabled neighbors and talked with them about their disabilities and their lives, pushed for racial equality, and spotlighted blue collar workers and professions. He told kids it was okay to be scared, to be sad and cry, that talking about their feelings was normal. His was a voice of love, acceptance, and inclusion in a culture that far too often pushed hatred, divisiveness, separation, and cruelty. This book highlights the ways Mister Rogers’ deeply held beliefs were made manifest in his show, and it was fascinating to see how, for instance, his pacifism turned up in the scripts for The Land of Make Believe. I’ve rewatched some of those episodes with my daughter, and the message stands strong and still valid today: war is scary and hurtful and is something to be avoided, no matter how much work it takes.

And of course I read The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. This is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography that chronicles the history of the TV host and advocate. King covers the events of Rogers’ life, to be sure, but he also humanizes him, highlighting his sense of humor and his struggles as a parent in a way that made me both laugh and nod vigorously, because if even Mister Rogers was baffled by how to effectively parent teenagers, maybe I’m not doing so badly after all. But even as he writes about Fred’s use of swear words (oh yes, even Mister Rogers!) and the pranks pulled on the Neighborhood set, King still maintains an air of reverence for him, and reading this was like a warm hug that lasted all 416 pages.

These books have affected me deeply over the past few years. Though he passed away in 2003, Mister Rogers lives on through the enduring and heartfelt legacy he left behind. He reappeared in my life at a time where I was struggling with so many things, including terrible sleep deprivation. I desperately needed someone to tell me that I was still loveable even though I felt like I was failing badly in just about every aspect of life, that the hatred I saw around me was not normal and not okay, that loving my neighbor- and myself- was the right thing to do. And I found that again in being one of Mister Rogers’ neighbors. To remind me of all this, I used the birthday money my paternal grandmother had sent me to purchase a Mister Rogers necklace (from the Etsy store of rabbithole33). It’s a lovely, well-made item, and a great reminder that I’m lovable just the way I am…and so is everyone else. I wear it when I need to remember that, and it helps. I’m far from perfect, but I’m absolutely trying to be the person Mister Rogers knew I could be, in word, thought, and deed. I hope he would be proud of me, too.