Book Review: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Visual History

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Visual History
Hardcover | Kindle Edition
Written by Tim Lybarger, Melissa Wagner, Jenna McGuiggan
Forward by Tom Hanks
Publisher: Clarkson Potter
Publication Date: October 29, 2019

A book on the beloved public television children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has just been released, and without question, it is as magical, charming, warm, and sincere as the pioneering man and the program itself.

Entitled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Visual History, it’s indeed just that, an absolute cornucopia of photos (many rare and never released publicly), original show notes, recaps of great and important moments on the show, and loving interviews from many of the key cast, crew, and special guests involved with the program, which ran for over four decades and spawned almost a thousand episodes.

To anyone who grew up with the show, and even for those who didn’t, whether they were the generations before or after the original run of the program, it’s an absolute must for any pop cultural book collection. But more importantly, it’s a must because it also serves as a reminder and an overall expansive look at an individual who not only changed the face of television, but also humanity.

Fred Rogers was a benevolent Presbyterian minister who was born in 1928 and passed away in 2003. And during his lifetime, he became a role model of the highest order to legions of children who looked at his program daily, a television evangelist if you will, in the best possible sense. With his gentle and soothing demeanor, Rogers enlightened children of all stripes, colors, and sizes all over the world about basically how to deal with all the foibles of growing up in an adult world.

From his tireless understanding that no matter what a child is — be it tall, small, large, thin, disabled — no matter what the physical makeup of a child, no matter the economic status they existed in or geographic or social climate, Fred Rogers treated every child as an equal. He saw people as human beings, and presented and confirmed to everyone that while nobody is perfect, everyone was special in their own way. Rogers was a pied piper who led children inside themselves to discover there was gold hidden in their inner hills, that they could do anything and achieve anything, and that they mattered, no matter what, as vibrant, vivid, empathetic entities on the planet.

And with the publication of this fascinating new book, written by three authors — Tim Lybarger, Melissa Wagner, and Jenna McGuiggan, all of whom either worked with Rogers or on projects linked to Rogers — every turn of the page yields some amazing nugget of information or nostalgic memory. Even the most hard-hearted adults who read it, will instantly be enthralled and transported right back to their youth, when Mr. Rogers was like a safe zone for them, reliable and forever.

While I’m apt to not give too many spoilers of information here and would rather let the reader be as amazed with consistent eye-opening wonderment as I was while looking at the book, a few key teasers are shots of original production scripts and notes, with Rogers’ addendums written throughout; the inclusion of the original handwritten music to “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the iconic theme song of the program; photos of the production crew filming the program, including bird’s eye view photos of the sets; breakdowns of key episodes, like when a goldfish passed away; the factory production of crayons; and the episode in which Fred greets Officer Clemmons, who is African-American and visits Rogers on a hot summer’s day to share a small kid’s pool together to cool their feet and even use the same towel to dry off, which, in a way, is one of the greatest showcases of racial unity ever presented on television for its utter simplicity yet urgent underlying message. And best of all, there’s a complete and meticulously eye-popping look at The Land of Make Believe, complete with the iconic trolley and every puppet character examination, from gentle Daniel Striped Tiger to the brash Lady Elaine Fairchilde and monarch of the land King Friday.

The reader will instantly be whisked right back to the times upon reading every single page of this book, their mind constantly and consistently going “I totally forgot about that!” or “How incredible is that?!” The book is that good. Aforementioned interviews with the key cast and crew and even with guests who appeared on the show, such as famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, echoes what pretty much everyone echoes about their time on the program: that nobody ever felt like they worked for Fred Rogers; they worked WITH him. The man all the children saw on the screen was pretty much the man in real life, and his kind, loving personality not only endeared everyone to him, but also inspired them. One sums it up by saying that in today’s contemporary world, people constantly mention to him that “we need Mr. Rogers today more than ever.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

Rounding out the book is also a sneak peek look at the upcoming film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is to be released theatrically on November 22nd and stars the incomparable Tom Hanks as Rogers. Production stills from the film shows the letter-perfect recreations of the sets of the show, and Hanks even pens a forward for the book, which although short, perfectly sums up everything that made Fred Rogers a true one-of-a-kind individual and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood the lasting, iconic program that it was, is, and always will be.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Visual History is cause for celebration. If I have to don my “critic’s cap” and mention a flaw, it would only be that an accompanying DVD of show highlights and clips would have been the cherry on this cake. But why carp? This book gives the reader such a “good feeling,” but this time it’s to know that Fred Rogers was alive, because it was us he liked, it was us he truly cared for, and he remains in perpetuity a dynamo of a human being who manifested the best forms of sociology and child psychology in the guise of an almost unassuming man clad in a myriad of sweaters and sneakers with a gentle soothing voice on a program that was purposely and purposefully slow-paced. Without question, the release of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Visual History makes it a beautiful day in the neighborhood indeed.

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