Liberty’s Kids – A Revolutionary Concept

Age Levels targeted: 7-15

Background
Liberty’s Kids is a PBS kids show that originally ran in the 2002-3 season before being replaced by Cyberchase, the math program I reviewed awhile back. It was later run in syndication in various places.

Liberty’s Kids tells the story of America’s birth as a nation through the eyes of three young reporters who work for Benjamin Franklin in his newspaper business. In this respect it’s reminiscent of the old Peanuts series This is America, Charlie Brown, the 1960s series The Time Tunnel, and even the Warner Brothers series Histeria!, all of which I intend to review in the future.

An animated series, Liberty’s kids features numerous celebrity voices led by Walter Cronkite as Benjamin Franklin. Other notable actors who lent their voices to the characters of the series include Billy Crystal, Ben Stiller, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone.

There were plans in the works at one point for a followup series on the US civil war but as of this time those plans have yet to come to fruition, which is a shame as its handling of the Revolutionary war period is so well done.

Overview of the show

From the Boston tea party, at which the first rebel blow is struck by colonists dressed as Native Americans, the series follows the events of the revolution, constantly placing our heroes at the heart of the action. As reporters for Franklin’s newspaper, they try to objectively report what they’re seeing and learning though often struggling with their own personal subjectivity and previously held assumptions.

The characters are constantly coming in contact with famous figures of the revolution at a time when they’re engaged in playing an integral part in the events of the struggle against England.

The Main Characters

Sarah Phillips
Sarah is a kindly but opinionated young lady of fifteen years of age who travels by herself to America from England in 1773 just as the events that will develop into the revolutionary war are beginning to unfold. She has come to search for her father, a British officer who was last said to be in the Ohio area.
Sarah is hosted by her mother’s good friend, the already famous inventor and writer Dr. Benjamin Franklin. With a potential war looming between her mother country and America Sarah decides to go to work for Dr. Franklin’s newspaper in order to balance out the reporting she feels is too one sided in favor of the Americans. Coming from an upper class English social background Sarah begins the series as a staunch loyalist, faithful to king and country. However as the series progresses and Sarah becomes more acclimatized to her surroundings she undergoes a reevaluation of her opinions and realizes that not everything King George does is right and the colonists aren’t always wrong, eventually adopting the revolution as her own cause and America as the place where her future lies, as we can see below in this clip from the episoide ‘The Great Galvez’

Sarah, it is suggested throughout the series has a developing relationship with James. At first they are constantly at loggerheads; the faithful loyalist and the hotheaded patriot. But as Sarah falls for America so she appears to gain affection for James who stands for a belief in a independent America. Ultimately, Sarah’s whole family ends up in America as Sarah completes her metamorphosis from English monarchist to independent Republican.

James Hiller
James Hiller is an orphan boy that Dr. Franklin has apprenticed to himself in the print shop. James is a fierce believer in the colonies campaign to gain their independence and this tends to inform his writing, making for a highly subjective point of view. This is the case to such a great extent that Sarah decides to stay on at the print shop as a reporter primarily for the sake of balancing out James subjectivity.

James attempts at all times to be the leader, the ‘man of the group’, displaying a protectiveness of the younger Henri and of Sarah who despite being older is a woman at an age before women’s rights have come into mode. It’s shown throughout the series that he bears a certain romantic fondness for Sarah which is likely returned beneath their external philosophical squabbling about the war.

In the course of his experiences reporting for Dr. Franklin, James is forced to deal with facts about the revolutionary side that aren’t always to his taste. Presented with certain truths he, like Sarah, learns to question and reevaluate his initial assumptions. While he never loses his patriotism, he does become aware of harsh realities that patriotism brings with it such as the tendency of some people to feign patriotism as an excuse to commit evil indiscriminately. By the time the series ends, James has plans to start his own newspaper which will carry an objective view of events without being blinded by overconfident zeal.

Henri LeFevbre

Henri is the young sidekick of the group, a figure greatly reminiscent of Moki, the nomad sidekick in Hanna Barbera’s Children’s Bible series.  Henri left France for the colonies with his parents but they died on the trip over and Henri was exploited by the captain of the ship he traveled in who overworked the boy until Moses and James rescued him, sneaking him off the ship and hiding him at Dr. Franklin’s place where he became a worker in the print shop. Although he already speaks French, Dr. Franklin insisted that he learn to read, speak and write in both his native tongue and English. Despite this, Henri’s greatest desire throughout the series is for a family of his own to replace his deceased parents. He bonds with his friends at the print shop and one could certainly argue that they establish a family unit with him as the little brother. Ultimately, he becomes the ward of the Marquis de Lafayette, France’s liaison to the Continental Army and therefore perhaps the most important, and certainly best known, French figure of the American Revolution. Lafayette takes Henri back to his native France but not before he’s had a good grounding in theories of democracy, individual rights, and the importance of independence.

Henri’s youth and innocence tends to get him entangled in all sorts of scrapes from which his friends then have to extract him. On the other hand his diminutive stature is often useful to the trio in getting to places to which an adult could not gain access. As with Moki, whose limited knowledge of history and Bible allow Derek and Margot to provide background in those areas,  Henri’s innocence with regard to the war is a useful device the show has for allowing Sarah and James to explain the events unfolding to the tv audience in a natural way. As time goes on Henri begins to grasp the importance of the war and in the episode ‘James Armistead’ even becomes a member of the continental army’s drum and bugle corps.
Moses
Moses is a native African brought to America by traders and sold as a slave. His metal forging skills, however, combined with a lenient southern master, allowed him to buy his freedom and escape the Southern states, making his way northward till eventually he arrives in Philadelphia. In the episode ‘Yorktown’ we learn that Moses’ brother had not been as lucky. He does manage to escape slavery, but only by joining the British army to fight against the colonists.


Moses’ great intelligence has allowed him to learn to read as well, making him a useful worker at Dr. Franklin’s print shop.

Moses, as the always present adult figure (Benjamin Franklin is often not present, being called off to other parts of the country and even abroad on business and political ventures) keeps a responsible eye on Dr. Franklin’s young work crew, especially the mischievous Henri with whom he feels a bond of kinship based on their mutual experience of enslavement (Moses in the South and Henri by the captain of the ship that brought him to the colonies).

Moses’ greatest wish, a plan revealed only to Dr. Franklin, is to set up a coeducational school for children of all racs and colors where he can teach them the importance of human dignity and freedom. Moses sees his work at the print shop as a springboard for fulfilling his aspirations on several levels. Firstly, it will allow him to save the funds necessary to understake such an ambitious venture. Secondly, it gives him an environment in which to put his educational theories into practice, molding young minds to understand the importance of human dignity and personal independence. Most importantly, however, is that the minds in question are those of young up and coming newspaper reporters who as they come into their own will write the opinion pieces that will shape the way the infant nation thinks about freedom and human rights.

Academic skills the show teaches
The main academic lessons to be learned from this series are obviously in the field of history; specifically American and 18th Century History.
In addition to this however there are other academic advantages to be drawn from the show. Firstly, of course is Geography. The characters move around to different places in the colonies and thus learn the history not just of the time and situation but also of the places that played a relevant part.
In addition, the show introduces to children skills such as critical thinking and the art of debate and offers them topics of discussion upon which to hone those skills. Often the characters themselves carry out a debate but that doesn’t mean your child won’t find their job complete and you may well find them ready to weigh in on either side of the argument.

Social skills the show teaches
This show is a goldmine of lessons in social interaction at two levels. First there are the interrelations among the fictional heroes of the show. The characters constantly look out for each other, and get each other out of dangerous situations. Their regular disagreements on various issues, contains valuable lessons in conflict management. Generally, despite being in disagreement they manage to mutually come to an accepted state of disagreement from which your kids can learn that just because two people hold conflicting views on an issue, even an important one, it doesn’t mean that they can’t remain friends. At other times, they do get carried away in anger at each other. However, the subsequent reconciliation teaches kids the mature approach to conflict resolution. They learn that it’s important to be a big person and admit when you’re wrong and reflect on why you reacted the way you did. They also learn the problem with jumping to conclusions about people and their actions. Things aren’t always as they initially appear and that an entire story can change seen from a different perspective or with additional information.  This clip is a case in point

Then there are the social lessons to be learned by the events of the revolution themselves as issues of self preservation conflict with loyalty to one’s nation and people have tough choices to make. Weighty issues such as the meaning of freedom, the morality of slaveholding and basic human rights are debated giving your children room to weigh in with their own opinions on these issues. In addition, semi-fictional events are portrayed (by semi-fictional, I mean events that didn’t necessarily take place as portrayed in the show but are the kinds of things that happened at the time) which create room for debate.

Site Review

Liberty’s Kids is a well thought out series, perfect for introducing the Revolutionary War to your kids. The animated format and compelling personal stories of the heroes are on a simple friendly level that captures one’s attention. At the same time your kids are introduced by the heroes to the complex political machinations setting the war in motion and the ideals driving the American cause. While the target audience is 2nd9th graders, adults stand to learn a lot from this series as well and this is one series you’re likely to enjoy watching with your kids for your sake and not just for theirs.

My kids review
My kids enjoyed this series, especially my oldest son who responds particularly well to history programs. My daughter who tends to prefer science, was slower to get into it but once engaged in the program was keen to go on watching episode after episode. Both were disappointed when they found out that the program had come to an end. Then I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d read there were plans for a similar program about the civil war and as it has yet to come out they’ve been reminding me about it ever since.

Anecdotal
One of the delightful things about this show is the opportunity to see historical figures interacting with each other and seen through the eyes of others. When we watched the program this reminded us all of our visit to Franklin Court in Philadelphia, the home of Benjamin Franklin during his lifetime and now a tribute museum to his life’s work. One of the most enjoyable things for me as a kid there, and now for my own kids, was the phones there. There is a large hall in which there are rows and rows of phones and a ‘telephone directory’ with the ‘phone numbers’ of all sorts of famous individuals who interacted with Franklin during his lifetime. Watching this program, according to my kids, was ‘like having those phones come to life in a story’

Similar shows
This is America, Charlie Brown, Once Upon a Time…Man, The Time Tunnel, The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible, Histeria, Little House on the Prairie

Once Upon a Time…Man

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Once upon a time…Man is better known by its original French title Il était une fois… l’homme. An animated series, it was produced by Albert Barillé.in 1978 and is without a doubt one of the most thorough and engaging reviews of western history I have ever seen. I say this speaking as someone who believes very strongly that kids knowledge of their national history ought to be further rounded out by a broader knowledge of world history. While the fact that the show is presented in an animated form to better engage children’s interest might cause one to be dismissive at first, the content is anything but abridged as the series methodically traces the history of western civilization from its earliest eastern origins through its expansion westward. It is thereby not only completely suitable for adults but even recommended.
Admittedly there does appear to be a strong Eurocentric focus (this is French made after all) to the series but without a bias in favor of any specific country (which is impressive considering that the show was produced long before the existence of the EU which might be presumed to have influence in such a show produced today. Moreover, despite the considerable amount of time spent on Europe there is a great deal of attention paid elsewhere as well when showing the shows roots and to be fair much of the development of Western civilization, both positive and negative did happen in Europe. The series doesn’t, as one might expect, end in our age but actually goes on to project what the future will likely be like based on present developments and trends and deals with such issues as ecological decimation, space travel, wars, and disappearing resources.
Overview of the show:
The show’s two minute opening segment is backed by a rendition of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach. The segment’s finale, the earth’s destruction is timed to coincide with the Tocata’s striking ending.

The show then proceeds to cover a broad spectrum of events taking place around the globe in a temporally linear and geographically western direction. The events are shown through the point of view of a collection of characters who appear repeatedly throughout the series, taking on relevantly archetypal roles in different times and places. This achieves two things. Firstly it allows us to get to know the characters throughout the series, even if on some level they’re also meant to be different people living at a different time. Secondly it enables the creators to suggest that even as things change in the world in many basic ways they remain the same with the same types of people undergoing variations of the same types of experiences, trials and tribulations from one generation and geographic location to the next. The events portrayed are those that would later have proven to have had major effects on the world’s history. The events are covered on a year by year basis, thereby promoting a broad understanding of what the world was like at this time and what social, political, religious, scientific and other event shaping currents were affecting the world at any given time.

The series covers the various events from a highly objective point of view. It takes into account both scientific and religious developments without making a judgment in favor of either side. Beginning with the Big Bang, we’re taken through the scientifically posited stages of evolution, and prehistoric times, on through the early days of civilizations with its religious beliefs, rituals and figures. Although there were countries that had problems with the shows representations (primarily those where the church was strong and took exception to both evolution and the depictions of the church in the Middle Ages) both evolution and religion are handled sensitively throughout. Muhammad, for example, is always portrayed from behind out of respect for the Islamic belief that it is sacrilegious to draw pictures of him. Evolution is presented as part of the historical matrix without dwelling on its scientific basis while the religious events are also handled from a purely historical point of view. Events such as the birth of Jesus and Muhammad’s ascension in the Arab world being looked at from the point of view of how those events affected geopolitical events and not in terms of Xmas celebrations or final prophets. The series then moves westward and onward until finally it is looking into the future and forecasting mankind’s fate as time marches on.

The Main Characters
As mentioned in the overview (above), Once Upon a Time… Man features a set collection of archetypal characters that repeat their existences in different places and settings throughout time. This technique is common to History series, and we can see a similar use of it in the humorous educational series Histeria!, which I plan on discussing in another piece, the idea presumably being that every age has its archetypal figures that assume the same or similar relationship towards the events being portrayed. The main figures in Once Upon a Time… Man are:
• Maestro – He is portrayed as a elderly wise man with a beard so long he frequently hides objects in it or takes objects out from it. He has long white hair that almost completely covers him. He generally holds a position of power or influence without being the main power holder (after all these are meant to be archetypal figures of centrality but the actuial positions of power were held in every age by real recorded historical figures). He generally serves in a religious, royal court or other political position.

He is also often to be found in a teaching role, instructing the young in a variety of subjects.
• Le Gros (Jumbo) – Jumbo is a strong redheaded young fellow whose best friend is Peter (see below). A hulk of a person, with tremendous strength, albeit a bit on the clumsy side, Jumbo frequently is called upon to help defend Peter and Pierrette from the evildoers in the community.
• Pierre (Peter) – Peter is a good looking and brave fellow, the archetype of the good person.
• Young Jumbo and Young Peter – the characters mentioned above occasionally have younger versions of themselves that appear at times in the series in order to follow typical maturation process of a person of the era being dealt with as we see them grow from children to teens. Young Jumbo and Pierrot are cousins and young Jumbo is his cousin’s guardian against bullies.
• Nabot (The Dwarf) – Nabot, the dwarf with the evil little laugh, is ‘The Pest’s friend and fellow bully. He is weaker than The Pest but more intelligent and calculating. One can count on the two of them to ignite an argument among the kids.
• Le Teigneux (The Pest) – ‘The Dwarf”s friend, this big powerful bully always likes to attack and pick on others. Luckily, he is offset by Jumbo who is stronger than he is and provides a counterforce to his behavior. The Pest and the Dwarf always fill the roles of negative archetypal characters. At their best they’re provocateurs, naysayers or duplicitous. At their worst they portray the killers, plotters, treasonous louts or other similarly degenerate character types that have existed throughout history.
• Psi – Dark haired Psi is the archetypal nice, kind young girl. She generally fills the role of her male counterpart Peter’s girlfriend or wife.
• Pierrette – Blonde Pierrette is an archetypal nice, kind young woman. She is generally cast in the role of Jumbo’s wife or Peter’s mother.
• The Clock – The Clock appears to show the years as the events unfold. Generally it’s just a clock but at time it takes on anthropomorphic tendencies and adapts itself, taking an interest in the events being shown or expressing annoyance if too great a gap appears in the historical narrative.
In addition to the repeating characters, every generation has its actual major historical characters that are key players on the world scene for that generation. Sometimes the characters above play those figures, such as young Peter and Pest facing off as David and Goliath. At other times these historical figures have their own individual characters and appear only in their historical context.
What Your child can learn from the show:
Obviously the main thing your kids (and you) will learn from this show is history; specifically the history of Western civilization. In addition to this however, one also learns some geography simply as a result of seeing which countries are arguing over what borders. On the social side the use of a repeating cast of archetypal characters in each period makes the show a useful tool for parents to show how different people react to the same situation as well as how the same person reacts in different situations and to consider how times and circumstances affect people’s behavior.

Site review:
Once Upon a Time… Man is wonderful in that it lets you actually see history as it unfolds. Think of those “this year in review” type shows that news stations now routinely do at the end of December and then (while albeit shrinking the number of events you might see for a given year) expand that to include all of Western history from its early roots in the east to its expansion westward to Europe and the Americas.

Another impressive feature of this show, is its objective approach to history. Rather than taking a moral stand, as many historians are wont to do when reviewing events, the show carefully attempts to steer clear of judgment. Every set of countries, cultures and ethnicities display a set of prejudices and fears, and are motivated by goals and desires that are shown to be not that different from those of their (often constantly changing) enemies and friends. Rather than attempting to create some sort of polarized view of Western history the creators offer us a holistic view of the various periods and allow us to see the positive and negative inherent in the various events.

My kids review:
My kids have constantly watched and rewatched this series ever since their mother got it for them. This was actually a series that she had grown up with and that I was unfamiliar with until she brought home the DVDs. While this is a rare occurrence with us I was thrilled that thanks to her I discovered it at all. Once Upon a Time… Man wasn’t well known in the US (perhaps because of the Eurocentricism) and so I missed out on it in my youth. My older son who’s very into anything to do with history (and even if only for what it has given him I’m planning a review of Little House on the Prairie for this site somewhere down the road) especially took to it and made sure we got all the DVDs available. All the older kids especially liked the group of archetypal characters and discuss them in different situations amongst themselves, laughing at the amusing parts and saying things like “you remember when the big good guy did such and such.”

Anecdotal:

My son was so taken by the history series, that he naturally gravitated towards the medical series Once Upon a Time…Life put out by the same people in the same style. Instead of going to soccer or basketball camp, my little jock has been begging all year to go to “young doctors camp” this summer. When a talented athletic third grader begs to spend his summer doing things like dissecting pig’s hearts and lungs (yes they really did that among other things) you know that something’s made a strong impression on him. Clearly the producers of these series know how to capture a child’s imagination.

Similar shows
Once upon a time… life, Liberty’s Kids, This is America, Charlie Brown, Histeria!, Schoolhouse Rock