There’s no way that Mister Rogers could be for real, right? When I was growing up, the word on the playground was that the kind-hearted Mister Rogers was seeking redemption for a past life as a cold-hearted ex-military sniper who killed dozens. Do you hear that?
Dozens have died by his hand. The only reason he wore those sweaters was to cover up his many special forces tattoos that would be too frightening for young eyes.
And those sneakers? Those were specially chosen for stealth. Fred Rogers found they were critical in stalking unsuspecting prey. Legend says that Rogers would glide like a panther, creeping up behind his target until the red cable-knit-sweater-wearing Mister Rogers was so close that it was too late to escape. Moments before their demise he would coldly whisper:
“You’ve made this day a special day just by you’re being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”
While misinformation was so hard to correct in the time before the Internet, I think those stories stemmed from a very simple place. People just couldn’t believe that what they were seeing was true. People heard Mister Rogers, with his message that you (and not the social “you,” but the literal you receiving this right now) are special, and a deeply founded emotional disagreement in their hearts just flatly refused to understand it.
It brings a whole new light to song lyrics like “sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake,” that were sung on Mister Rogers Neighborhood by Daniel Striped Tiger. “I’m not like anyone else I know,” he would say, at which the counter-point would come in voiced by Lady Aberlin, “I think you are just fine as you are. I do like the person you are becoming.”
It’s worth noting that the song doesn’t end with confirmation that Daniel believes what he’s told, but it is very important that he’s heard it. Maybe the song is a little bit of therapy for Mister Rogers.
On a lighter note, the book does take some of the saint-hood off of Mister Rogers. I was surprised to hear that Mister Rogers did jokingly swear on occasion (although, of course, it was never around children and never from a lack of self-control). There were some moments of eccentricity where even his most trusted friends thought he went a little too far. In the end, those hidden moments only make the work of Fred Rogers more endearing.
While I was reading this book, I found myself in a conversation about Fred Rogers with a coworker who didn’t grow up in the United States. This presented me with the unusual challenge of explaining the uniqueness of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood to a person with no context on what American children’s television was like outside of the Neighborhood. While the advertisers were calling for programming full of eye-catching visuals, slapstick comedy, and cartoon mischief, Mister Rogers Neighborhood was an invitation for children to slow down, talk about their feelings, and learn about the more challenging parts of living in a grown-up world.
The Good Neighbor makes it clear that what made Fred Rogers special over the course of his adult life were two things. The first was his desire that no one (especially a child) felt the loneliness that he felt growing up. The second was his firm stand that no success should come at the expense of human compassion and kindness.
I recommend this book to anyone who was ever a child. Seriously, it’s a very good biography. There seem to be little hints throughout the book that Maxwell King was given access to Rogers’s personal notes that were being collected for a memoir Rogers ultimately never got around to composing. If you decide to listen to the Good Neighbor as an audiobook, you get the added bonus that Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton performs the reading, as if you couldn’t get any more wholesome.
I you’re interested in digging deeper into the religious background of Fred Rogers, I’d recommend The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth. There’s also a series of quote books starting with The World According to Mister Rogers if you’d like his insight in bite-sized chunks. Personally, I’m very glad that culture is finally getting around to giving Fred Rogers the respect he deserves and I’m looking forward to seeing Tom Hanks play Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood when it comes out in November 2019.
The Good Neighbor is actually the third book I’ve read this year. If you’ve got any suggestions for other books, I would love to hear them since I’ve decided to read 100 books in 2019. If you want to see this year’s list, just check out revengemethod.com
Keep it real.
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was an enormously influential figure in the history of television and in the lives of tens of millions of children. As the creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he was a champion of compassion, equality, and kindness. Rogers was fiercely devoted to children and to taking their fears, concerns, and questions about the world seriously.
The Good Neighbor, the first full-length biography of Fred Rogers, tells the story of this utterly unique and enduring American icon. Drawing on original interviews, oral histories, and archival documents, Maxwell King traces Rogers’s personal, professional, and artistic life through decades of work, including a surprising decision to walk away from the show to make television for adults, only to return to the neighborhood with increasingly sophisticated episodes, written in collaboration with experts on childhood development. An engaging story, rich in detail, The Good Neighbor is the definitive portrait of a beloved figure, cherished by multiple generations.