How old were you when you realized Big Bird was a guy in a costume?
Three? Five? Six (the perpetual age of the bird, himself)? Or did I just ruin your childhood by telling you that Big Bird is, in fact, an adult in a costume speaking in the voice of a child?
I don’t know when it dawned on me. Maybe it never did. Maybe I still think Big Bird sleeps in a nest, and Kermit really was playing that banjo and riding that bike.
Nowadays, I sit next to my three year old and watch Big Bird stomp across Sesame Street alongside Snuffy while Oscar shouts, “Turkey!” from his trash can. And I believe in the deepest pit of my heart that that big yellow thing is actually a six year old child.
Now that is an artist that speaks to kids… and their immature adult counterparts.
I saw Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, many years ago on Chicago Tonight. He said something that has stuck with me ever since – all you need to do is talk to kids at their level.
That’s true for my day job as an elementary school teacher, and it’s true for my super hero alter-ego as a middle grade writer. It’s easier in the writer role, but the idea is the same. A switch flips, and I become an alternate character with one sole purpose – convince the kids that something interesting is happening, and it will be worth their time. I don’t even realize it’s happening, and I don’t have much control over it. And when it doesn’t work, it can feel your heart is going to collapse.
All of this came to a head when I finally got my son to sleep at a reasonable hour and spent my hard-earned adult time watching I AM BIG BIRD, a documentary that’s been on my radar ever since its successful Kickstarter campaign.
Chances are you’ve heard of Big Bird and Oscar, but nobody knows Carroll, despite his work being an unsung miracle of puppetry. He connects with kids the way every middle grade writer wants to. And he loves his work. He has no intention of retiring.
And what’s odd is I’ve built two careers on a philosophy I didn’t even realize he’d planted in my head when I saw him on Chicago Tonight.
Kids do a lot of silly things, but they’re smart enough to know when a writer is talking (or writing) down to them. They know when the writer is preaching. They lose interest in a story written by an adult who dumbed their characters down until they seemed absurd enough to be kids. Big Bird is proof that that’s not the way an artist effectively interacts with kids.
The documentary wasn’t all wonder and nostalgia, of course. It’s not easy to hear anecdotes about the man in the suit facing a severe bout of depression and looking down from a window and wondering if that is the answer. Or about his abusive relationship with his father when he was a kid.
And the story of how Big Bird almost went into space? I’ll let you experience that one yourself.
But despite all of that, Carroll is a happy man. He enjoys his work and his life. And he taught me a lot about middle grade writing without saying a thing about it.
Mike Grosso is the author of I AM DRUMS, a debut contemporary middle grade for musicians of all ages. It was orphaned due to the closing of Egmont USA, but has found a new home at Clarion Books and an updated release date of September 16, 2016.