Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dissecting SpongeBob

There’s a very important question that all children’s book writers should contemplate. It is this: What makes SpongeBob SquarePants so appealing?



To answer this question is to unlock one of the secrets of the universe. I mean, who could have predicted that a yellow sponge with a whiny voice and googly-eyes living at the bottom of the sea would end-up revered by kids everywhere? I believe it’s imperative we figure this guy out. He's not only popular, he's a multi-millionaire. And as much as he might sometimes annoy us grown-up folk, we’d best become familiar with the distinguished Mr. SpongeBob if we want to create our own characters for children that have lasting appeal.

I’ve decided I could write a treatise on SpongeBob, but I’ll just share a few observations:

1. First of all, he’s child-like. He not only looks innocent and gullable, but he also approaches things like a kid. This is an important trait for the main character in a picture book, in my view. After all, children don't identify much with adults. Not really. When kids hear stories about adults, there’s usually a lesson hiding in there somewhere. And no--that will never do. Kids want to hear about what other kids are doing. They don’t want to be taught, lectured, or preached to, at least not in their bedtime stories. And I don't think they care all that much about the plight of grown-ups, unless those grown-ups are pirates or superheroes or live on another planet. Children have already observed real-live adults functioning in the real-live adult world, and it’s a boring enough existence to be avoided as long as possible. Ask Peter Pan.


2. Second, he's got intriguing characters to interact with, and an interesting setting to live in. His boss, Mr. Crabs, has a daughter who is (quite literally, well--in a cartoony reality) a whale. And SpongeBob’s friend, Sandy, is a squirrel who wears a diver’s helmet so she can hang out with him beneath the sea. His best friend Patrick is a starfish with the brain of a slug. The sheer unpredictability/strangeness of the characters, environment, and situations lends itself to a whole lot of fun surprises. Anything is possible. And yet, there’s just enough similarity to real life (friendships, jobs, bummers) to give it an anchor.


3. Third, he's the hero of his own universe. It's not easy being a sponge in a wacky underwater world. Everything SpongeBob does seems to get messed up somehow. This is a universal experience all kids have. (All people have it, but for kids it’s a way of life.) “I’m trying to do something, and it’s not working.” Or, “I’m trying to do something but something weird happened instead." And yet, with a little stick-to-itiveness, everything turns out fine... in a bizarre, unexpected kind of way. That's just life, even in Bikinni Bottom.


4. Fourth, he has exaggerated emotions. SpongeBob laughs, cries, yells, pouts, whines, feels sorry for himself, cheers, loves, and even gets sick. He lets us see exactly what he's going through, and in a big way. Kids can relate to his overblown emotions. And we know what he longs for and thinks about most, since he hides nothing. We know he dreams of getting a promotion, and he hangs on to this hope despite a whole lot of disappointment. That's heroic, too.


5. Fifth, he’s funny. And humor is such an appealing trait. SpongeBob is funny because he’s not afraid to be genuinely himself no matter how strange things gets. He’s funny because of his quirks--his nasal voice and his buggy eyes and his ability to expand or squish himself into silly shapes. He’s funny because he’s naïve and vulnerable. And he’s funny because--let’s face it—everybody has seen his underwear.

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