A Review of Gavin Edwards’ “Kindness and Wonder”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
It seems as though the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Every day, when I open Twitter — even though I don’t follow him — I’ll invariably run into Donald Trump’s latest incendiary Tweet and feel nothing but rage at how a country could ever elect such a dinkledork as him. It’s hard to believe that a person such as Mr. Rogers ever existed, but this new book, Kindness and Wonder, manages to resurrect the man, now 15 years gone, and make you believe that there is goodness in the world. The first three-fifths of the book are a straight-up biography of Mr. Rogers’ life from birth to death. This is followed by a section of 10 action items that people can follow if they want to be more like Fred Rogers, including such tidbits as “Make a joyful noise” and “Tell the truth.” The last part of the book, however, is not terribly prescriptive in terms of actual advice — this segment is just more stories about Rogers and his life that couldn’t fit in the previous biography section. Despite that flaw, this is a very good book and worth your attention.
Essentially, Kindness and Wonder covers a lot of the same ground as last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary film, except that this book goes into a lot more detail about Mr. Rogers’ formative years. It turns out that Fred Rogers bounced around a lot in children’s television before landing in the neighbourhood (I’m spelling the word in Canada-speak here, but refer to the American spelling when referring to titles of work). No stone is left unturned as author Edwards — perhaps most famous for a series of books on misheard rock lyrics — pours over the biographic information provided to him. However, as evidenced from the acknowledgments section in the back of the book, Edwards also conducted primary interviews with key personnel in Rogers’ life and those who were influenced by him (such as Bill Nye … you know, the science guy). The result is that this is pretty thorough as a piece of biography, though I get the feeling that the odd fact or quote got cribbed from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as there are similarities between the two works.
Of particular interest to me was Rogers’ time spent in Canada working for the CBC and how the opening shot of Mister Rogers Neighborhood was inspired by the opening of The Friendly Giant. And, in case you were wondering, yes, Mr. Dressup gets a shout-out as Rogers worked closely with him in the early years. There are other fascinating stories, some of which only get a passing mention, such as Rogers discovering that his teenaged sons had a marijuana grow-up set up in the basement of their home. However, there is the stuff of tearjerkers in this book, showing the true extent of Rogers’ character, such as the time when Rogers made friends with an adult father whose daughter was killed in a car crash, and how that friendship remained throughout the rest of Rogers’ life. You see instances where Rogers spends time with marginalized children, casting him as something of a Jesus figure, too.
The book makes the case that Rogers was essentially the same person onscreen as he was offscreen. It’s hard to imagine that Rogers was such a peaceful, loving guy who never lost his cool. Objectively, the book is not very objective — it paints its subject as a bit of a saint, and any blemishes that colored his character are kind of cast to the side, such as the fact that Rogers never swore, but his puppet characters would do the deed for him. A little more levity or going into more detail on some of Rogers’ personal faults would have been appreciated. For instance, the book never really touches on his depression and self-doubt, which Won’t You Be My Neighbor? definitely mines. This is surprising because this isn’t the first biography of Mr. Rogers. You would expect the subject matter to be much deeper and more focused, rather than going off on how much Rogers and Andy Warhol had in common (apparently, a great deal).
Still, Kindness and Wonder is a great read. It’ll make you feel as though you have faith in human existence all over again. Which reminds me of a question I do have, if not for the author then the general population of the United States as a whole: how could roughly two generations be raised on Rogers, only for them to then run off and elect a boor and bully such as Trump as President? There seem to be no answers for that. For all that the book lacks and questions remained unanswered, it does have a heart — and the heart is in the right place. We could all aspire to be more like Fred Rogers, and I, myself, am not alone in wanting to be a better person. Kindness and Wonder shows us how we could meet that lofty objective, if you do a little reading between the lines of this tome. While certainly not perfect, it colors in the gaps in the narrative of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? even if the book doesn’t come close to packing the emotional punch to the gut that that film did. If you want to know more about the life of Fred Rogers, or maybe wish that you could be a bit more like him, Kindness and Wonder will send you down a kind, wonderful path to some kind of Zen place. This is certainly stuff that the world needs more of now more than ever, so, please, go out and buy a copy of this book. It certainly will make your beautiful day in the neighbourhood.
Gavin Edwards’ Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever will be published by Dey Street Books on October 29, 2019.
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