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


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.

Responsible television
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.”

Images are crucial to bridging this potential gap between audiences, says Kanter. “Because verbal abilities can vary so greatly, the animation itself is vital. You can’t rely on a lot of talky exposition. You need to concentrate on showing rather than telling, and using physicality to convey emotions as well as dialogue.”

The vividness of Sharkey’s animation for Henry Hugglemonster and the kooky tactility of her monsters was a perfect fit for this type of nonverbal stimulation.

Kanter and Sharkey are also aware of the negative preconceptions that often surround children’s television. While picture books such as I’m a Happy Hugglewug are praised for their encouragement of language skills and self-expression, television is often seen as deadening the imagination.

The pair stress the role parents can play in encouraging a healthy attitude to screen media, as well as in engaging with content.

“Ultimately,” says Kanter, “it is your responsibility as a parent to set the boundaries and limits for your children, whether that is for tablet, television or video-game use. The truth is, most families look at TV as part of everyday life and expect that their children will have a whole variety of experience, with TV as part of that.”

The ratings for Henry Hugglemonster bear this out; the series has attracted more than five million viewers in the UK since it first aired.

Sharkey agrees with Kanter’s assessment. “I am a picture-book maker first and foremost, and I am a lover of picture books and the way they encourage you to share time with children. I hope that Henry Hugglemonster will be a shared experience for families, too, rather than something parents just plonk the kids in front of, but that is up to individual parents.”

With its combination of whimsical style and accessible situations, Henry Hugglemonster offers more than mindless distraction: it highlights life messages. If they come packaged in a playful, monstrous bundle such as Henry and friends, so much the better.

Henry Hugglemonster is on Disney Junior

Pretty as a pictiúr: picture-book illustration at the Irish Museum of Modern Art
In ‘Pictiúr’, the Irish Museum of Modern Art celebrates the role of picture-book illustration in developing children’s aesthetic awareness.

Children’s books are rightly praised for developing literacy, but illustration is the central focus for very young readers. The exhibition highlights the relationship between image and text, providing examples for first readers as well as the more graphically sophisticated teen.

Curated by Imma’s education and community department and Niamh Sharkey, ‘Pictiúr’ arrives at Imma after a European tour and showings in Blanchardstown and Galway.

The exhibition brings together work by 21 Irish children’s illustrators, from the romantic narrative sensibility of PJ Lynch and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick to the Japanese-inspired animation of Chris Judge and Chris Haughton.

Pictiúr runs until January 12th, with a family day on January 11th;

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