Harry Potter vs SpongeBob: the great gulf between children’s books and shows

Child watching TV

I’ve noticed a world of difference between what children read and what they watch.

I’m going to ask you a question and you don’t even need to google it for the answer. What’s most popular children’s book series of all time?

Yep, Harry Potter.

Bonus question: What’s the most popular children’s TV show?

Doesn’t matter what you answered. Chances are, it’s probably as dumb as SpongeBob SquarePants.

SpongeBob Characters

Harry Potter vs SpongeBob SquarePants. Just comparing the two, one could draw the conclusion that while children’s books are thoughtful and deep, children’s television is… shallower than Bikini Bottom. (If you chuckled at that lame joke, you should be ashamed of yourself! How many seasons did you watch?)

But this phenomenon is larger than just a boy wizard and a talking sea sponge in pants. On one hand, you have books like Charlotte’s WebThe Chronicles of Narnia, any book by Dr. Seuss or Roald Dahl, and on the other, you have TV shows like Phineas and FerbPower RangersPaw Patrol and Pokémon. (I’ve excluded specifically educational shows like Sesame Street to make a fair comparison.)

Are these examples oddities, or is there an actual “gulf of meaning”, with children’s books having far more depth than children’s shows?

I think there is a major disparity in the profundity between children’s books and children’s shows. This is a problem. On screen, when we feed our young ones with inanity, we starve them of thoughtful entertainment. We are doing them a disservice.

But what can we do about it?

The first thing we need to understand is why people make shows that do not engage children intellectually. (Hint: it’s to chase the almighty advertising dollar.)

My guess is that the easiest way for companies to create crowd-pleasing shows is to stick to series that focus on visuals and comedy. Over the years, this type of programming has grown in popularity until it now dominates screens of all sizes. Parents are partly to blame for this. Just watch any mum or dad with a toddler in a restaurant. Before you can say, “What’s today’s special?”, out comes the smartphone and on comes Peppa Pig, the best babysitter on the planet.

There is no denying that television (or more specifically video) wields tremendous influence over children. So why don’t creators take advantage of this influence to delve deep and engage a child’s emotions, thoughts and imaginations, the way that books do?

Look at Dr. Seuss. While his books might seem like frivolous fun, there are important themes in them. The Lorax deals with the environment. Yertle the Turtle is about Hitler. These books are well-loved and have taught and entertained generations of children.

Even children’s books that are completely serious are popular. Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia certainly don’t mince their words when it comes to talking about serious matters.

The fact is that anyone who argues that children’s television needs to be filled with sight gags, toilet humour and vapid plots in order for children to enjoy it is wrong. Every child will laugh at a character slipping on a banana peel, but the moment is meaningless and ephemeral. But if you’ve ever seen a child sit down and read a novel from cover to cover, then please know you are watching a young mind being gripped by thoughtful and meaningful storytelling. And the by-product? She was being entertained.

Child Reading

So the question is, given the current situation, what can we do with children’s shows? Do we encourage them? Or what?

I think children’s shows are like candy. Kids may love it but they are empty calories.

They need real food. They need something their mind can chew on. They might like television shows. Their parents might enjoy the visual babysitter. But books will grow a child’s mind and make him think. And that’s why I think children still need to read books.

I’ll close with a quote from one of the smartest humans who has ever lived. I think his words matter more now in the age of binge-watching.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

—Albert Einstein


One response to “Harry Potter vs SpongeBob: the great gulf between children’s books and shows”

  1. Hmm. I think you’re cherry picking the data a little bit.

    First, alright, can we at least own that some of the most popular children’s books of the last decade have also had vapid plots and toilet jokes? I’m thinking ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ ‘Captain Underpants’ and so many books in the chapterbook age-range — ‘Magic Kittens’ anyone? Or ‘I Can Read Disney!’ which sells consistently in that reading level category.

    Like, don’t tell me that ‘Magic Kittens’ is any friggin’ better than ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’ just because it’s prose. Both are cutesy and girlish, but at least MLP: FiM has lessons about being a good friend I wouldn’t mind a third grader picking up.

    In fact, if we exclude series that began more than ten years ago (2008) in order to focus on what’s being written specifically on what is being created today for this generation of young readers, none of your examples would fly. It’s great that there are precocious kids who’re up to read what their parents loved as a kid, but most of the kids I know want to read new stuff– the books their friends are reading, the fun “new books” section at the library.

    Second, just as there are many, very popular books that aren’t exactly Newberry material, there are plenty of thoughtful, interesting shows for kids. The Newberry equivalent of children’s shows might be Avatar: The Last Airbender (only children’s series to ever win a Peabody award), the surprisingly moving and profound Star Wars : Clone Wars, the funny-intense-surreal ‘Gravity Falls’ or the lovely, minimalist, musical series ‘Samurai Jack’ and ‘Steven Universe.’

    A famous science fiction author once said, “90% of everything is crap,” which became one of the Laws of the Internet. This is no less true of children’s stories, in all media, than it is of pulp fiction back in the day.

    At the end of the day, the only thing a vapid book has over a vapid show is that is does improve kids literacy– they practice reading competency every time they read prose, improving their vocabularies and so forth. But that’s it. In terms of story elements like character depth, complex plots, using the tools of the craft to build and sustain a mood, and engaging emotional responses, children’s tv and books are about equal. The greats are phenomenal. The boring and shallow ones are plentiful. A lot are just kind of average.

    By all means, let me know how you trick kids into reading profound, award-winning work, because I’m stymied. In the meantime, bedtime demands an enthusiastic performance of “Magic Kittens: A Puzzle of Paws” again, so, I’m gonna go do that.

    Cheers mate.


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