We are honored to have Tone Thyne on the blog today. Tone is the co-creator of The Adventures of Napkin Man, a new show just added to Minno! Take a few minutes and enjoy this conversation about children’s media, social-emotional learning, and how the right delivery of powerful messages can help kids make the world a better place.
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Tone, thank you so much for being here. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in the world of kid’s media.
My name is Tone Thyne and I live in the Boston, Massachusetts area. I’m currently the VP of Creative at Fablevision Studios, but I’ve been working in children’s television for about 20 years now. I started as an animator and cut my teeth at Walt Disney Feature Animation, working on several films that you’d probably recognize: The Lion King, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Toy Story, among others. I was there for about 12 years and it was great! I loved being there and I learned a ton about making content from beginning to end. But I had always had a dream of working in kids’ TV. I was the generation that grew up on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was in the target demo for those shows in their early days.
And so, naturally, I was very inspired by what I saw growing up and I always had a dream of passing that on to other generations. I left Disney in 2001 to chase my dream of working in kids’ TV and that move brought me to New York. I animated a couple of segments for Sesame Street and then began working with Josh Selig, the owner of Little Airplane Productions. I worked with Josh for another 12 years and got to work on some really amazing projects. Together we co-created The Adventures of Napkin Man.
Wow! I want to hear more about all the other amazing shows you’ve been a part of but I know we’re here to talk about The Adventures of Napkin Man, so we’ll get to that and we might have to have you back to talk about the other shows and movies. So why kids’ media? What brought you that passion for creating fun shows and experiences for kids?
At Little Airplane we would often say that it’s a privilege to create meaningful content for a distinguished audience, and that’s so true. By creating quality kids programming, we are able to be teachers, moving the world to a better place. We can speak to children directly and help form their opinions about kindness and how to treat other people, and about coping with feelings. It’s such a powerful opportunity to be able to help our world. And so, I could see how that impacted me at a young age, and as I started to grow up, I realized, “Wow, I’ve got the ability to do that for others as well.” So I’m thankful every day that I’m in the field that I’m in, and thankful for the gifts that I have to be able to do it well.
I love that. We feel the same way at Minno. Just really privileged to be doing what we’re doing. I love that you said, “a distinguished audience,” because most people wouldn’t use those words when referring to kids, but as people passionate about teaching kids and pouring into their lives, thinking of them as a distinguished audience is really cool.
We’re so excited to have The Adventures of Napkin Man on Minno, and we’re all curious to know how you came up with a napkin superhero. Where did that idea originate?
It started like every great idea starts, on a napkin. I had drawn a little sketch on a piece of watercolor paper that had the texture of a napkin. And I had given it to Josh while I was at Little Airplane and he was immediately inspired by the drawing. It boomeranged right back to me with a little note card that said, “The Drippy Adventures of Napkin Man.” Josh immediately had an idea about a superhero character that was drawn on a napkin to help kids. And so we took that idea and we put it on the shelf and let it just sit there and age like a good cheese.
When Josh and I decided to create a social-emotional show to talk about feelings we put our heads together about what that show could look like. That’s when we dusted off that napkin from way back when. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could use this character somehow to help kids talk about feelings?”
So it eventually became a story about a preschool teacher who would draw this character onto the napkin to tell allegories for the kids that were in his class dealing with certain issues. When I was in kindergarten, I had an artistic teacher. At storytime, rather than reading books to the students the way that most teachers do, he would use this large pad of paper. As he would tell a story, he would be drawing different pictures as if they were illustrations in this book of his. At the end of storytime, he would hand out those pictures to all the kids.
I remember the day that I got the picture from the story. I treasured it. And so, we made a point in the show for Mr. Anthony to always give the napkin to the kid at the end of the story, as a little nod to my teacher. Take a little piece of that story home with you and remember it.
That is awesome. I mean, it’s incredible to think of how that teacher’s act influenced your life, even subconsciously, just the way that he drew those stories, and then you became an illustrator. That’s really cool.
It’s wonderful in Napkin Man, to see the way Mr. Anthony gently deals with the children and interacts with them. It’s so fun to hear those kids say big words. I always love it when the kids struggle to say “embarrassed” or “overly excited.” But they’re like, “Yeah, that’s what I am!” So it’s is really amazing for all those dots to connect through the show.
Well, let’s talk about social-emotional learning for kids. Can you talk about the significance of that or why that’s important for kids in a preschool setting to learn such big words to understand their feelings?
Our show, The Adventures of Napkin Man, is targeted for three to five-year-olds, but of course, kids younger and kids older can certainly appreciate it. Our hope is the entire family will be able to glean something from it. But that three to five-year-old sweet spot viewer is really dealing with a lot of feelings. Maybe sometimes new feelings and they don’t yet realize that other people have those same feelings. One of the great virtues of Mister Rogers’ was that he was a grownup that would tell kids, “Sometimes I have those feelings, too. Sometimes I get sad or sometimes I get mad.” And a kid finds such great comfort in knowing that they’re not the only ones that are going through this. And especially, even grownups have those feelings, too.
What we try to do with The Adventures of Napkin Man and other shows that have a social-emotional curriculum, is to focus on identifying what the feeling is and then offering some coping mechanisms for those feelings. So in other words, I have these butterflies in my stomach and then somebody might go and say, “Oh, you might be just feeling a little bit nervous”, or “you might just be feeling a little anxious” so you can actually help the child identify their feelings. If it has a name, then it’s a real thing that other people might have as well.
And then the coping mechanisms . . . in the show we always have a physical response—maybe Mr. Anthony shows a child how to do a “bear stretch” or something like that to encourage something physical that the kids can do. But also the Napkin Man story that Mr. Anthony tells acts as an allegory to help kids see themselves in the story. This helps them cope with their situation, whether it’s something to deal with immediately in the classroom, or when they leave the class and go back home. The show is really about identifying feelings and offering a coping mechanism for those feelings.
We try to make the education in the show like the spinach that you chop up in the blender and sneak into a milkshake. We don’t want kids to taste that it’s in there. We’re telling engaging and entertaining stories, it’s certainly not a film strip teaching emotions and feelings.
Right. And just giving the kids words, as you said, is so important, just so they have that vocabulary and they know it’s all new. It’s awesome to give them a guide and give them words and then give them actions.
So what types of shows or media do you feel can make the most positive impact on a child’s development? What have you seen that’s really connected with kids and made a difference in their growth?
The thing that kids content creators strive to do is to make sure that the kids can see themselves in the content. They need to be able to recognize themselves. Even fantastical, non-human characters can have traits kids can identify as something that they either do or recognize or feel. Then they can take that lesson that we’re trying to teach them in the show and apply it to their lives.
The shows that do that the best are the ones that are the most impactful for this audience. I remember a story I told Josh in the early days of Napkin Man. I had a young daughter who had a birthday party with a bunch of three-year-olds. I took a whole bunch of pictures because I wanted to capture the moment. When I looked at the pictures afterward, the photos didn’t really capture the essence of the joy of the party. There was a disconnect between what I was looking at in the photos and what I remember experiencing.
When the next event came with a bunch of kids I got down on my knee and I took the photos with the camera down on the kids level. It was shocking to see how much better all those pictures came out because I was in the party with the kids. I wasn’t an adult looking down on these children. When I think about the show that inspired Napkin Man the most, which is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I think, Fred Rogers used to do this so well. There’s this very famous clip of him talking to a child in a wheelchair.
If you watch that clip, Mister Rogers literally gets down on his knee and he talks to the child so that he’s face-to-face. And that’s really what we need to do for effective children’s media is to come down on the level of the kids, instead of talking down to them the way that maybe you might see if you’re taking a picture. We need to come down. And so if you watch Napkin Man you’ll see that we intentionally put the camera down on the level of the children. So when you look at Mr. Anthony, you’re looking up to him actually because the camera’s down on the table level or down on the level of the children.
That’s really powerful and so thoughtful. What a difference that small detail can make for a child’s motivation to engage.
So, how has your personal faith impacted the media you produce for kids? Minno is a faith-based company and although Napkin Man is not explicitly faith-based, we believe that it’s important for kids to understand the way God made them and to understand their feelings. And we try to help kids and families see God and their faith in many things, not just Bible stories, but all stories. And so, how would you say that your personal faith has impacted the media that you’ve made for kids?
I grew up Catholic and I think there is a very fine line between the values the Catholic or the Protestant Christian faith conveys and what we’re trying to teach children—about being better people, appreciating the gifts that they have, taking care of their body, and how to deal with family. There’s probably a one-to-one parallel between many children’s media topic and a Bible story and certainly the teachings of Jesus. It’s interesting to me that Mr. Anthony tells parables. Although we didn’t set out to make a Jesus figure, there’s a clear connection to Jesus. Mr. Anthony is always by the side of the child that’s having problems. Who’s always by your side when you’re having problems? And Mr. Anthony is a gentle teacher. Who’s a gentle teacher?
Children’s media endeavors to move the world to a better place. And that’s what we try to do with our faith, as well.
Yeah, that’s awesome. And I think kids, their interaction, their relationship with grownups really impacts the way that they relate to this ominous Father God that we share with them. So that’s really powerful to look at it that way.
What do you hope parents and kids gain from watching The Adventures of Napkin Man? What would you like for them to take away?
I really would love for our viewers to recognize situations that the kids on screen are in and say, “Hey, that happens to me sometimes too.” And whether it’s Mr. Anthony talking about it, or whether it’s the kids talking about it on the show, we’re really looking for a sense of relatability so that the kids can walk away from the show and implement some of the things that they’ve learned from Mr. Anthony in their own life as well.
That’s how the show can help benefit children but I’m also hoping that adults will watch the show with the kids and see interesting ways to talk with kids, and how to come down on the level of the child and how to talk with them. We want to help grownups remember to not dismiss a child’s feelings, but to validate them and to help them work through them. And so, really what I’m hoping that the show does is take those situations that you’re watching on the screen and bring them into the home.
That’s so important. Okay, before you go, we want to know, besides The Adventures of Napkin Man, of course, what are two of your other favorite shows that you’ve been a part of creating?
Josh, who co-created Napkin Man with me, also created a show called The Wonder Pets, which ran for several years on Nickelodeon, and that’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I’m so proud of the work that we did on that show. The show is about the virtues of teamwork and working together. Viewers can glean lessons they can take into their everyday life—creative problem solving, helping people, and working as a team.
One of the most interesting things about The Wonder Pets is that each episode is a mini-opera. 11 minutes of wall-to-wall music and characters singing all of the dialogue. I love that show and I love the impact that the show has seemed to have had on generations.
Another something that had a real impact on me was my time at Walt Disney Feature Animation. When you work at a place like that, you’re working on evergreen content that will have an impact around the world. I was there at the new renaissance of animation and it was an honor to be there. I remember walking into an animator’s office who was designing Timon from The Lion King and the different versions of what that character might have looked like. Then, 30 years later, to walk into a gift shop and see a stuffed animal of that same character is super cool. It reminds me that the content that we create has the power to travel around the world and to touch the lives of people globally. What an awesome opportunity it is to be in the field that I am. We can move the world to a better place and we can encourage people to make their mark and to do the same.
It truly is a privilege. Well, we’re super excited, Tone, to have The Adventures of Napkin Man on Minno. We are so thankful to have content to share with kids that’s really positive and really safe and life-changing like you said. So, I’m thrilled and honored to have your work on the platform to share with Minno families, and now your insight and your words as well.
You can watch The Adventures of Napkin Man, streaming now on Minno!
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As VP of Creative at FableVision Studios, Tone oversees Development and Production of the studio’s original animated properties, including television, games, apps, and other digital content. He has acted in the role of Writer, Director, Showrunner, and Executive Producer on several long and short-form projects for Aardman Animation, Sesame Studios, The Dodo, SuperProd, The Boston Pops, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, SpinMaster, and Guru Studios. Tone was Showrunner/Head Writer for the Netflix hit series Go Go Cory Carson; he was Executive Story Consultant on Disney’s Pikwik Pack; and the Supervising Producer for the Emmy award-winning series Wonder Pets! (Nick Jr.). During his eleven years at Walt Disney Feature Animation, Tone contributed to blockbuster films including The Lion King, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Toy Story, among others. He has produced animated projects for Mattel, Nickelodeon, PBS, and SyFy Channel and has animated segments for Sesame Street. Tone is a former board member of the Fred Rogers Center and the co-creator and co-executive producer of the CSA award-winning series The Adventures of Napkin Man!