Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fraction Jackson Has No Use for Special Agent Oso

Some years ago, I wrote a series of children's stories about a character named Fraction Jackson. Donald "Fraction" Jackson was a fifth-grade math whiz who earned a little spending money from helping people work through fraction-related problems. He was a lot like Encyclopedia Brown, except that he dealt in math instead of detective work. I never found a publisher. At the time I knew nothing about the publishing business and made the mistake of sending it only to major publishers. In retrospect, I feel honored that one of these publishers—Dutton, I believe—took the time to personally write me a rejection letter addressing the content of the Fraction Jackson stories. The Dutton editor was concerned that the stories were not realistic; she decided that the idea that adult community and business leaders would have no grasp of basic fractions was too implausible even for children's literature. It was a fair point. Children's stories often ask readers to suspend their disbelief, but suspension of disbelief has its limits.

Actually, the first Fraction Jackson story still lives on the Internet. So you can read it for yourself.

Enter Disney's Special Agent Oso, a cartoon for preschoolers that airs early in the morning on school days. Each episode of Oso involves a small child who faces a dilemma: A child needs to make her bed or brush his teeth or tie her shoes. All of these problems could be quickly solved if the child were to consult with a parent or older sibling. Instead, the title character, a 3-foot-tall anthropomorphic yellow bear, gets involved. Oso is never on the same continent as the child he is tasked to assist; sometimes he's even orbiting the earth in a rocket when he gets the call. Getting Special Agent Oso to the little boy who's having trouble cleaning his room always involves space-age transportation and communications technology.

I won't fault Oso for having its hero travel by bullet train and rocket; the jetpacks and satellites are what makes the show fun. Oso's technology is well within the bounds of what is acceptable for a children's show. The problem with Oso is what happens when the special agent reaches his destination.

Oso, you see, lacks the knowledge and skills to assist any of the children he's been summoned to help. He can't tie shoes or brush teeth or make a bed. He relies on the television audience to do his work for him. Breaking the fourth wall by talking to the viewers and asking them to respond is a children's television staple, but I can think of no other character who is completely helpless without the counsel of his or her audience. Dora and the Little Einstens invite their viewers to participate, but they are always in control. They know the answers to the questions they're asking and the success of their mission never depends on whether a three-year-old is paying attention to the television at a given moment. Go into any elementary school in the country and select a first grader at random. You will have found someone more qualified than Oso to be a special agent.

I'll give Oso some credit. The animation is great, and I'm sure that James Bond fans appreciate the not-so-subtle 007 allusions. But every time I watch Special Agent Oso I ask myself, "How could anyone argue that Fraction Jackson is too implausible to publish when Disney is willing to invest in a show about a special agent who has access to world-class technology despite having no discernible skills?"


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