When you make children’s media of any sort, you become a part of a child’s life. What you create, what you are a part of, has access to them. It’s like walking into their houses and getting to sit them down for 7 minutes or 11 minutes or a few hours and just tell them stuff. If you’re a parent, how would you feel about someone you don’t know doing that? What would you want from them? What would you expect from them?
It is a huge responsibility. You must always remember who your audience is and understand that responsibility.
There are many reasons to make children’s media but, no matter what other reasons you have, giving something really good to kids should be VERY high up on that list. It is, right? Right? I’m sure you do want what’s best for kids – chances are you wouldn’t be at my blog if you didn’t because it’s a recurring theme here. But it’s no harm to have a reminder of why you’re really doing what you do.
And then, once you remember that, your career often comes down to questions: what good can I do for kids?
What can I create that might make their lives a little better right now? Or (and for me, this is often the more important question) what can I create that might make their lives and the lives of others better as they grow older? Where can I help? Where can I contribute? How can I be a positive force in their lives? And how can I do it in a way that works with parents, rather than trampling over that role?
What’s odd about that is that it really puts us in the role of assistant. It’s just ‘how can I help?’ Odd because, as we create, we become part of forming worlds, creating entire characters and little lives. We decide where they go and why. Or we manage teams to create whole shows. We get this feeling of being able to mould everything, to be in charge of everything, to decide who does what and why. And we can do all that. But ultimately we’re doing it to be an assistant. An assistant to parents, to society and, especially, to children themselves.
How can I help?
So I guess if you consider the responsibility of your content coming into a child’s life as if we’re walking into homes ourselves, maybe the best thing we can do is to stop talking for a moment and ask the parents and the children: how can I help?
Here’s a question to consider when coming up with your concept or story or even scene. It’s a simple question that isn’t always easy to answer. If the answer doesn’t come easily, that doesn’t mean you have a problem necessarily but it’s certainly something to consider because, when your story offers a clear answer to this question, it can really help engage your young audience.
Here it is: what does this say about the life of my audience?
Now many of us in the younger end of children’s entertainment, me included, often think about what we would like it to say to our audience. We think about the message and I think that’s important too. But that won’t answer this question. This question is about what your content says about the life of your viewer as it is right now.
What will they relate to? What will they see of themselves in your story? How does it reflect their life? And how might it make them feel about their life?
When you have your answer, challenge it. Is it saying more about your perception of a child’s life than about the reality? Will children themselves see what you see in it? Or is it just that you’d like to say these things to children, in which case we’re back to it being a message to kids. Be honest and challenge the relevance of your story. This will help you make it better. If your story connects directly to children and allows them to see their own life in it, it gives them something they can truly feel a part of. Something they feel a bond with. Something that is uniquely for them.
There are lots of ways to entertain, lots of ways to engage. Making stuff for kids, we tend to go the positive route. I like that. Sure, we can challenge children and present them with new ideas and get them thinking and I think that’s exactly what we should be doing. But when we do this right, we tend to wrap all that up in fun, laughter and a strong dose of heart.
But when we’re coming up with stories, it can be hard to know how to focus ourselves to achieve that or how to really pin down just what it is we’re doing. When we talk about story, we often split it into two completely different categories. One is a very structured, recipe-like approach, which is helpful but, if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll be leaving your audience cold. The other is where we get into flowery language and often what feels like very intangible stuff. Make it more dynamic. Capture the soul of the character. This is good but can you make it more reflective with a hint of longing and yet all wrapped up in joy?
What is it we really want?!
Well, here is one simple aim that I think can totally change how you think about your story: make your audience feel good. Make them feel good about themselves. Make them feel good about being part of the experience you’re giving them. Leave them feeling better than they did before they experienced your story.
It’s such a simple thing and it can lead to many different solutions and, really, you have probably been aiming for it anyway but actually exploring your story with this goal clearly in mind can have you looking at it in a whole different way. Does it make them feel good? Does it make them feel good about themselves? This is important for adults because it’s part of why we recommend shows or music or whatever. We feel good about being part of it. It’s much more than “you might like this”. It’s “I’m awesome because I found this for you and I’m now part of it”.
For kids, young kids, they don’t share the same way adults do but the same feeling applies in different ways. It can be “this made me feel good and I want more of it”. And really, that’s a very basic thing in entertainment and it’s odd how we don’t always think of aiming for that. We get so wrapped up in telling stories that we forget to think about what it’s like to hear them, to experience them. That’s audience awareness.
So when you’re having a hard time pinning down the intangible stuff, ask yourself this: what can I do in my story that will make my audience feel good?
Over the years, I have spent a long time trawling through whatever research I could find. Mainly so that I would be informed when I create, so that I might learn from those who have gone before and in the hope that I mind find the odd little gem or two (I did).
One quote that stayed with me is from T. Berry Brazelton, a member of the AAP Committee on Public Information. Following studies into children and media in the early ’70s, he wrote that “a child comes away from a television set believing that physical violence is a perfectly acceptable form of self-expression”. He wasn’t damning television, instead calling it a “valuable experience” but he recognised that television, like anything else around us, contributes to our world view.
I thought about that a lot, and not just about violence. Through stories (because I don’t believe this is limited to television), we can show children many ways of self-expression. In a sense, showing them: here is how you can be that person that you are, how you might present yourself to the world. And I thought, variety. Every child is different. We can show the best of everyone if we choose but not always in the same way, recognising that we’re all different and what feels right for one child might not feel right for another.
In our characters, we can embody different feelings, desires, fears and joys and we acknowledge those as real things, giving them the weight they deserve. And through the actions of those characters, we can show the many forms of self-expression. We can choose to make it a positive thing and show children that, yes, there is a place in the world for them. We might do this in an aspirational way, hoping for a better world, but I feel it is also done best while acknowledging the realities of who we all are right now.
For me, this gives us the best of preschool entertainment. But perhaps not just that. Maybe this has a place across all our entertainment.
We can deconstruct a script, point out the plot holes, wonder if the structure is really hitting the beats in the right place, explore the character dynamics, question the motivations, tut-tut at the typos, throw out the designs, play with the composition, alter the pacing, pull out the examples of what worked and what didn’t and suggest changes throughout hoping those examples apply in this case (they often don’t) and we can, bit by bit, torture over every element, large or small, in what we’re making. And we should. All those elements will help you as part of the process.
BUT the proof is in the reactions of your audience. The smiles, the laughter, the gasps, the cheers and the tears. When everything is finished, that is what counts.
At the weekend, I was at the premiere of the live-action children’s feature GRÅTASS GIR GASS in Stavanger, Norway. I wrote other films in the series but I didn’t write this one so I had a little more objectivity while watching the audience, taking in what hit and what really grabbed the children. The kids had been playing around the Gråtassland theme park all day and so I wondered if the energy would really be there. It was. And towards the end, there was (SPOILER) a chase sequence that revealed one of those crucial audience feedback moments we look for. The loud laughter and cheering from the kids was all the proof anyone would need on whether this movie hit or not.
They were invested. They were entertained. And yes, they laughed. The proof was in the laughter.
I’m sure many of you have seen articles attempting to knock Frozen through theory – how the villain comes out of nowhere, why story parts don’t work as they should and so on. All it takes is going to just ONE screening of that movie with a cinema full of kids to understand why that movie is a hit.
Sure, by all means question the details and try to learn from them. All those elements at the top of this post are important. But never lose sight of the fact that it is the audience reaction that counts. Arguing theory to a room full of cheering kids is a total, utter waste of your time. Listen to your audience. Learn from them. Know your audience and learn how to entertain them. That is paradoxically much more simple and far more complex than what you’ll generally read in a book about writing.
Listen to the laughter and aim to entertain.
Gråtass Gir Gass opens across Norway this Friday the 9th of September. If you’re there, bring your kids and listen for that laughter. Well done to all involved!
Every moment is precious. We only get a certain number of them. In childhood, I think they are even more precious because they become part of who you grow up to be. Everything can influence us one way or another and it can be so hard to predict what experiences will impact us in what ways.
So imagine you can sit a kid down for eleven minutes of their life. Or seven minutes. Or maybe even just five. And you can tell them anything you want. They might not remember it but, at that moment, you have an opportunity to tell them something. You could make them laugh, tell jokes and brighten up their day. You could tell them something you wish you had known at that age, something that might make being a kid that much easier. A trick to tying shoelaces, perhaps. Or you could tell them something that might help them grow up to be a better adult. Something that, if they take it to heart, might help other kids.
When you make a show or write an episode or make an app, you get to do just that. You get to communicate with children. You have their attention and you can tell them something. It doesn’t have to be something important but it can be.
You get to a little moment of their life. Use it well.
I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.
I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.
Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.
It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.
And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.
So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?
Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.
If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.
But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.
Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.
Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
Let’s make an aspirational character, someone who the audience will want to be. Someone to inspire them and motivate them. A little older, a little wittier, a little cleverer and with a great set of skills. We can do this in cartoons with snappy, cool heroes. We can do this in reality television with stories of amazing achievements.
Good, right? Not always.
There is a very fine line between inspiring children and putting them off altogether. What you see as aspirational can sometimes seem to the audience as unachievable. Out of reach. Showing them a champion gymnast might demonstrate what is possible with hard work and dedication. Or it might just tell a kid that their awkward forward roll that they were so proud of was actually nothing and highlight the massive chasm between where they are at and where that champion is.
Having something to aspire to can be great but I’m sure we have all tried something at some point in our lives and found it so tricky that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort (me with a Rubik’s Cube, for example). It has to feel within reach or have smaller, more achievable goals.
Children’s art shows historically seem to get this right. It is quite rare that they create something on these shows that children can’t have a good stab at themselves. The idea of making a bird out of coloured paper can have kids running to the kitchen to try. Fifteen minutes later, there is a new picture on the fridge and a very proud happy child. But had they shown a master portrait painter instead, fifteen minutes later there would likely be torn up pages and tears. And that’s if any child even bothered to try.
So I feel we can learn from the art shows even when it comes to creating fictional characters or building all sorts of other entertainment. Be careful not to undermine the amazing things that children are capable of right now. Keep in mind that what might seem normal to you (buttoning up a coat) can be amazing to kids, depending on the age group. Aspirational can still be good but be careful not to frustrate. As with anything else, always keep in mind your actual audience.
Children are soaking up the world at a phenomenal rate. This is not always easy. For younger children, I often liken it to Superman being overwhelmed by the sound of voices everywhere or that guy in Scanners hearing the thoughts of everyone at once. The amount of information thrown at us is incredible and, as we grow, we build filters. We can pick and choose what gets by our filters and what we focus on.
So when making content for kids, this leads to a whole bunch of things to consider. Firstly, they do take in information. They’re taking in probably far more than we are, just like Superman. They are smart, they are trying to interpret, they are using context and knowledge to inform and they are actively learning all the time. They see and hear and know often much more than we realise.
And they get subtlety.
The difficulty is that, with the amount they are processing, they don’t always get the subtlety you want them to. It’s like leaving a post-it with ‘get milk’ on the fridge when the fridge is covered with a hundred other post-its. Sure, you might spot it and get milk but you could just as easily end up having your tea milkless that evening.
So where does that leave us? Well here’s my take: when making content for kids, you can allow for subtlety. You can let those grey areas happen, because not everything in life is black or white. Especially when this is approached with an honesty about the lives of children. Give children a sense of the variety in the world, even the unpredictability.
But when it comes to core story points or messages, be direct and as crystal clear as possible. Hit those things hard. No ambiguity. Clarity is key. Somewhere out there, Superman is listening to a million voices. If you want yours to be heard, shout louder and say what you mean.