Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review - Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street

Is there anybody under the age of 35 in America that didn't grow up with Sesame Street? I guess there are those people who don't have televisions or allow their children to watch them. Like the Amish.

To be honest, I feel like even the Amish know Sesame Street.

I did watch a lot of Big Bird and Grover when I was little, but the draw that brought me to this book was actually a deep, lifelong love of Jim Henson. It's funny, while most of his most famous works were made when I was very young (and I was only ten when he died so suddenly) my respect and admiration for Henson has actually been something that's steadily grown as I've gotten older and more knowledgeable about him and the industry.

He was a man who had a lot of beliefs that he wanted to impart, but at the same time didn't feel a need to be serious or adult about it. He understood the need to be silly, to play, and to be irreverent. He mocked, but with a good heart. And he fostered creativity, mentored artists, and created a community of performers that made the most enduring media of my childhood. That deserves respect. The more I learn about him, the higher he climbs on my list of most admired filmmakers/media professionals.

So I'll give you a quick warning, if you want to pick up Street Gang to learn a lot of new and fascinating things about Henson then you should look elsewhere. This isn't a book about Jim Henson, it's a book about Joan Cooney.

Actually, to be fair there is a very large cast of characters, dozens of people are discussed in detail during the course of the book (and I'll talk more about that later) but while the book does discuss Henson more often than some, the person it comes back to time and time again is Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the founders of the Children's Television Workshop and the driving force behind the existence of Sesame Street.

This book shines when talking about Cooney, or maybe it's that she shines. She's fascinating, and before I picked up Street Gang I hadn't heard of her. Which made me feel a little ashamed because as a female media professional, she's an amazing role model and one of the women who really forged a path that I've been lucky enough to follow in my own small ways.

The author must have had an amazing interview with Cooney, because she gives wonderful sound bites, she has great stories to tell. I honestly would love to see a straight biography about her, or maybe a documentary.

Which brings me to the problem I had - Street Gang is fantastic when it has a focus. But it has the short attention span of the children who watch the show. There are so many characters, because it seems the author didn't want to leave anybody out. I would have needed to make a chart to keep up with them so I spent the later chapters usually having no idea which person I was reading about unless the author reminded us of something that happened to them.

The other major problem that caused me a lot of confusion was the chronology. Basically there wasn't one. It's fine that the book starts with Henson's funeral and then moves back to Cooney's upbringing, that's a narrative device I can get behind.

The problem is that the author wants to both follow narrative threads to their conclusion and also keep the book in chronological order. Which are two tasks that will always be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish together. Frequently a section will go through three or four years of history and then the next section will suddenly be back to five years before the other started. I had a lot of trouble lining up the whens, whos, and wheres. Especially since everybody's name started with a J (I'm only half joking).

It took me a very long time to read Street Gang, which is a bit sad because the material is so fantastic. I'm not entirely sure how the author could have solved the problems I had with it, because there is just so much history and so many people, and there's nobody that I read about and thought "who cares, why are we talking about them?" They all had a valuable part to play.

If you're a big fan of Sesame Street, then this book is an absolute must. If you're interested in television or education, it's also probably right up your alley. And if you're a Henson fan, there are a lot of stories about him in there, he's just not really the focus at all. But that's good, because Cooney deserves the spotlight, so the book is worth reading just to learn more about her.

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