Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, people will ask, “Violence? What’s violence?”
Oh, some of you are going to say it’s in our nature and it will never end. The real monster is man and so on.
In our nature? Perhaps. Now. In the past.
But we evolve. We change and improve. Walking on all fours was in our nature until we evolved to walk upright. Grunting was part of our nature until we created language or moved beyond our teenage years. We have all changed for the better.
We can always change for the better.
Many years ago in darker times when dragons walked the earth (maybe), I was making a health informational safety video for children. It was a general subject that affects us all but they wanted to wrap it up in a fun cartoon for kids. Why? Because that’s where they could make a difference. In a single generation, they could make real change. That stuck with me. I knew it to be true because I grew up on Sesame Street and look what that show did. Media has an effect and that can be positive or negative – regular readers will know that’s a running theme on this blog.
So I aim for positive. And the great thing is that I know so many others are aiming for positive too. But when our Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with horrific images that shake us to our core, worrying about our colourful shows, silly characters for cartoons and apps may seem indulgent. Trivial. Pointless.
At the very least, for a brief moment we can give some children a smile, maybe even a laugh. But it’s much more than that. What we offer children now through media becomes part of the world view of the next generation. We can do some really great things for kids, in very big ways or just in small ways. It all counts. Going back a few years, the messages in Fluffy Gardens weren’t really designed to help kids be better kids. The hope was that the stories would help those kids have the chance to become better adults. Will they? Well, those stories are just such a small part of some children’s lives and the characters will likely be long forgotten about as children grow but it all contributes. So for me when I’m coming up with new developments now at Mooshku one of my main missions is to offer kids something funny and exciting today while contributing positively to the adults they will become tomorrow. This is something I try to carry through all my work.
And if you give something positive, a message that can get children thinking, that many adults should already be thinking about, or you are inspiring a love of learning and exploration and a desire to do better, you stand a chance of making some change in a single generation. No, it’s not the same as getting on a plane and volunteering to be an aid worker or taking to the streets in protest right now and the effects are certainly hard to measure and rely on a lot of faith and time but that doesn’t make it trivial or pointless. If anything, it just serves as a reminder of the importance of getting it right.
As strange as it may seem sometimes when we’re hunched over our desks creating funny little characters, we have the potential to do some good. It all counts. In the meantime, be excellent to each other.
Last Thursday my very first app launched: Dino Dog – A Digging Adventure With Dinosaurs. I love that so many years into my career I am still finding whole new experiences and this was absolutely nothing like sending a television show out there into the wild. Here’s roughly how it went…
Is the app actually going to be released tomorrow? Really? No, something will go wrong.
Hang on, apps release on a Thursday but it’s Thursday in New Zealand right now. I message my good friend Simon in NZ – “Hey, check your store for Dino Dog!” No reply.
Wake up groggy. Check messages. He replied – it is there! Back to sleep…
Check local app store. There it is. It shows up in a search. Is it featured? No. Oh but the internet tells me that Apple only change their featured apps much later that day.
Must tweet app. Must tweet app. Must tweet app. The publisher StoryToys have not tweeted app yet. Why not? I won’t tweet until they do in case it’s a breach of app launch etiquette.
Why aren’t they tweeting the app? Is there something wrong with it? OMG, do they hate it?! Hey, they just tweeted it! TWEET, TWEET, TWEET!
StoryToys’ Chief Product Officer Emmet O’Neill gives me one piece of advice for psychological well-being: don’t obsessively flip the decks in the App Store to see if it has been featured.
Obsessively flipping decks in the App Store to see if it has been featured.
Overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. I’ve only tweeted about it 576 times so far. Shouldn’t I be phoning people up and getting them to mention the app on their websites? Shall I call in to my neighbours to tell them about it? Should I get a t-shirt made up and just go out and wear it? Surely there must be more I can do? Will I phone Apple? I’ll phone Apple. Anyone have Tim Cook’s number?
Dino Dog is featured in the Kids section of the Irish and UK App Store! A big banner and right up there in the listing order in Best New Apps & Games. Wow. It almost looks like a real app.
Obsessively flipping decks in the App Stores around the world to see if it has been featured. Featured heavily in the German store and some others. The artwork looks really good. Someone might actually be tempted to give the app a go if this continues.
Taking a short break from obsessively flipping decks in the App Stores, I get a mail from Gavin from StoryToys who has been very busy obsessively flipping decks in the App Stores. Dino Dog is featured on the home page of the US App Store, getting the first slot in their Kids Apps & Games section. At this point, Dino Dog appears to have been featured in most of the App Stores around the world. People at Apple actually like it. I am filled with a sense of calm. I can stop flipping the decks now. It is done. Over.
Obsessively checking the App Store charts.
And that, it seems, is how an app is launched. The big thing throughout the day was this feeling of helplessness, that I should be able to do more. I’m not great at just waiting around to see what happens. I need to be doing. But at this point the hard work StoryToys had done would mean that the app would be given a chance by the right people and, from there, the app would have to speak for itself.
Since then, the app got a great write-up on Apps Playground, was in iLounge’s Apps of the Week and also featured in The Guardian’s Apps of the Week as well as some other lovely reviews and write-ups. Just as important, the feedback from friends (parents and otherwise) has been fantastic. It appears all those lofty goals for Dino Dog that seemed so out of reach at various points in the production had all been reached. One tweet even said the app “just raised the bar on quality”. Could that really be our little app?
And that is one huge difference between apps and television right there. You can work for years on a television show and then you send it into a void. Sure, millions of kids see it but the direct feedback is slow, sometimes non-existent. Not many people review preschool TV shows. It’s just the odd surprise email from parents months later. But this was intense by comparison. Very rewarding in this case but could just as easily have been devastating had the feedback been negative or the app just hadn’t been noticed at all. It is a tough space, no doubt. But I won’t dwell on that. For now, I’m just enjoying this launch.
Thanks to the Dino Dog team, StoryToys and all involved, especially Emmet O’Neill in StoryToys who was instrumental in making it happen and making it a better app than it ever would have been without him, Ciara Moore who worked so hard on it, Giant Animation who brought their dedication to quality and everyone who worked on, tested and advised on the app and those people behind the scenes on contracts etc. who often get missed. But also thanks to everyone who supported us – Meabh (who did some casting and voice direction on the app), friends and family and my old colleagues in Geronimo Productions whose enthusiasm and support keeps me going more than they’ll know.
If your kids have played the app, I do hope they have enjoyed it! If not, it’s HERE so what are you waiting for?
Space or dinosaurs? Space or dinosaurs? Two of the most fun things for kids. I had tackled space before (and likely will again!) so I felt it was time to bring some awesome dinosaur-themed fun to kids and what better way than bringing together a good story, funny characters and games and activities so children can take part in the adventure themselves?
So I teamed up with top app publisher Storytoys, who specialise in merging narrative with interactivity for kids, to bring Doug the Dog (Greatest Adventurer Ever, according to him) and Bonnie the Adventurous Little Bear to life. These two intrepid explorers began their quest to travel the world, dig for fossils and assemble amazing dinosaurs.
At its core, Dino Dog is a fun digging game in which kids guide Doug deep underground in search of bones, breaking through soil and hard rocks while enjoying air vents, crossing hot lava (Hot! Hot! Hot!), moving boulders and so much more. Look out for Dig Claws which will help Doug dig extra fast.
When kids have found enough fossil pieces, they get to break open the rocks to see what bones they have discovered – it’s like unwrapping a present. Then it’s time to clean the bones and assemble the dinosaur. So each dinosaur is a new surprise and each one is amazing. Back at the Museum, kids can learn about their dinosaurs and hopefully this introduction could spark a whole new interest or feed an already-existing one.
It’s all wrapped up in a funny cartoon story that takes Bonnie and Doug around the world facing daring challenges such as: putting up a tent, choosing an ice-cream flavour and finding Doug’s mysterious Great Uncle Grit. The stuff of legends!
The app is brimming with content with lovely animation (gorgeous work from Giant Animation) and great sounds and just a lot of fun. StoryToys have a video here so you can check it out.
So when will Dino Dog be coming out? It’s out right now for iOS! Click this link to take you to iTunes HERE or search your Apple App Store for Dino Dog. It will also be out on Android devices in the not to distant future so keep an eye out. If you like it, spread the word!
My own personal key takeaways from this year’s Children’s Media Conference:
1) For the most part, television still rules.
2) Print is still very much alive in the kids’ space.
3) Digital interactivity and games cost and people don’t like to pay for them. It’s a difficult space.
4) Some of the most exciting, innovative and most beneficial new content for kids is right in the midst of that difficult space. It’s a wonderful place to be as a content creator.
5) As much as these lines appear to be blurring on the outside, from those commissioning these forms I still get a feeling of definitive divides. TV=TV, books=books, games=games.
6) Very few people seem to see VR in the future of kids’ media or notice it is coming, contrasting with my own view that, for better or worse, I see it as an inevitability. May take a generational shift or two though.
7) No matter what end of the business – whether gatekeeper, knocking at those gates or looking for other routes – everyone is just muddling along trying to figure things out as the media world changes.
8) Many people consider this a transition period. Or is that just an expression of hope? Personally, I’m not convinced it will settle any time soon so we’re either along for the ride or we can try to positively influence the direction.
9) Apparently, I am a ‘high-functioning introvert’.
10) A huge number of people are in kids’ media for just one reason: they want to give kids something great. Those people are awesome.
That’s it. Thanks as always to Greg Childs and the organisers for pulling together a really great event. It was fantastic to hear so many varying viewpoints on the panels, to catch up with old friends and meet many Twitter friends in person for the first time. Would you believe some people aren’t on Twitter? Weird. Thanks to everyone for kind words about what we’re doing at Mooshku (one particular project seems to be going down a storm) and about my older work too. After all these years, Fluffy Gardens still gets a LOT of love! If you read this little blog and we never got to meet, be sure to say hello next year.
Tomorrow, I could have a special extra post so check back then…
Here is a reminder I like to give when talking to people about making content for children, whether writing, directing, producing and across TV and other platforms. I call it The Barney Test. It’s very simple.
First, watch this…
Okay. I’m guessing you didn’t watch it all but that’s okay. Now the next part – answer this question truthfully: did you love it? Every minute of it? Would you love nothing more than to just keep on watching more Barney?
If you aren’t shouting a big happy “YES! YES! YES!” at the screen right now, you can rest assured that you are like almost all adults on this planet. Barney isn’t meant for you. It’s not meant for me. It is meant for children. And the thing is, children LOVE Barney. Most kids adore him. In spite of what we adults might want to do to the goofy purple dinosaur, Barney has given kids a lot of entertainment and good over the years
This is the point of The Barney Test: it illustrates just how different the tastes of adults and kids are. We are not the same, not even close. It’s great if you can make something you like but if you are guided only by what you like, you lose your audience and miss the potential children’s hit that you have to offer, whether Barneyish or more parent-friendly. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
So if you ever find yourself losing focus, veering towards self-indulgence, pop on an episode and take The Barney Test as a reminder of just who your audience really is.
On a related note, Dr. Maya Götz posted a link to this wonderful document on Emotions In Children’s TV. Download the PDF and give a read. It is a really important reminder of how children experience and process events in stories and the feelings that come from those. The point towards the end about how your work is biographically rooted is so important.
Show, don’t tell – a storytelling guideline so often repeated. Rather than have someone tell us what a character is like, for example, show us a situation that illustrates that. Let the audience put it together themselves from the story you give them. It is an important guideline because, for good storytelling, it’s often right.
But is it right for young children? Not quite.
To be sure important information is coming across, you’ve really got to tell. State that important line, that key plot point, that crucial lesson. Research into educational media and children found very early on that young children will often miss inferences or more abstract thought processes required to put pieces together if the lesson is not directly stated. It has shown that you have to be far more explicit about your educational material to be sure children take it in. And if it works for educational material, it works for plot points, character traits and so on – it just happens that people have far more reason to study this in an educational context.
In short, the research says: tell.
From my own experience, it seems the difficulty is not that children don’t take in more subtle information or that they can’t put two and two together. It is that they are taking in so much information that we as content creators lose control over just exactly what parts they are retaining and processing. I have long maintained that everything a young child sees or hears goes towards forming their world view. The difficulty is that different children in different situations are taking in different things and applying them in different ways. So to control that, to make that key information clear, we must follow the guideline offered by the research: tell.
The ideal is to achieve both. Show first. This establishes context, which is so important for understanding. It allows for the possibility of some children putting the information together themselves. Then tell. Hit the information home by telling, as clearly as possible. Those children who were a step ahead of you will feel really good about that (give them a chance to get there first) and it will solidify the information for them. Those kids who weren’t quite there yet will already have the context so that, when you state the information, it makes perfect sense and falls into place instantly.
This way you are now in control of the information, be it an educational lesson or a key plot point. So show… but also tell.
So what’s Mooshku? Mooshku is a word created for children and now a company created for children. Our focus is fun, positive stories and activities across multiple platforms. Mooshku is part of a new phase, a new leap – those who have heard my talks know I value my leaps. A collaboration between Méabh Tammemagi (agency producer for Saatchi & Saatchi among a whole lot of other things) and myself, we’re aiming to give kids the best in a way that works with parents. Our bottom line: if it’s not good for kids, we don’t make it.
The great thing about being based here in Ireland is that we have many wonderful animation production studios and a large bank of talent. We are hoping this brings opportunities for lots of collaborations and we have a rather large ‘people we want to work with’ list already. Our main area is content itself: focusing the aims and making certain they work for a young audience with strength in character and story while utilising all the methods to boost engagement and effectiveness that come from years of experience and research. We produce in-house where content will benefit from that while also offering our expertise to those making their own media and content for children.
Mooshku was featured in the Sunday Business Post here in Ireland at the weekend along with the April issue of Kidscreen magazine and the response has been incredibly positive. So thank you to everyone who got in touch with kind words. It seems expectations are high! Don’t worry – you know I like a challenge and I don’t intend to disappoint an audience.
If you haven’t visited already, check out the Mooshku website. The background patterns offer a sneak peek into some of what we have brewing (shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) and the site will let you know who we are and what we can do. If you know someone who might be interested, please spread the word. Also we’re on Twitter HERE.
So what of this little site? It will be business as usual here. This remains my personal site sharing content and knowledge, stories, tips and whatever else you might ask for. Of course, if you’re curious I can let you know what Mooshku is up to from time to time.
Thanks as always for visiting! See you back here next week.
When making any content for young children, there are two very important things to keep in mind. Here is the first:
Preschool children are not little adults.
They are different to you. You can not apply your thought processes, your logic, your taste, your likes and dislikes and expect them to work for preschool children. Doing that will only lead to self-indulgent content that is not age-appropriate and simply not engaging for a young child.
Interestingly, preschool children have or develop early a sense of what is for kids and what is for adults and they’ll often lose interest if they think something is not made for them. That is why one of our first concerns when at design stage is: will children know this is for them? The answer has to be ‘yes’ or your content is in trouble.
So your audience is not you. It is so easy to forget and yet crucial to remember if you are aiming to be any part of making content for children – creating, writing, directing, animating, designing. But there is another part to this:
Preschool children are little people.
They are real people. They are curious, imaginative, thinking, feeling little scientists working out the world and learning at a phenomenal rate. They pick up so much of what is going on around them, long before they can effectively verbalise that they are doing this. So they are not little adults but give them credit for what they are and especially for how much they can understand and learn. They do care about quality (not always gauging the same things you are). They do care about character, about story. They have a clear sense of what interests them and what doesn’t. So the bottom line here is that you cannot just make any old rubbish and expect it to hold your audience.
They are a very discerning audience, especially in a world saturated with children’s content. Just because you can get it on to the TV (buyers are adults) or on to the App Store (those choosing featured apps are adults) does not mean it will hold your audience for any length of time.
So remember who they are not (a little you) and let’s all give kids credit for who they are: amazing little people.
Expectations play a huge role in any story. It is not as simple as having high or low expectations. Personally, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t expect a good story and if a film, show or game is entertaining, we will rarely come away disappointed just because we expected something pretty good.
Where expectations become a problem is in those situations where we expected something entirely different to what we got.
For example, if I told you we were going to watch a film with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey and you started to look forward to a light, quirky romcom then you would likely come away pretty annoyed when it turns out the movie we watch is Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation, right? You would a very hard time accepting the movie for what it is because there is a huge disconnect between that and what you were expecting.
If I told you in advance we were going to watch a schlocky horror sequel, you would likely have a better time.
The same is true within the stories themselves and, yes, within children’s stories. Sure, we like twists and turns and surprises but if something in your intro has us looking forward to something that is ignored or forgotten about later on, we will likely be disappointed. It’s Chekhov’s gun: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” (side note to preschool writers: avoid stories about loaded rifles).
So if you’ve got a kids’ story that opens with news that the circus is coming to town, make sure you get to the circus and make that moment as fun as you possibly can. Don’t just make it a throwaway epilogue. Really milk it. Let kids enjoy it because that’s what you told them to expect. Pay off what you set up. Make sure that where the story goes is at least as entertaining as the promise you made when you introduced the ideas.
My advice? When you finish a draft, revisit the opening. If it looks like the story was going somewhere entirely different, change it to reflect where you actually ended up. Don’t ever leave kids hanging, waiting for something that just isn’t going to happen.
Let them know what to expect and then pay that off in the most entertaining way possible.
Publishers often like children’s books to be short. So do parents, who invariably end up reading them before bedtime. When my girls were younger, I often improvised abridged versions of long stories, aiming to shorten them without my girls noticing.
So shorter is better, right?
Well, I don’t know. You see, I also ended up reading 2-3 stories, depending on length. And if a book is fun to read, I find I have no desire to create my own abridged version. It turns out that the reason I try to shorten books is not because I don’t want to spend the time reading. It’s because I don’t want to spend the time reading that particular book.
It’s rarely a length issue. It’s quality.
I can’t tell you that you’ll win any arguments with publishers. But I can tell you as a parent that, if your book is fun to read, length isn’t all that much of a concern.
As a last little note on this, I should point out that the books I will most often skip are those books where I find myself stumbling over words. Those are a sure sign the writer wasn’t writing out loud.