King Friday: a benevolent monarch who also holds referenda regarding such crucial issues as playground equipment
King Friday: a benevolent monarch who also holds referenda regarding such crucial issues as playground equipment

Making sense of ‘Daniel Tiger,’ ‘Babar’ and our kids’ other baffling TV universes

It’s when you’ve watched “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” for the 56th time or so that you start asking the hard questions.

“What did Prince Tuesday do to lose his parents’ favor that he has to work as a waiter?” wonders my husband, Aaron.

What, indeed?

“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” the wholesome, animated PBS kids’ show that is a spinoff of the treasured “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” seems to exist in a world run by a benevolent but confused monarchy.

King Friday appears to be running things from his giant stone castle, but then he calls for a high-profile election just to determine whether the playground should acquire a slide or a swing set.

The heir to his throne, Prince Tuesday, both waits tables and babysits. Yet the king’s youngest son, Prince Wednesday, puts on serious airs, wearing a crown everywhere and always reminding his friends that he is royalty.

And why oh why is the kingdom’s major industry clock production?

I’ve found that parents tend to develop both strong opinions and probing inquiries about the children’s books, movies and shows they are forced to consume month after month and year after year. The puzzling plotlines and curious character development of some of our children’s favorites have certainly become a fascinating topic
of discussion in my home.

There’s something about reading the same Curious George story so many times that you can recite it in your sleep that makes you really wonder how someone who shows such consistently poor judgment as the Man with the Yellow Hat could own two homes. And take Mrs. Needleman, for example.

“What is her relationship to the Man with the Yellow Hat?” my husband asks.

“She’s clearly married, but they’re taking a trip together and she’s rolling up at George’s birthday party?”

“I like her dress,” Aaron concedes.

Aaron, who sidelines as a men’s style writer, is full of sartorial observations about children’s characters.

Daniel Tiger and his family live on the beach in what seems to be a free-wheeling, semi-tropical environment; though Daniel always wears his favorite red sweater, neither he nor his father ever wear pants. Yet Daniel’s grandfather, Grandpere, who visits from time to time, raises a number of questions with his clothing choices.

“Grandpere is a super awesome character, super mysterious,” Aaron says. “Where does he go on his boats? Why is he French? Why is he wearing heavy outerwear all the time? None of the tigers wear pants, but Grandpere is in a heavy pea coat. Did he just sail in from Brittany?”

Clothes are a huge plot point in “Babar,” in which Babar and his elephant cousins start wearing stylish outfits after they run away from the forest to live in the city. “Babar,” however, rather stunned both Aaron and I after we read it for the first time in decades when our oldest son was a toddler.

“I love the old stories, but they’re also astoundingly colonial,” Aaron says. “Babar becomes king of the elephants after he’s been civilized by man. He shows up in a motorcar and a green suit and they immediately make him king.”

Aaron and I are agreed that one of the worst items in our son Nate’s library is a book about coral reefs.

“The coral reef book blows. Because it’s all about coral,” Aaron states. “Could you think of a less compelling protagonist than coral? The first half of the book is spent describing coral and then how it’s dying. It’s the most depressing thing of all time. Coral, my god.”

But why end on a sad note? We can offer an unconditional endorsement of “I Want My Hat Back,” the Caldecott Medal-winning picture book by Jon Klassen. For those who haven’t read it, it involves a bear, a stolen hat and a rabbit who possibly gets eaten as a result of his lies and deceit. It’s hilarious.

Aaron says: “It’s such satisfying justice, and then such a hilarious cover up when the bear also lies in the same way the rabbit did. It’s cruel animal justice immediately followed by human hypocrisy. I think that’s what makes it so funny.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.