Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What I learned on the Street

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Prairie Dawn

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What do you remember learning from Sesame Street?”

When you’re a parent, one of the first things you discover is how difficult—or impossible—it can be to keep a small child on point. Saying that children are easily distracted is just another way of stating that they find everything equally interesting, or of equal importance, and that they haven’t yet developed the filters that allow adults to prioritize a particular issue at the expense of everything else. (Much of being an artist consists of restoring that kind of sensory omnivorousness, in which nothing, as Sherlock Holmes says, is so important as trifles.) Whenever my daughter opens a book, I never know where her eye will go first, and a big part of the pleasure of reading to her lies in trying to follow her train of thought. In Goodnight Moon, for instance, when we get to the picture of the doll’s house, she’ll point to it and say “Okay now.” I don’t know what she means by this, but it’s clear that I’m only getting a glimpse of a secondary narrative that she’s happily working through as we read the story itself, which consists both of the words on the page and her own tiny, private associations.

This is why I’ve started choosing picture books less for whatever they claim to be about than for the topics of conversation that they evoke. Richard Scarry, for instance, presents a miniature world on each double spread, which seems designed to simultaneously teach new words and suggest networks between ideas. (I’ll never forget how my niece pointed to a picture of a pig next to a bin of corncobs and said: “Maybe the pig wants to eat one corn.”) Scarry, like many of the greatest children’s artists, has a style that takes as much delight in incidentals as in the main line of the story, or whatever educational purpose the book allegedly has, and the more tactile the illustrations, the better. Beatrix is already curious about drawing, and the fact that she can make the connection between the pictures in the books she has and her crayons can only pay off later on. There’s been a lot of debate about whether reading a book on a tablet has the same benefits as traditional storytime, but I’m a little wary of it, if only because interposing a screen between you and the story makes its human origins less obvious.

Bert and Ernie

And when it comes time for Beatrix to watch Sesame Street, I’ll probably get her one of the Old School compilations on DVD, which collect classic scenes and sketches from the show’s early seasons. Old School comes with a disclaimer that states: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grownups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Well, maybe: I don’t want to discount the ongoing, and highly valuable, research on how children learn, and I can’t entirely separate my feelings from nostalgia for what I watched growing up. Yet I still believe that the show’s overt educational value—the letters, the numbers, the shapes—was only part of the story, and not even the most important part. When we think of Sesame Street, we think first of the Muppets, whose physicality is a huge part of their appeal, but everything in the show’s initial period had an appealingly funky quality about it. The animations were made on a shoestring; the shorts might have been shot in somebody’s backyard; and even the set was designed to evoke the kind of grungy, everyday neighborhood that many children in the audience knew best, elevated by the magic of imagination and performance.

In short, the classic seasons of Sesame Street are as much about the process of their own making as whatever else they were designed to teach, and the lesson I took away from it most vividly was less about counting to twelve than what it might take to make a show like this myself. In its current incarnation, it probably does a better job of teaching kids the fundamentals, but watching Big Bird explore a digital background detaches us from the weird, incredibly appealing process that brings such stories to life. As David Thomson notes on Jim Henson: “He worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer…Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on the show.” Sesame Street is still wonderful, but it seems less likely to turn kids into puppeteers, which is as good a word as any for what I want Beatrix to be—if we take “puppeteer” simply as a curious character who sees a potential friend in a length of felt, or how a woman’s green coat might one day be a frog.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

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