The monster success of the Hugglewugs
Niamh Sharkey’s delightful picture book ‘I’m a Happy Hugglewug’ has led to the hit Disney series ‘Henry Hugglemonster’ – and to a careful consideration of her responsibility to her young audience
The Hugglewug way: Henry Hugglemonster
The Hugglewug way: Niamh Sharkey
Picture perfect: from On the Road with Mavis and Marge, by Niamh Sharkey, on show as part of Pictiúr, at Imma
Picture perfect: from The Lonely Beast, by Chris Judge, on show as part of Pictiúr, at Imma
Picture perfect: from Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, on show as part of Pictiúr, at Imma
Picture perfect: from Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, on show as part of Pictiúr, at Imma
Picture perfect: from There, by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, on show as part of Pictiúr, at Imma
It is a busy month for Niamh Sharkey. Alongside her responsibilities as Laureate na nÓg, she this week opened an exhibition dedicated to picture-book illustration at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and has just started working on the second series of Henry Hugglemonster, the animated television series that she developed from her 2006 picture book I’m a Happy Hugglewug, which launched Henry and his family of monsters into the imagination of children across the world.
Sharkey is unusual in that she is working as both a creator and executive producer of the series. She was also instrumental in pitching the book to Disney Junior, the children’s channel that now shows the series, after approaching the Irish animation company Brown Bag Films with the idea of developing the book, in 2008.
The challenge in moving between forms was “fleshing out the world from a single story to a whole monster world”, she says. “So I invented a monster town, Roarsville, and a whole community of monsters. It’s like the world we live in except it’s full of monsters.”
She came to regard the book as a mini-episode, she explains; the animated series would eventually comprise 52 11-minute stories.
Getting the green light for a full production was a lengthy process. The series went through almost five years of refinement and testing before it was launched on Disney Junior.
The station caters to audiences between the ages of two and seven. One of the reasons for the long development process was the sensitivity of programming for preschoolers. There is a consensus that young children, particularly those under two years old, should not be exposed to television, as it can get in the way of critical developments in the brain that are best stimulated by exploring, playing and interacting with parents and others.
Disney Junior says it is aware of its audience’s social and physical needs, and Kanter, who joined the company from Sesame Street, says it takes advice from educational psychologists and curriculum experts.
Television for young audiences, she says, “has a responsibility beyond entertainment. It is also a fact that parents are more comfortable with allowing their children to watch television when they feel there is value to it, too.”
Disney uses researchers to keep up with “trends within the academic community, helping us to direct our shows towards appropriate social or emotional learning for kids, showing us what or how a child may absorb information, or giving us specific advice on what is authentic or valid for that age group”.
Disney Junior, and Henry Hugglemonster in particular, caters to a wide audience of two- to seven-year-olds, and “there is a dramatic difference in what a child can understand and enjoy at different developmental stages”, Kanter says. “So it is important that we give enough to engage a two-year-old but that it is not so babyish or simplistic that an older child will switch off.”