The Good Neighbour  – ★★★★★
This comprehensive biography talks about the life of an American icon – Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003), the man behind the famous American television show for children Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962 – 2001). Fred Rogers was more than just a presenter, his show was more than just one’s usual children’s programme, and, hence, this biography is so much more than a book about one celebrity. Always championing children’s rights and their needs, Rogers has always been known for valuing each viewer “just the way they are” and a child was truly someone who mattered on his television. Unassuming, humble and even shy, but with captivating presence, Rogers hence revolutionised children’s day-time television in the US, believing that television can be uplifting, fun and educational for everyone [2018: 172]. From Rogers’ childhood to his last TV appearance, the biography touches on many aspects of his life, including Rogers’ unparalleled-on-television authenticity, his commitment to child development, and his love for music and swimming. The Good Neighbour is a book to read because Fred Rogers was one of those people whose efforts and commitments should never be forgotten. Fred Rogers’ life is a life worth knowing.
I did not grow up with Fred Rogers and his television – but I wish I did. When I first watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood out of curiosity I was spellbound – I never thought television could be of this kind – even children’s television – so unpretentious, relaxing, comforting, but at the same time educational, making you a better person. Growing up, my TV was all Tom & Jerry, Chilly Willy…The Terminator, Child’s Play…only joking, but maybe close! Fred Rogers, on the other hand, had the ability to disarm you with simplicity and sincerity that is now rarely seen in the world, let alone on television. He believed in what he did, and his passion and good intention came through the screen and reached his viewers. More than that, Fred Rogers wanted you to be better and to succeed. He was one of the first to recognise that children do not want to be talked down upon nor they like to feel inferior – they want honesty; they are eager to learn; they desire to have an adult as their friend, and they wish to be loved, respected and valued for who they are. Watching Mr Rogers, you instantly want to be his neighbour – no matter whether you are five or ninety-five years old.
“Fred’s willingness, as a producer and a person, to embrace quiet, inactivity, empty space – and his calm demeanour were completely unexpected in television in the 1970s. They were qualities that captivated children and their parents” [King, 2018: 194].
Fred Rogers (and now his centre) has always promoted early learning, and believed that childhood defines the later development of a person, including what kind of views a person will hold and how they will treat others. Thus, one of the greatest things about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was that it was designed to develop and boost emotional, social and cultural sides of a child. Rogers was curious about many things in the world, and wanted badly to inspire this sense of wonder in others. Thus, through his programme, children were learning what batteries are for, how traffic lights work, how cellos are produced, how stamps are made, and how the printing-press functions, not to mention taking their television friends to a restaurant, a supermarket and a hospital to relax them if they encounter similar situations, and inviting in oceanologists, space scientists, musicians and painters. Having his degree in music, Rogers wanted no child to be left behind when it comes to the best that the world of music has to offer – if that means bringing the world-class musicians-celebrities to his programme (be it classically-trained or dancing break-dance) – it will be done. Importantly, Rogers was introducing his young television neighbours to all sorts of people that come from all sorts of backgrounds, featuring many people of colour, while saying that it is ok to make mistakes, feel sad and ask for help, and talking about anger, death, divorce and even assassination. At no other time children’s television was such an inclusive and immersive experience, and it is often the sheer spontaneity of the show that guaranteed its success.
“Fred always [said]: “If it’s for the children, it has to be the best we can give” [King, 2018: 165].
The book includes the description of Fred Rogers’ childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in the 1930s. Rogers was born into a rich family, but was a lonely and shy child often bullied. Thus, he found escape in his make-shift puppet theatre and in his piano. The book then traces his life as he was maturing into a man who never forgot the early influence of his parents and grandparents. For example, his mother’s charitable causes influenced Fred greatly and she made sure that “her son delights [in] Christian service. Fred took great pleasure in everyday acts of thoughtfulness and kindliness” [2018: 39]. The book then talks about his eventual transfer to a university in Florida to finish his degree in music, before talking about his marriage, his career of a Presbyterian minister and his early TV work in an era when “nobody [knew] anything about television” [2018: 78]. Mister Rogers’ Neighrbourhood was born in 1962 and no one could have predicted its eventual success and popularity.
The Good Neighbour maybe unnecessarily repetitive at times, but it is also very thorough, and one can forgive Maxwell King for not wanting to miss even seemingly unimportant aspects of Fred Rogers’ life, such as his friendship with people from all walks of life and his swimming-pool sessions. One sign that a biography is that of a great man is that it is filled with praises for other people. Rogers idolised some and wanted them to have credit for his work and his achievements too. Thus, we read about the results of Dr Margaret McFarland, a child psychologist, whose methodology found its way to the programme, and even Rogers’ popularity in high school is presented as something that came as a result of one popular boy who decided to include Rogers into his gang after that boy’s admission to hospital.
The Good Neighbour is a touching tribute to Fred Rogers, a one-of-a-kind role model that will forever stand for kindness, compassion, acceptance, equality, fairness, responsibility and continuous learning; a man who turned quietness and simplicity into strength and resilience, and instilled into millions of children the important belief that just being who they are is enough to receive love and respect they deserve.