I Am Jim Henson, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
What makes Jim Henson heroic? To be sure, I like puppets as much as anyone else. I help write puppet plays for a friend of mine who is a puppeteer from time to time, and spent many hours of my children watching Lambchop and Sesame Street and other shows aimed at children that use puppets. I do not view any of that as heroic, though. I think Jim Henson’s work and its legacy deserves to be appreciated and remembered, and children are likely to be very fond of his work and find a biography of his life worthwhile in giving them details about how one goes about making a living as an entertainer for children. But this does not make a hero. It may seem ungenerous to state this, but it is important for us to have a high bar for what makes someone a hero or else it cheapens our appreciation of real heroism. Hero becomes a name for a sandwich rather than an appreciation of nobility of character and courage in the face of moral and/or physical danger. And that would be a great shame if we were allow this to be the way that we thought.
This particular book tells the usual airbrushed history of the subject’s life. It shows the author’s fondness from childhood of made up words that sound delightfully quirky, of which muppet happens to be one of them. The book shows Henson’s crash course as a puppeteer and the way that his ability to charm and amuse others lead to better and better opportunities. The author focuses a great deal on the popularity of Sesame Street and the development of Kermit from a primitive original form to our beloved frog. The book, as might be expected, does not include a great deal about the subject’s personal life–including his estrangement from his wife, or his death, or even his work in not very kid-friendly movies like the Labyrinth, all of which would have been interesting and entertaining, at least. At any rate, the author gives an impression of Henson’s life as being devoted to making people laugh as well as his appreciation of puppets in entertainment history as well, and that is something that will at least amuse and perhaps inspire some children to become involved in that kind of entertainment themselves. This is not a bad thing, at least.
Still, this book falls far short of the standard that one should have for heroism. Is it heroic to have a diverse group of puppets in an entertainment show? Is it heroic to turn old clothing into beloved puppets? This book seems to want to promote that merely having the ideals that people would love others makes one heroic, that simply being an entertainment celebrity is heroic, and that is just not good enough. Spouting off cliches and having enough persistence and good fortune to make it in the entertainment world does not make someone a hero. Nor does writing air-brushed hero tales do children a service by lowering the bar for heroism in such a way that many thousands of people who can do nothing well but entertain are viewed as being important people in culture, far beyond what the quality of their lives or their ideals would indicate. It is unclear why the author made this approach, although one may wonder if he was trying to curry favor with the Hollywood crowd to better encourage his own career as a writer whose works could be made into films, which would be a cynical reason to view Tinseltown celebrities as heroes fit for emulation by children.