When my son was 3 years old, he became a bumblebee for two weeks. It was his first year of preschool, and Miles had discovered the joy of make-believe. So he put on a bee costume every morning before school and happily buzzed out the door. A few weeks later, he discovered a princess dress in the school's costume bin and it was "goodbye bee, hello Belle." Soon after that, he moved on to the red Power Ranger.
Watching Miles square off against imaginary foes reminded me of when I was a child, pretending to fly spaceships in a galaxy far, far away. Fantasy is such a big part of childhood -- whether it's playtime or story time. The characters Miles emulated may be different than the ones I grew up with, but the love of make-believe was the same.
Around this same time, my wife and I had begun to introduce him to television. Some shows were entertaining, some were educational and a small number were both. There were shows that he loved but I couldn't sit through, and others that had enough of a story or fun approach to the educational content that both of us could enjoy. And although the former were great, if I wanted to check emails or take much-needed catnaps, I appreciated the latter because it meant we could experience the show together and discuss what he had seen or learned.
So when Nancy Kanter at Disney Junior approached me about whether I had any ideas for a television show for 2 to 7-year-olds centered around a princess, I immediately was excited at the prospect. For starters, I would get to create a fantasy world from the enchanted ground up and hopefully provide a fresh take on one of the most enduring genres -- the princess fairy tale. The storyteller in me -- and my inner child -- were already jumping up and down.
But the parent in me wanted something more. Fantasy stories have always been a terrific way to deliver life lessons. Little Red Riding Hood warns us not to trust strangers. Beauty and the Beast teaches us that true beauty comes from within. So by setting a show in a fun storybook world, I could make like Mary Poppins and use a spoonful of fantasy sugar to help the message medicine go down. My child would be entertained, but also learn how to be a better person and work through social problems at an age where such lessons are especially crucial.
It all sounded great. There was only thing missing: The idea. For that, I had to look no further than my son's childhood -- and my own. I had noticed that Miles emulated a lot of fantasy characters that he didn't really have anything in common with. That, of course, is part of the allure. Being someone else. But, I thought, what if that "someone else" was just a little bit older than Miles and going through a lot of the same situations Miles was going through? Starting school. Getting along with new friends or new siblings. How to deal with adversity. Not throwing the marker across the room because the circle he's drawing isn't perfectly round. I saw that Miles could use a fantasy character who was a reflection of himself -- serving as a kind of magic mirror that would allow him to enjoy the fantasy while strongly identifying with the situations playing out in the show.
That was the genesis of Princess Sofia, the main character in what would eventually become Sofia the First, the forthcoming Disney Junior TV movie and series. Sofia is a school-aged princess that every little girl (or boy) could relate to. But there needed to be more to the story. And that's where my childhood comes in.
My parents divorced when I was 8. My father remarried several years later and had a son with his new wife -- which gave me a half-brother. However, I lived with a single mother, and for a while, with her boyfriend and his daughter. So I also had a de-facto stepsister for a time. Growing up in outer suburbia, I thought my family situation was unusual, but as I got older, I found that blended families were much more common. And typical childhood issues were often magnified when stepsiblings and parents came into the picture.
So decades later, in trying to bring a modern perspective to an age-old fairy tale world, it suddenly occurred to me -- what if Sofia wasn't always a princess? What if she was a normal girl whose single mother married the King and she became a princess overnight? And what if the King already had two children, giving Sofia two step-siblings whom she had to get along with? Admittedly, step-sisters aren't a new idea to fairy tales. Just ask Cinderella. But creating a blended royal family, with both a father and a mother present, did seem like a great way to tell fantastic stories that modern children could relate to. Plus, the character of Sofia could be a bold, curious, smart young girl who takes on the role of being a young princess like any child undertaking a new, exciting adventure. In a world where many young girls want to dress up as princesses, Sofia could serve as a positive role model, displaying traits and learning lessons that young girls (or boys) will retain long after they trade in their gowns for other costumes.
When I tell people about Sofia the First, they are surprised I have two boys and no daughters. But that's one of the things my children have taught me -- stories resonate when there's something they can relate to. My sons have both enjoyed hearing the Sofia stories and are looking forward to the show. Miles has already started dressing up as Cedric, the show's bumbling sorcerer, even making his own wand. And, best of all, he has begun to tell me stories.
"Sofia the First: Once Upon A Princess" premiere Sunday, November 18 (7:00-8:00 p.m., ET/PT) on Disney Channel and Thursday, November 22 (9:00-10:00 a.m., ET/PT) on Disney Junior.