For over 50 years, Sesame Street has been the destination for families looking for guidance on talking through the tougher side of life.
That reputation for not shying away from uncomfortable topics, but rather leaning into them in a way that young children might be able to understand, has been on full display in recent weeks as the celebrated children's program has teamed with CNN for two town halls tackling the pair of hot-button issues gripping America in this moment: COVID-19 and racial injustice.
The partnership between the cable news network and Sesame Street began on Saturday, June 6 with Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism, an hour-long special hosted by CNN's Van Jones and Erica Hill meant to help kids understand the nationwide protests while equipping families with conversational tools to discuss the topic with their children. Not only did the special feature beloved and eternally-childlike Muppet Elmo learning from his father Louie what racism is and why people were protesting it, but it allowed fellow Muppet Abby Cadabby to explain in plain terms why bullying others for how they look is wrong and harmful. Meanwhile Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey answered video questions from families.
"Not all streets are like Sesame Street," Louie explained to Elmo during the town hall. "On Sesame Street, we all love and respect one another. But across the country, people of color, especially in the Black community, are being treated unfairly because of how they look, their culture, race and who they are. What we are seeing is people saying 'Enough is enough.' They want to end racism."
A week later, on June 13, Hill was joined by CNN's chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and the Sesame Street gang for The ABCs of COVID-19. In the second hour-long town hall, kids and their families were taught about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic through lessons from the beloved characters.
Cookie Monster explained why sharing food isn't a good idea right now, Elmo highlighted the importance of wearing a mask in public, and the numbers-loving Count taught how to maintain a six-foot distance from others. Gold medal-winning Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez stopped by to give advice on staying active while at home, while Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises fielded questions from Big Bird and kids across the country about how different the upcoming academic school year will be.
Addressing children with fears about returning to school amid the pandemic, Santelises offered, "It's okay to be a little scared. I think all of us are scared from time to time, but we are working to make sure that you are as safe as possible, and I bet when you see some of your friends at a distance, some of that fear will go away."
And living up to the special's title, Big Bird, Elmo and Abby Cadabby, joined by Hill and Gupta, sang a song that spelled out just what kids should be doing in this moment to keep themselves and others safe and healthy.
"'C' means cover/cover your face/wear a mask in a public place," they sang. "'A' is for apart/Be smart and stay six feet apart/'R,' that's remember/Remember to wash your hands throughout the day/Before you eat or after you play/'E'' is for everyone/Everyone has a job to do/To help others and be healthy too/Because like birds of a feather/We're in this together/To help one another and care/Care, care for each other."
Created in the late '60s by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, Sesame Street began with the primary goal of preparing young children, especially those from lower-income families who couldn't afford preschool, to attend school. Along the way, it became a place where kids could not only learn their ABCs, but the importance of sharing, kindness, and other "social" skills.
Throughout its half-century existence on PBS and, more recently, HBO and HBO Max, the show has also proven time and again that it's uniquely positioned to help guide its impressionable audience through subjects that might otherwise be deemed too mature for them.
The first time the show tackled something a bit heavier than usual was in November 1983 following the death of actor Will Lee. Rather than simply having Lee's character, store clerk Mr. Hooper, leave Sesame Street after 14 years, the writers decided to address the situation head-on with a tribute episode entitled "Farewell Mr. Hooper."
In the episode, Big Bird drew a picture of Mr. Hooper and wanted to show it to him, prompting the human cast members to explain to him that Mr. Hooper had died, helping him understand what that really meant. In a 2012 interview, the late Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird, reflected on the episode, saying,, "It was probably the most sensitive show we have ever done. When we finished there were tears on all the actors' faces. When I came out of the suit, I had to have a towel because I had been crying...I think it was one of the best things we ever did."
Since that special episode, the series has centered others on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, while also introducing characters who can help to normalize other aspects of society that children might struggle with. In 2002, the South African version of the show introduced Kami, the franchise's first HIV-positive Muppet. While she was created for the international edition, she's gone on to become a vital part of the global conversation on HIV/AIDS education, even appearing alongside former President Bill Clinton in a PSA. "I like to talk to people about my school and my friends and my favorite things. Oh, and I also talk to them about HIV and AIDS," Kami tells Clinton in the 2006 clip, before asking, "Do you tell everyone that it is OK to hug someone that is HIV-positive, like me?" When Clinton tells Kami he does, she responds, "That makes me very happy."
In 2015, Julia, a preschooler with autism "who does things a little differently when playing with her friends" was introduced as a part of a digital campaign. After growing in popularity, she became the first new Muppet introduced to the series in over a decade two years later. By 2019, her family had been introduced to the show as well.
Julia was followed by Lily, the show's first homeless character, in 2018, and Karli, a Muppet in foster care because her mother is seeking treatment for addiction, in a 2019 digital campaign. Not everyone welcomed their arrivals.
In response to Karli's introduction, Boston Herald columnist Jessica Heslam argued that the show should "let toddlers be toddlers," adding, "Had Sesame Street created a program dealing with addiction geared toward older kids, that would be a different story. Rolling out a cute character as the face of the drug epidemic that's marketed to toddlers crosses a line."
Regardless of the criticisms levied their way, Sesame Street remains undeterred in their goal to help kids and their families navigate the realities of life. "Sesame Street has always been real-world," Sherrie Westin, EVP of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces the show, told Fast Company in 2017. "It's not a fantasy, it's not a fairy tale. One of the things that sets us apart is respecting children and dealing with real-world issues from a child's perspective."
"These are scenarios that happen to preschoolers," she continued. "We have to address it."
As Steve Youngwood, Sesame Workshop's COO added, "When we started in 1969, we were taking the newest technology at the time–TV–and using it to help level the playing field when it came to early childhood education. What has evolved is that we've figured out how to get more targeted. We're still about school readiness, but we're also about life readiness."
After all, as one of Sesame Street's most iconic residents once declared, "Elmo loves to learn, learn about it all. The things that are big and the things that are small!"