Review by C.J. Bunce
What can you say about Mr. Rogers that you didn’t learn from his more than three decades on television? Plenty, as you’ll find in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, a new work of non-fiction by Maxwell King that we previewed earlier at borg here. If you could meet any creator of the past fifty years, it would be difficult to find anyone as sincere and genuine as television’s Mr. Rogers. Maybe Jim Henson? Bob Ross? Mr. Rogers was a man whose private life was every bit as real as his persona on television, according to hundreds of people who knew him that were interviewed for King’s new book.
The fear for a reader of the book is like any behind-the-scenes peek at a beloved film or television series: As with learning the magician’s secrets or seeing a Muppet with a hand stuffed up its back, the man that became Mr. Rogers has his flaws, and his several TV projects, books, speeches, and other works reveals in many ways and from many avenues that he really was just a man. So for some, there’s too much to see here. Yet readers will not be surprised that no matter who was asked and prodded, there were no skeletons in his closet to reveal–King even notes the categorical rejection of so many Internet myths that have arisen about him since his death in 2003. All, of course, are false. What you saw was what you got: an educated thinker who chose to help people with his singular career path.
Yet was he really just a man? Would any other person have so many incredible encounters? An autistic child visited his set with his family, only to speak for the very first time when Mr. Rogers addressed the child directly through the famous puppets King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday, which the boy had watched for years on TV at his home? Or when Koko the gorilla, who passed away earlier this year, visited him, she took him into her arms. Koko was a long-time fan of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and when they met the two spoke to each other in American Sign Language and took photographs of each other. Before the advent of the literal movie blockbuster, Mr. Rogers had thousands of children and their parents lined up around city blocks for a chance to meet him in person. Clearly, if Mr. Rogers was just a man, he was like no other before or since.
According to King, he wrote The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers because he believed the reading public should care about his work. Learning and early child development were key focuses for Mr. Rogers, according to King, and “…no one did more to convince a mass audience in America of the value of early education.” Also, King said the television producer, writer, composer, minister, and leader “provided and continues to provide, exemplary moral leadership… His signature value was human kindness; he lived it and he preached it, to children, to their parents, to their teachers, to all of us anywhere who could take the time to listen.”
The image of Mr. Rogers created by King in his book is a man of conscience, a stickler for detail, concern for what his shows presented to children, a champion of public television, a father, a son, a husband, a teacher, a co-worker, and a friend who liked everyone for who they were, just as his audiences liked him for who he was.
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers covers Mr. Rogers’ youth, his lifestyle, his family life, his career, his friends, and co-workers, his appearance before Congress that saved public television, his philosophy on education and how he developed it over the years, his influences and advisors, how he created the characters and songs and elements of the show he is known best for, and his legacy.
For any fan of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the man behind it, and the history of television, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers is available now from Abrams Press here at Amazon.