Back in September, NPR did a piece about the premiere of Nina’s World, the first original show for children’s TV network Sprout. Before we go too far, I need to say that I’ve never watched even a single episode of the show. All I know about it is what Mandalit Del Barco told me on the radio—it follows a six-year-old Latina girl named Nina as she hangs out with her hip grandmother and grows up in a multicultural neighborhood.
That sounds great and it probably is. She also has a star-shaped pillow that talks so that’s totally rad. I have absolutely no beef with Nina’s World itself, but something Sprout president Sandy Wax said about the show has been bothering me for the past four months.
“We believe that the real world of today’s kids and families is a very cool and fun place. We don’t believe that we have to be transported to magical kingdoms and castles in order to create a relatable story that really speaks to this generation. We’re much more about, you know, playing on the floor, the everyday moments of childhood. And we do that through something as simple as celebrating kids’ birthdays on air.”
And then Rita Moreno, who voices Nina’s hip grandmother, said this:
“They’re not trying to do one of those fancy-schmancy series where children are, you know, going into the galaxy and all that kind of stuff – not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
But like the useless, passive-aggressive qualifier no offense, “not that there’s anything wrong with that” almost always implies the exact opposite. In this case, the implication is that there’s something wrong with media for children (TV shows, books, movies, games, etc.) that involves anything fantastical and isn’t rooted in the real world where kids play on the floor within arm’s reach of a caregiver.
I’d like to remind everyone that Nina has a sentient star-shaped pillow, but I digress.
It’s possible I’m reading too far into Wax and Moreno’s comments, though I couldn’t help feeling that Sprout’s ideology represents yet another attempt to suck all the goddamned fun out of childhood. In the age of safety-first-at-all-costs, kids aren’t allowed to wander off by themselves anymore and get into unsupervised adventures. At least they still have (or had) the adventures found in stories about magical creatures and fantasy realms. But, dear god, what if those fantastical stories start giving them ideas? What if those fantastical stories aren’t the most nutritious thought-stuffs for their little brains that need to be diligently preparing for the so-called real world?
I’m in my early-mid-thirties and was born right on the cusp of the safety-first era ushered in by an army of jumpy pediatricians, helicopter parents, and public health propaganda. Thus, I’m old enough to remember both stranger-danger fear mongering and glorious unsupervised time, as well as oodles of kids’ TV that had pretty much nothing to do with my actual kid-life. The networks undoubtedly tried to squeeze in a lesson about safety or morality here and there (like those hilarious G.I. Joe PSAs that some brilliant smartass overdubbed about ten years ago), but the point of those shows was not the moral.
The point was tiny blue creatures who lived in mushrooms and got chased around by an evil wizard, rainbow kids who lived in a rainbow land and got chased around by an evil mad scientist, radish-addicted party-animals who lived in an elaborate network of caves and annoyed the piss of out of hardworking little green dudes, and, of course, teddy bears who lived in cloud-cuckoo-land and shot freaking lasers out of their tummies. LASERS!!!
To be fair, most of these shows were unwatchable to adults (super-smart Fraggle Rock being the exception) and all of them were designed to sell toys but, good lord, did they fuel my young imagination. By the age of five, I reasoned that, though all of these fabulous creatures lived in their respective magical lands, those lands must be somehow connected, perhaps by portals hidden in closets, tree trunks, or holes in walls (like the one in Doc’s workshop). I figured there might even be a single place from which one could jump to any one of the magical lands and go party with Smurfs and Care Bears on the same day.
Most writers and nerds will instantly recognize this concept as a multiverse. No one had ever said the word multiverse to me or presented me with anything resembling the concept, and yet, I frittered away many pre-kindergarten hours drawing primitive maps of my childhood multiverse and imagining what would happen if any of the magical creatures I loved crossed from one land into another (in other words, daydreamed fanfic). Eventually, I started crafting my own fantasy lands and building mockups of them out of couch cushions in the living room or with sticks, rocks, and repurposed toys in the backyard.
And I certainly wasn’t the only kid. When I did get to kindergarten, I realized other kids had come up with similar multiverse concepts all reflecting their unique imaginations. One particularly creative kid claimed that we all might be able to cross into a magical storyland he invented by swinging to a certain unreachable height on the swingset and then jumping off (Gasp, that sounds unsafe!).
I doubt all of my fellow wannabe-multiverse-explorers became writers, but I can say we all went on to enjoy speculative fiction that went deeper, darker and weirder. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Chronicles of Narnia. A Wrinkle In Time. Labyrinth. The Last Unicorn. Pretty much everything ever written by Roald Dahl. The kiddie-multiverse of singing cartoons and puppets had prepared us for this stuff (particularly for Narnia, which features a multiverse accessible by pools of water). It got us excited about magic and strange creatures and world-building and, for the love of god, something more than playing on the carpet and celebrating birthdays with organic carrot cake.
Obviously, fantasy and realism aren’t mutually exclusive and realism can be fun. Sesame Street featured a diverse cast of both real people and puppets, and my kid-brain always assumed that Sesame was a street in our world, not in a magical parallel universe. And I still loved it. There’s plenty of room for shows that focus on learning and the real world experiences of kids. I also feel strongly that kids need time away from media to get the sillies out and let their own ideas run wild. But let’s not dismiss children’s media designed to transport kids to fantastical realms with a condescending “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Let’s not lose sight of the fact that stuff that might look like candy-coated fluff can still be doing amazing things for children’s imaginations. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that at least a few of the future writers of the world depend on it.
My daughter is only eleven months old, so she doesn’t watch TV yet. When she starts watching in a year or two, I hope something akin to cave-dwelling party-animals and laser-bears is still on the air. I’ve heard excellent things about the new My Little Pony, so I’m honestly not that worried. And if the misguided Sprout-ites win the war for airtime, I take comfort in the fact that those retro shows will still be available on Netflix, or Hulu, or YouTube.
But it would be nice if this generation got their own fantastical childhood multiverse, don’t you think?