Chicago, IL — One of the things I was most excited about at this year’s Book Expo was my interview with children’s program legend Todd Kessler. You may know him as the mastermind behind the highly successful children’s television series (and my childhood favorite) Blue’s Clues. The award-winning creator has been praised for not only making entertaining content but also for shaping a generation of more curious and thoughtful kids. For over twenty years, Kessler has set the bar for creating innovative and interactive ways to educate children. It’s been a decade since the Nick Jr. show ended and now Kessler is back with a new dog, new stories, and a new way to engage children in critical thinking.
KADIA BLAGROVE: You are reintroducing long form to children’s book at a time when everyone, both young and old, has such a short attention span. It seems like bite-sized information is the only thing people crave these days. Why put out a book like this now?
TODD KESSLER: Adults, yes, they do have a short attention span. But children do not, and they never did. When I did Blue’s Clues, the common understanding was that kids have a short attention span and you had to make television programs that were in magazine format — like Sesame Street — with segments no longer than three minutes, because “kids couldn’t sit still for longer than that.” I did not believe that theory and I created Blue’s Clues as a continuous half-hour narrative. My belief is if we tell kids a really good story, they’ll sit still for a very long time.
KB: What inspired you to debunk the “short attention span” myth.
TK: I had this story in my mind about a dog and it was in a narrative structure. Eventually, I realized a good format for this would be a book. I just sat down and wrote the book I wanted to write. And as it turns out, it has been very interesting because it’s completely revolutionary, in terms of today’s publishing — not classic publishing. Dr. Seuss wrote long-form books, but now there are no books like that.
KB: Why do you think that is?
TK: Well, you’d have to ask other publishers that believe that children have a short attention span and that parents want a short book to put their kids to sleep. I’m not sure.
KB: How do you you think long-form stories will impact the future generation — kids who are more into iPads than into books?
TK: To me, the device or medium doesn’t matter. It’s the stories that matter. Whether it’s in book form, or some game or program on the iPad, I think it can all be wonderful as long as the content creator puts thought into it. You definitely want to challenge and engage kids, because they love it! They want to think, they want to expand their mind, they want to understand the world around them. They do that through character and story. When I did Blue’s Clues, I never wanted to preach or give messages. I wanted to present to kids materials that they could figure out themselves.
KB: Let’s talk about your new stories. You have “The Good Dog,” which came out late last year and now you have “The Good Dog and The Bad Cat,” coming out in September. Who are your new characters?
TK: In the first book, Tako (the dog) is found by the side of the road and gets adopted into a great family by a little boy. The boy is told he can keep Tako as long as he’s good. So if he’s not good, he can’t stay in the house. So Tako wants to be good, the way all children want to be good. But it’s hard to be good all the time. In the middle of the book, he gets into a situation where he knows that being good means following the rules, but there’s a rule that he breaks in order to do something good to protect the family, but it gets him in trouble. The overriding question of the book for kids to answer themselves is: Is it ok to break rules or do you always have to follow the rules?
KB: Yeah, when you just enforce rules without reason, you’re basically teaching a child to be a robot.
TK: When kids are very little we want to teach them to follow rules, but when they are adults we expect them to use independent reasoning.
TK: So if they drive up to a traffic light and the light is broken on red, we don’t expect them to wait there for the rest of their lives. We expect them to make a decision. My question is when in a child’s development is the transition between being a rule follower to being an independent thinker? How do we expect our children to make that leap if we never tell them it’s ok sometimes, in certain circumstances, to break the rules?
KB: What has the feedback from kids been like?
TK: Like everything I do, I test it with kids. I already knew they liked the story because we tested it. They love to talk about it. They love having to give their opinions on what the character’s motivation is. It’s quite interesting. These books both have villains and villains aren’t something you get in picture books anymore. When I read the book to kids and ask who their favorite character is, some kids say Tako but interestingly enough, about 20-30% of kids say their favorite character is the villain. It’s thrilling to them and it’s also exciting for them to deal with real adversity, in a fictional sense. And that’s another interesting thing. There are problems in the world, and there’s always been, but how do we expect our kids to navigate a difficult world when we don’t expose them to narratives with difficulties?
KB: How has your mission as a storyteller evolved since the early days?
TK: I just want to reach kids with stories that are important and not tell them what to think, but exercise their minds in how to think. There is no right answer in whether or not you should always follow the rules. In the second book, there’s a question of: are your first impressions of somebody else right or wrong and if someone does something bad to you, is that the end of that person? Or can things change? They are open-ended questions, because I always want to press kids to think for themselves.