Article by Susan Harrison Wolffis
Sometimes, a cartoon is just a cartoon.
A million laughs, maybe more; a momentary escape from the world as we know it.
But that’s not all cartoons are good for – although who doesn’t laugh at the antics of a rabbit cracking wise, chewing on a carrot like your favorite uncle worked his favorite cigar?
Certainly not our resident funny guy Tim Wheeler, author of the popular “Obstructed View” humor column, and selfconfessed devotee of all things cartoon.
In Wheeler’s creative hands, cartoons turn into something even bigger than laughs. They become conversation starters for kids, counselors and classroom teachers tackling some of today’s toughest issues – cyber-bullying, being the last one picked, divorce, hunger, being overscheduled, moving to a new school, truancy.
“Wildly serious stuff, I know,” Wheeler says.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, Wheeler believes the way to get at each and every one of those subjects is through laughter.
“It’s a vehicle to get us through,” he says.
A dad of two and volunteer youth soccer coach, Wheeler sees first hand just what kinds of stresses kids face on a daily basis when he goes into classrooms to teach writing and inspire students to create scripts, stories and radio shows. And because he so wholeheartedly believes in the transformative power of laughter, he knows sometimes the very best way to get kids to talk is through humor.
“The last thing kids like is an adult in their face, all serious, asking ‘What’s wrong?’ or an adult doing all of the talk. (Kids) shut right down,” Wheeler says.
So in April 2016, Wheeler put his creative juices into overdrive and introduced a series of cartoons he dreamed up and named “Rocketoons,” short animated films featuring a quirky cast of characters including talking pumpkins, one-celled creatures, lab rats and lizards.
“The beauty of this is that the (Rocketoon characters) can lead us to what’s going wrong in kids’ lives, and then they can get the help they need,” Wheeler says.
How? By bringing up a topic – maybe it’s how mom and dad fight every night, maybe it’s nowhere to sleep, maybe it’s a parent deployed and at war – and letting the kids respond first to the cartoon, then to the subject at hand.
Some of the first audiences to see Rocketoons were the kids and teachers in Reeths-Puffer Public Schools, but Wheeler dreamed of a larger viewership – more kids getting help.
“Childhood is a neighborhood where we should all be safe,” he says.
In January, Wheeler announced that the cartoon series is now available to every classroom in every school – public, private, parochial and charter – in Muskegon, Oceana, Newaygo and Mason counties, thanks to the financial support and partnership of Hackley Community Care and Mercy Health.
Wheeler wrote and directed each episode with what he calls the 21st Century classroom in mind. Teachers don’t have a lot of extra time in the day, he says, so each episode is short – only three minutes long. Each episode is full of the Common Core requirements demanded of today’s curriculum. Each comes complete with questions, facts and carefully researched resources. And each episode is aimed at kids as young as first grade and as advanced as high school seniors.
Shari Krukowski, who teaches fourth grade at Reeths-Puffer Elementary School, loves the effect Rocketoons has on the nine- and 10-year-olds in her classroom. The slightly goofy cartoon characters and the non-preachy tone of each episode opens up conversations, she says.
“It bridges a gap,” she says. “We can communicate a little better.”
Kids today live with on-going stress that can seriously affect their emotional, mental and physical health. Of course, each generation of youngsters has faced difficult issues – but the 21st Century kids have something their elders never had. They are “constantly engaged … constantly aware of today’s worries” because of the internet, Wheeler says. That chronic worry takes its toll, he says.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re worried … or they’re hungry or they didn’t get any sleep,” he says.
Wheeler, who writes and directs the episodes from Wheeler Creative Studios in the Muskegon area, works with a cast and crew from around the country. When he sits down, pen and paper in hand, he tackles each topic with more than one child in mind.
For instance, in the episode on bullying, of course, he writes it so a child who is being bullied has the opportunity to open up – to the whole class or in private with teacher or counselor. But Wheeler also has the bully in mind.
What’s going on in that child’s life that would make him or her a bully?
“We don’t always know what’s going on in kids’ lives when they’re away from school,” Wheeler says, “but we know we can make a difference if we can talk about it.”
And if along the way, a child can laugh – just a little – even better.
Rocketoons is now nine for nine in awards competition. It has won six Videographer awards and three AVA awards for outstanding writing and animation.
For more information or to get a sneak peak at a Rocketoon, visit www.wheelercreativestudios.com or www.rocketoons.com. Educators in Muskegon, Oceana, Newaygo and Mason counties can contact Wheeler about the Rocketoon series.