How Sprout Gets It Right, and How Writers Can Too.
I don’t watch Sprout much. (Surprise.) Until this weekend it was just something I would pass through while channel surfing, stopping on it for a minute or two on occasion due to the oddness of the visual.
Yet my sister and her daughter (my niece, of course) spent this weekend here. My niece is nine months old and quite ahead of the intellectual curve in most categories. She is often enraptured by the programming featured on Sprout, and this weekend the television in the living room was tuned into that channel for large blocks of time. And for the first time, I got a sense of some of the programming. I discovered how beneficial it could be…for me.
Obviously, without my niece being present, I wouldn’t be spending much time watching the likes of “Noodle and Doodle”, “The Super Sproutlet Show”, or “The Wiggles”. Yet as a writer, I try to give credence to anything that both makes use of as well as encourages creativity in others. While much of what one sees on Sprout is in fact educational in a traditional sense, (shapes, numbers, and letters are all covered at various times), the entire focus of the programming is the expansion of young minds in a less direct but more powerful way-development and encouragement of imagination. It is in this mission that the true genius and nobility of Sprout, (and other child oriented television) lie. It is this that speaks to the writer in me.
If you’ve never seen these channels, I encourage you to take some time to watch them, even if you don’t have children. Yes, I am serious. You don’t have to announce that you’re doing it, and of course you need not watch hours upon hours of it. But if you have free time, and are secure enough in your adulthood, tune in and carefully observe what the show is doing, and how it’s doing it. You’ll notice several recurring elements which are not directly related to “book” learning:
–Asking questions of the viewers.
–Characters talking openly about feelings and ideas.
–Solving of everyday problems.
–“Visiting” characters during the show who live in different types of places, with different cultures.
–Encouragement of viewers to create and to share things.
–Zest for living.
And the best part? All of these concepts are presented through the telling of stories.
Now by stories, I don’t just mean when a host sits down to read a book, or when they cut away to a cartoon episode. I mean that almost all concepts that are explored are done via the structure of a story, whether it is being presented directly as a story or not. (In fact, it is usually not labelled as such.) Whether the host of a program must find her missing shoe, or the character in another segment meets a new friend, the situations and concepts a program wants a young person to explore are presented as stories to be consumed.
There are no mundane parts to a show on Sprout. No pipe laying or navel gazing. Every minute is filled with something that engages the viewer in a story. In the use of imagination. Though we writers may not be able to duplicate this formula exactly in our own work, (unless we write for children’s TV), we can take something away from all of this. Namely, that places like Sprout have a luxury that we think we don’t have; they can pursue and share the fantastical 24/7. Wall-to-wall magical story telling, and firing up of imaginations, while still being 100% faithful to life and truth. (If you ignore the talking animals.)
The mind of a child knows no natural cynicism. No duplicity. It exists to absorb not only information, but wonder. Sprout plays to this, and makes no apologies for it. And it works. Even when the story itself doesn’t involve “magic” per say, the concept of presenting the story is infused with a sense of the magical.
So what can we as writers learn from this? What I come away with is that just because our themes mature, our character’s obstacles are more complex, and their worries are greater doesn’t mean that adult writers should steer clear of full-on engagement of our readers’ sense of awe at the universes we create for them. Like the hosts on Sprout, we can share our ideas and our adventures with exuberance. Even if tragic themes are explored in our work, we need not jettison that appeal to wonder in our readers.
We get caught in the trap of believing that our writing must be more intellectual. Tricky. Socially relevant. Thick and complex. That it must somehow upend the very nature of what it means to exist as a human being. That it has to shock, disgust, offend in order to be powerful. And perhaps in certain situations those concepts have their place. (Though I’m on the fence with that.) Yet to me, if we write good fiction, such high minded intentions should never come at the expense of unabashed immersion in fantasy and imagination, even if our stories are not of the fantasy genre.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you and your readers are adults, that awe and magic must be abandoned in order to assure quality or even significance. In the end, an effective use of magic in some form or another may be the most important factor in inspiring people of all ages to look at you, and, like kids watching Sprout, make the greatest of requests: “Tell me a story.”