Meet a New York City Mom with both bark and bite! In 1996, Traci Paige Johnson co-created the Nickelodeon hit, Blue’s Clues (and performed Blue’s voice, too!), and this spring, she’s coming out with a brand new app, Yummiloo, to teach your preschoolers healthy eating habits.
Be the first of your friends to check out an exclusive “Rainbow Power” preview here, and read on to find out what it’s like to juggle raising your own kids while entertaining other people’s, how to get any kiddo to love vegetables, and Traci’s secret life as a blue puppy!
Red Tricycle: How did you come to co-create – and voice – Blue’s Clues?
Traci Paige Johnson: It was a few years after I graduated from college, and I was doing some work for Nickelodeon animating stories written by kids. Through the grapevine, I heard that Nick Jr. wanted to create a “game show” for preschoolers; they were putting a creative team together, and I interviewed for the position. Being a motivated freelancer, I interviewed and networked all the time. But I remember leaving this particular interview really inspired – just bursting with ideas. I sat right down and wrote twelve pages of thoughts, storylines, characters, set designs and philosophies. I submitted them along with a thank you note I wrote on the back of a pizza box (a trademark of mine during my early freelance days). A short time later, Nick Jr. called back and said they’d love to have me on the team. My co-creators and I developed the concept of Blue’s Clues over the next six months. There wasn’t a lot of money for the pilot, so when it came time to voice the character of Blue, we actually went around the room to see which one of us could bark! I guess I had the best bark, because I went ahead and voiced the pilot. We had every intention of recasting the voice with professional talent once we went to series, but by then, my voice had become so emotionally tied to the animation, that no one else sounded ‘Blue enough.’ My voice stuck! And I’m so happy it did, because it was my favorite part of the job…literally breathing life into Blue. She’s a part of me.
RT: You co-created Blue’s Clues before you had children of your own, and “Super Why!” afterwards. Did you approach the process differently once you became a mom? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
TPJ: I’ve always loved kids and been inspired by them. And from a very early age, I knew I wanted to work in children’s television. I created Blue’s Clues before I had kids, so it was wonderful to bring home all that I had learned about child development while researching the show. Conversely, after being home with my kids, I have so many new ideas for children’s media. For instance, my latest project, Yummiloo, a food adventure series for preschoolers, was born out of my realization, as a mom, that there was no food-related programming for kids that was also entertaining. I can’t say that there’s anything I know now that I wish I’d known then, but as someone who is now a Mom, I’m really excited to connect with other parents more directly and share what I’ve learned while raising three kids of my own.
RT: How do you juggle being a mom with your professional obligations? Do you ever find yourself saying, “No, I can’t play with you now, I have to go play with other kids for work?”
TPJ: It’s wonderful being a mom while working in children’s media, because work and home life constantly intersect and inspire each other. They also clash from time to time – there’s no getting around it. But fortunately, the people who work in the field are, for the most part, kid focused and understanding: so when my son is crying in the background during an important conference call, the reaction is usually warm laughter and commiseration. The hard part is that I love being a mom so much, and there never seems to be enough free time to do all the things I want to do with my kids. But that’s life in 2013. So, as much as I can, I try to involve my kids in what I’m working on. I often test out my character designs and stories with them first, before showing anyone else. And they often sit with me while I’m drawing and draw along with me.
RT: Your latest project is Yummiloo, an app about nutrition. How did you come up with the idea, and why do you think now is the perfect time for this kind of product?
TPJ: Yummiloo started as an inspiration. After becoming a parent, I experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to get kids to eat right. I also noticed that existing food-related shows (and there weren’t many) were overtly educational and preachy. It struck me that there was another, much simpler approach: rather than preach to kids, model proper eating habits; pull kids in with irresistible characters and exciting stories, but set those stories in a world made entirely of beautiful, appealing, healthy food. It’s a more subliminal way of teaching, and it’s perfect for preschoolers, who are highly influenced by modeling and develop strong habits and prejudices that stay with them for the rest of their lives. Using this subliminal approach, my mission is to make real food as appealing to kids as fake food; I want to take the tools of visual media (like those employed in advertising) and use them to get kids to want to eat right, to want to feed their bodies sweet grapes and crunchy carrots rather than soda and chips. This is the perfect time for Yummiloo! Our country is experiencing an epidemic of childhood obesity. Parents are overworked and often frustrated. They need an ally. Yummiloo is that ally. It was designed with parents in mind – to help parents get their kids to live more healthful lives.
RT: What do you think makes quality children’s entertainment? Do you feel like you have to please two audiences, the kids and the parents? Are the things kids like the same thing parents like? Ultimately, who is more important?
TPJ: At yummico, our motto is ‘Delicious Media. Good and good for you.’ It’s not just a catch phrase. It genuinely encapsulates what I believe makes for quality children’s entertainment: it’s ‘good’, something that kids find irresistible; it’s also ‘good for you’, something parents feel comfortable letting their kids enjoy. I wouldn’t say that one is necessarily more important than the other, but kids always come first when creating worlds, characters, and stories. It’s irrelevant that parents love a piece of entertainment, if their kids don’t connect with it. As we found when first creating Blue’s Clues, what kids respond to is often counterintuitive to adults. For example, many adults find the pacing of Blue’s Clues too slow. Kids don’t. Preschoolers need the extra time to process the visual information.
RT: Do your children watch your shows? What do they think of Mom’s barking?
TPJ: Blue’s Clues has been a staple in our house. I’m a bit embarrassed to say, but my kids don’t know who Cookie Monster and Big Bird are. I have a library of Blue’s Clues at home, and for my 3 year old, it’s wonderful to be able to choose an episode that suits whatever he’s going through. For instance, if Emmet has an upcoming doctor’s appointment, we’ll watch “Blue Goes to the Doctor,” or if I see he was having trouble separating at school, we’ll watch “Blue Goes To School.” In regards to my being the voice, when my kids were little, they loved having “Blue conversations”, and now that they’re older it’s a good party trick to show their friends. My kids all can do the bark pretty spot on… I guess it’s in the genes.
RT: What is your favorite part about being a mom in NYC? What’s your least favorite?
TPJ: Having grown up in the suburban Midwest, my favorite part of being a mom in NYC is being able to expose my boys to rich, multicultural experiences, people, and foods. We can see someone playing the “saw”, hear three different languages being spoken, and try some delicious samosas all while riding the subway. My least favorite part of living in the city has to be what I call ‘transportation rage’ – when I need to be somewhere right away and the subway is delayed or there aren’t any available taxis. It’s a frustration born of not being able to jump in my own car and just go.
RT: Do you have a favorite spot you all like to go to as a family? What’s your idea of an ideal day with the kids?
TPJ: The North Woods in Central Park is one of our favorite destinations, with its winding trails, waterfalls, and rocks. My two older guys are into history and enjoy exploring the ‘Block House’ from the Revolutionary War at the tip of the woods. There’s a gigantic rock to slide down… but be warned, it’s not for the faint at heart! I love that there is an oasis in the middle of the busiest city on the planet, and I love that this is our backyard. My idea of an ideal day is when I can turn off all connections to work – no checking email, no texting – and just freely explore the city with my boys. I’ll pack a bag of snacks and we’ll go on a bike adventure. Maybe we’ll take advantage of one of the city’s many free events – like kayaking, a food fair, or a free recital or performance (one of our favorites in the past was a ‘dance safari’ in Riverside Park). Discovering the magical moments the city has to offer is one of my favorite things about living here and always good for a memory.
RT: With three sons, you’ve gone through the NYC school application process three times. What tips can you offer other parents?
TPJ: Know your child, do your research, and then trust the process. You’ll end up where you need to be. It might not be where you imagined or hoped your child would be, but in the city, there are so many equally good options. There are many ‘right’ places. Also, truthfully, no school is perfect; there are always trade-offs – even if your child is accepted into your top choice, your ‘dream school’. Finally, be realistic. Even though it’s incredibly time-consuming, apply to a number of schools, both private and public.
RT: What words of wisdom can you offer those who’d like to dip their toe into creating kids’ entertainment?
TPJ: Be sure there’s a passion behind your intent, whether it’s the curriculum you want to communicate to kids or your love of a particular character or story. Know your audience, because whatever you create needs to connect and resonate. Make sure that it is a breakthrough in some way, whether it’s the technology, the curriculum, or the design. And be aware of what already exists. Lastly, especially with the preschool set, keep it simple. A little goes a long way.
RT: Now that we’re all ready to eat right, where can we find Yummiloo?
All images by Traci Paige Johnson and Yummico.