Spend More Time in the Neighborhood
We’re in the middle of a Mr. Rogers Renaissance. With so much Fred Rogers content to consume, I found myself with two questions when picking up Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever, by Gavin Edwards.
- Why now?
- Is this next bit of Mr. Rogers content worth my time?
The Rogersaissance started last year with the documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? earning $22 million on its way to becoming the highest grossing biographical documentary of all time. A year later we’re headed into Thanksgiving with a new Tom Hanks biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, focusing on his relationship with an Esquire journalist.
Despite the danger of Land-Of-Make-Believe-Overload, this book finds an inventive way to balance telling the story of how Fred became Mr. Rogers and cramming in as many inspiring Rogers stories as possible, while also including a call to action.
It may seem like an odd time for the Rogersaissance since the beloved children’s TV host passed away 16 years ago, but as this book’s subtitle suggests, Mr. Rogers truly does matter now more than ever. In the era of on-demand rapid-fire entertainment, the desire for the kind of methodical, kind, thoughtful style only Mr Rogers could provide is stronger than ever. What a relief it was to escape into this book after a day of impeachment hearings. Sure, part of it is nostalgia, but it’s refreshing to remember someone who even decades ago seemed of another era and from another place.
Is this next bit of Mr. Rogers content worth my time?
Having seen the documentary twice and taken in a lot of Mr. Rogers content recently, I went into Gavin Edwards’ book wondering if there would be enough new-to-me material to capture and hold my interest. I was just a few pages in before realizing how silly that thought was. Even if you’ve heard a version of a story about Mr. Rogers before, getting to live in his deeply-moral and thoughtful way of seeing and explaining the world is a true treat. This book is full of wonderful tidbits.
Young Mr. Rogers
Edwards breaks the into two parts. The first half is a straightforward biography that tells the story of how Fred became Mr. Rogers. A chubby boy whose parents raised him with money, but sheltered him, he found the world scary and never forgot those feelings. He vowed to make sure kids felt more seen and understood in the world. Edwards takes us on a journey to see how Fred gave up everything to pursue TV, not for fame or money, but because he thought he could reach the most children that way. He’d give up opportunities if some element didn’t meet his high standards. And he’d re-film old scenes if he learned something he’d done might be considered problematic that didn’t make kids feel safe, like use a laser pointer to talk about fires.
While Mr. Rogers often comes across like a perfect saint, the book does show Fred grappling with what acceptance means and understanding the era he lived in. Fred knew what message he was sending when he went in the pool with a black actor on the show, but also knew that he couldn’t get away with having that same actor be out of the closet. The book touches on Fred’s homosexual feelings as well and leaves it at he was attracted to men, but was in a happy committed marriage to a woman, so he never acted on it.
We get a good cross-section of his full life, but by focusing more on his young life, Edwards gives us a different slice than we get from the documentary and the Hanks film. It’s well covered that Rogers weighed 143 pounds in his adult life, which Fred took to mean “I love you.” One letter. Four letters. Three letters. It’s robably just a coincidence that section two starts on page 143.
Ten Ways To Live Like Mr. Rogers
The second half provides “Ten Ways to Live More Like Mister Rogers Today” with examples like “Be deep and simple” and “Make a joyful noise” illustrated with a story (or a few) to illustrate the point. I imagine Edwards did this so he could find a way to squeeze in a whole bunch of Rogers anecdotes that might not advance a bio but are very worth sharing.
There are an endless supply of those stories with Mr. Rogers. Any celebrity can call a sick kid in the hospital. Only Fred Rogers would call every day for weeks and keep in touch the rest of the person’s life. Fred turned a childhood disappointment of a celeb not into a lifetime of always saying yes to a photo opportunity and returning as many as possible of the 15,000 letters a year he got himself.
I toyed with sharing my favorite ten takeaways in the spirit of the back half of the book, but half of the fun is finding the new wrinkles about Fred’s endlessly charming life. This book takes us on a journey to show how his childhood led to him dedicating his life to making things easier for children in a confusing and scary world. And he did it all with kindness and wonder.
(Harper Collins, October 15, 2019)