Everyone likes a good story. You have to think for yourself. Taking risks is scary but can have a big payoff.
These common sense (to the point of cliché) statements are at the heart of a new children’s book, The Good Dog (Greenleaf Book Group Press). They are also central to its author, Todd Kessler, a creator of the game-changing children’s television show Blue’s Clues.
Kessler, who will read from his latest project at Books & Books on Saturday, said he hopes that Good Dog will have the same kind of transformative effect on children’s books, literacy and our concept of their understanding and learning abilities that Blue’s Clues did for children’s television.
That’s an ambitious goal for a book with a little more than 100 illustrated pages. However, that happens to be three times as long as the standard children’s picture book. As with Blue’s Clues, Kessler has broken the rules of children’s publishing to follow his instincts and observations.
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“When it comes to kids, everyone thinks they know better than the kids themselves,” Kessler said from his home in Los Angeles. “They have lots of theories about what books work and what programs work, but it’s not really based on anything real.”
Kessler was producing live-action pieces for Sesame Street in the ’90s when he noticed that his experiences as the husband of a preschool teacher and father of two young children ran counter to many tenets of that beloved children’s show. Very short segments were the rule on Sesame Street, in keeping with the theory that young children couldn’t follow anything longer than three minutes. But Kessler, who saw that his children loved Disney movies and who read the Little House in the Big Woods series to his 5-year-old daughter, believed you could keep children’s attention much longer — as long as you had a good story.
“My experience reading my kids a book was that they really liked story and narrative … as long as it was engaging them. There was also a tendency in children’s programs to talk down to kids in squeaky voices. I rebelled against that. They aspire to learn and grow up.”
In 1996, Kessler and partners Angela Santomero and Traci Paige Johnson persuaded Nickelodeon executives to launch Blue’s Clues, in which a guy named Steve and the animated dog Blue guide children through a half-hour mystery, on the fledgling Nick Jr. channel. Blue’s Clues became the highest-rated show for preschoolers on American commercial television. It was critical to the success of Nickelodeon and the forerunner to Dora the Explorer and other shows that transformed children’s television. Kessler and Blue’s Clues were cited in the influential book The Tipping Point for demonstrating, among other things, the crucial insight that children learn to think and understand the world through stories that engage them.
“The original concept of kids as TV viewers … hugely underestimated kids’ ability to understand,” said Dan Anderson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Masschusetts at Amherst whose pioneering research on children and media was part of the basis for the innovations in Blue’s Clues. “In various kinds of industries that deal with kids, very often they’ll base things on what’s been recently successful and not on principled ideas of what kids want and can understand.”
Kessler keeps his faith in complex storytelling with The Good Dog, which tells the story of Tako, an abandoned puppy taken in by Ricky, a young boy. Ricky’s parents say Tako can stay as long as he is a good dog and follows the rules, and all seems well as the family opens a popular new bakery. But when the evil owner of a rival bakery, Mr. Pritchard, plays dangerous tricks to drive the family out of business, Tako must choose between breaking the rules — at the risk of being sent to the pound — and saving his family.
Not only is Tako’s tale much longer than the standard 32- to 40-page illustrated children’s book, it is much more complicated. Children are taught to follow rules — yet Tako must break them. The villainous Mr. Pritchard is an anomaly in the mostly benign — and often bland — world of picture books.
But Kessler asserts that children as young as 3 or 4 long for more challenging fare. “Kids love a lot of short books, but they also hunger for a real story with something real at stake,” he said. He has found in readings that mean Mr. Pritchard is often children’s favorite character. “They like the tension of a bad guy — learning how to deal with an antagonist is something they rarely get,” he said. “Everything has to be nice.”
He and Greenleaf hope that Good Dog will be adopted by teachers — although here, again, the book runs contrary to many of the usual tenets for teaching literacy. The vocabulary is far more advanced than the simple, repetitive texts that introduce reading. Yet the illustrations that help make the story comprehensible for younger kids can also make it seem too young for third- and fourth-graders who have moved on to chapter books.
But Kessler said he has found the story appeals to children as young as 3 and as old as 10. He and his wife, the art and architecture conservationist Rosa Lowinger, have a home in Miami’s Design District, which led to Kessler visiting Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School in Little Haiti this spring. Teachers and students prepared lesson plans, art projects, cupcakes and other baked goodies to celebrate the book. The book’s website is filled with testimonials from children of various ages.
As with Blue’s Clues, there is research to back up Kessler’s instincts. Carolyn Strom, a professor of beginning reading and curriculum development at New York University who was an educational consultant on Good Dog, said children as young as 4 can, with the right help, follow complicated stories with several sub-plots. The drama and pictures in Good Dog provide that help. Yet the mature themes — the abandoned dog who is adopted and could be abandoned again, how to deal with the genuinely malevolent Mr. Pritchard — appeal to older kids.
“This book bridges both,” Strom said. “It has a sense of story for older kids, and it’s comprehensible and appealing to younger kids. The readability is second grade, but the themes are related to a much higher level.”
Not only is the Good Dog at odds with traditional teaching methods, its central lesson — that you can’t always follow the rules — runs contrary to the obedience emphasized by schools and parents. But Kessler figures that, just like Tako, kids need to learn to think for themselves.
“When they get to be adults, we want them to use their own powers to make the best decisions possible,” he said. “If you pull up to a broken red light, we expect you to make up your own mind, not to wait there for a week. At what point do children start to think for themselves? Early on they need to understand that rules are there for a reason, but sometimes they should be bent or broken.”