Book Review: A sunny trip down memory lane

Most of us, no matter how old (or young) we are, know about Sesame Street, the Muppets, and Mr. Rogers, among other children’s television staples. But who among us knows the beginnings of these shows that transformed children’s programming in the 1970s? David Kamp’s Sunny Days takes us on a wonderful journey down memory lane that lets us inside the creation of these cultural icons that taught kids about diversity, the alphabet and feminism in the 1970s.

The idea for Sesame Street was born in the late 60s by two friends over dinner. Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer, and Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist interested in early childhood development, saw the possibility that television could be used as a tool to teach young children. Together they founded the Children’s Television Workshop, which created Sesame Street.  Their timing was right as there was a general political and social move to diminish learning gaps between children of differing economic status, helping them start school on a level playing field.

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A forerunner in presenting a well thought out, eclectic program, Sesame Street consciously presented a cast that was representative of neighbourhoods in the 60s and 70s. From the start, the cast was varied and included underrepresented groups like people of colour and women who worked. The show discussed timely topics including race and feminism while actively engaging their young audience. Despite the occasional criticism of what they were trying to do, the Children’s Television Workshop team remained dedicated to their goals. The show became a place people wanted to be part of, not for the money, but because it was a place where they could make a difference.

Sunny Days is a well-researched story of not only the birth of Big Bird, but also how many other children’s shows of the time, Mr. Rogers, The Electric Company, Free to be….You and Me, and Schoolhouse Rock! were all positive influencers of preschool children’s learning in the 60s and 70s. The creative team took a lot of what they had observed in preschool children’s reactions to television overall and applied the same tools to the children’s programs. Snappy shorts that kept children engaged rather than turning them into TV zombies proved to be a successful approach. In fact, many of the short spots were created by admen of the day, applying the same advertising campaign principles that made a jingle stick in your mind. Do you, like me, burst into song with “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function…..” at random times? If you are not sure what I am talking about, many of these older items live on at YouTube, where you too can be reminded of, or learn, a jingle to help you with your ABCs and many other preschool tricks.

Sunny Days is a great trip into a time when a small group of like-minded individuals decided they could make a difference, and they did just that. Kamp’s research is thorough and engaging, and sparked many memories for me and I hope it will for you, too.

Helen Varga is a Library Technician at the Steveston Branch of Richmond Public Library and part of RPL's Book Review Team. The library’s Book Review Team is a diverse group of librarians and library technicians who each have unique reading interests and writing styles. The library’s book reviews provide interested readers with a sneak peek into the characters, the story and the most interesting elements of the book they have chosen to review.

 

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