Friday, October 16, 2009
There are only so many ideas in circulation at one time, so sometimes we've got to work with recyclable materials. Luckily for children's television programming producers, there was a wealth of ideas available in the juvenile literary world. Armed with familiar and much-beloved characters, these shows were near-guaranteed successes as children were eager to see their favorite storybook stars yukking it up on the small screen. Here are just a few of our once book-bound friends who made the leap from two-dimensional picture to, well, okay, two-dimensional picture. But, you know, with sound and animation.
Who better than an anthropomorphic talking preteen aardvark to teach children life lessons? I really can't think of any superior alternative. Well, unless maybe you also threw in some monkey and rabbit pals. That would be the cherry on top of the talking animal role model cake.
Marc Brown began writing Arthur books in 1976, publishing the bulk of his cutesy aardvark-centric stories throughout the 80s and 90s. Brown was especially adept at slipping in a convenient pro-literacy and library friendly agenda, skyrocketing the books to popularity in schools and public reading settings. There's nothing a library loves quite as much as a book that loves libraries. It's just really the most perfect fit. I mean, for God's sake, the main character's last name is Read. How unsubtle can it get?
While the books had been enjoying a wave of popularity for a couple of decades, 90s kids were treated to an extra special supplementary means of Arthur enjoyment. In 1996, the Arthur TV series premiered on PBS, the Mecca of educational children's television entertainment supported by Viewers Like You. PBS did not disappoint in their interpretation of the new book classics, providing a series that was enjoyed by children and adults alike. Even those kids who veered into the gray area of a little too old for kid's shows often watched the show in secret, delighting in the clever wit and catchy reggae theme song performed by Ziggy Marley.
The books were delightful to children throughout the 80s and 90s not because of their exciting, fantastical nature, but because Arthur was just a regular third grade boy--er, aardvark--who suffered the same daily humiliations, irritations, and apprehensions as the rest of us. His sister DW was a total pain in the ass, he has a baby sister and a playful puppy, and deals with the daily dilemmas common to third grade Suburban life. Not to mention the show pulled guest voice actors like the Backstreet Boys, Joan Rivers, and Alex Trebek. Not bad for a show aimed at 8-year olds.
The Magic School Bus
What kid doesn't love a happy trip to imaginationland? A vehicle to get there is always useful, so when author Joanna Cole offered us a magical schoolbus, we were all more than willing to jump on board for some good ol' fashioned imaginary field trips. Plus the TV series was Canadian. How much more inviting and welcoming can you get?
As was the standard for 90s educational television program, the cast was composed of one-off token members representing a virtual rainbow of animated diversity. We had the Jewish kid, the Black kids, the Irish kid, the Mexican one, the Chinese one...pretty much if you can name an ethnicity, one of its well-spoken young representatives had a reserved seat of the Magic Schoolbus. The group was led by the eccentric frizzy-coiffed Ms. Frizzle, voiced by Lily Tomlin. We followed our bus-bound friends as they entered the human body, blast into space, or through the water cycle. Oh, and did I mention Danny Tamberelli voiced the Jewish kid and the Mexican kid was Jason from Mean Girls? I'm not really what else you could ask for from a kids' show. Oh, except maybe a theme song performed by Little Richard. I know I'm sold.
The Busy World of Richard Scarry
There's nothing quite like a warm fuzzy value-laden story starring anthropomorphic animals to convince parents to let the TV babysit their kids for a half hour or so. I'm pretty sure if I were a parent on the fence about letting children's TV programming play nanny, seeing that little worm driving an apple car would undoubtedly push me over the edge. It was fast-paced enough to keep children entertained, featuring three mini-episodes in each show. Since kids are not exactly known for their ability to sit still and patiently enjoy audiovisual media, there was more than enough material to satiate them.
The stories focused mainly on the Cat family, made up of Huckle, Sally, Mother, and Father. For no good reason, they cohabited with Lowly Worm. You know, because everyone knows that cats and worms are natural compadres. We also had police officer Sargent Murphy, the chronically unemployed and banana-desperate Bananas Gorilla, and the dumpster-diving friendly trashman Mr. Fixit. It was an eclectic bunch, but they were admittedly chock-full of talking animal wisdom and values. If nothing else, it sure beats what passes for children's programming these days. Send one of those Yo Gabba Gabba critters up against Lowly Worm and his applemobile and I'd put my bets on wormy.
Speaking of tedious sanctimonious children's programming. He's cute and all, but he just has so many feelings. The books were pretty sweet, though no one would declare them overly creative. With animal characters aptly named Duck, Owl, Hen, Cat, Mother Bear, Father Bear, and Little Bear, they weren't exactly breaking new ground here. For no reason at all, there was also a little girl named Emily and a skunk named Marshmallow. Just go with it.
Like The Busy World of Richard Scary, each Little Bear episode featured three vignettes. Our titular character is a curious shoeless six-year old little boy bear who provides the childlike perspective. The show has a sort of old-fashioned feel, though it premiered in the 90s. Our characters hand-knead bread by candlelight, so perhaps they're not the most relatable characters for kids. Then again, they're also bears, so we can probably just let that go.
The World of David the Gnome
Based on the children's book The Secret Book of Gnomes, Daivd the Gnome is a Spanish television series later dubbed in English and narrated by our pal Captain von Trapp. You know, from the Sound of Music? Anyway, the show introduced us to the curious world of gnomes, a miniature community of half-foot tall pointed-hat sporting little people who lived in forests, farms, or gardens. These little guys were hundreds of years old and full of a fun type of gnome-specific wisdom that only children can appreciate. Because looking back, I think I'm just too jaded to appreciate this kind of stuff anymore. Back in the day, though, with my thriving imagination, I was all over this stuff.
Our buddy David the Gnome (Tom Bosley!) is a forest-dwelling gnome in the medicinal healing mold, doling out acupuncture and hypnosis to his gnome neighbors. He's got a wife named Lisa, his best friend is a fox, and his family is forever being pestered by local trolls. At the time, it made perfect sense, believe me. The show had environmental undertones, with the gnomes charged with picking up after us selfish and uncaring humans. Damn humans. We're so cruel and we have no sense of appreciation for primary colored pointed hats.
The ideas may not have been original, but most of the stories translated pretty well to television. The shows also had the effect of easing our parents' guilt of parking us in front of the TV with the hope that it might inspire us to someday pick up the book itself. So what if all we came out with was an encyclopedic knowledge of children's TV theme songs? The point is that they tried.