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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

By Molly Sprayregan

 

In “Sunny Days: The Children's Television Revolution That Changed America,” journalist David Kamp takes readers on a fascinating journey through the development of one of the most beloved shows on television.

Educational children's programming was not at all a given before “Sesame Street” began to take over living rooms across the country over 50 years ago. The show started as a type of experiment to determine whether it was indeed possible to use television to bolster children's learning, especially low-income children who lacked access to other educational resources.

With the show's rapid popularity, it quickly became a cultural movement and led to the launch of other beloved shows like “Zoom” and “School House Rock,” the development of which the book also examines.

“Sesame Street,” we learn from Kamp, cemented educational television as a legitimate way to help children learn and to teach them important lessons about the ways of the world.

Of course, the journey to success wasn't easy. Kamp explores the many trials and tribulations the show experienced in its infancy, the way different political landscapes shaped it through the years, as well as the challenges the show continues to face today.

In the 1970s, “Sesame Street” broke barriers for the diversity of its cast, yet the creators' attempts to produce a harmoniously diverse world did not insulate the show from accusations of racism by both African American and Latino viewers.

The portrayal of the first African American Muppet, Roosevelt Franklin, for example, caused heated debates and controversy. While he was wildly popular and no doubt broke barriers, many fans disagreed over whether or not he was portrayed as a stereotype or was one-dimensional.

The show also received criticism about its portrayal of female Muppets; some saw the depiction of women as too progressive, some not progressive enough.

Kamp dives deep into how “Sesame Street's” actors and creators responded to these criticisms. Whether they succeeded or not is still up for debate.

Moving across decades and up to the present day, Kamp also explores the show's continued fight for funding as well as how that fight has shifted the direction of the show for today's children.

Despite challenges, “Sesame Street” has been a staple of millions of childhoods and has a permanent place in the cultural zeitgeist. Anyone who grew up with Big Bird, Oscar, and Cookie Monster will be fascinated by Kamp's account of what went on behind the scenes and how these Muppets have come to hold such a special place in our hearts.