Liberty’s Kids: Est. 1776: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, 2008)

dvd_liberty.jpgThe kids become reporters for Franklin’s newspaper, which allows them to experience most of the major events of the Revolutionary period and meet everyone from Patrick Henry to Phyllis Wheatley.

 

 

Liberty’s Kids, a cartoon series created for PBS Kids by DiC Entertainment, is one of those rare children’s television shows which is both educational and fun, and will appeal to kids as well as adults. The series creates four fictional characters to tell the story of the American Revolution, from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to Washington’s inauguration in 1789. Three of these characters are kids (hence the title) who find their way to Benjamin Franklin’s print shop in Philadelphia. Sarah Phillips (voiced by Rheo Jones) is a 15-year-old British girl who came to "the Colonies" in search of her father who, when last heard from, was exploring in the Ohio region. James Hiller (Chris Lundquist) is a 15-year old American orphan boy apprenticed to Franklin’s shop, and Henri (Kathleen Barr) is an eight-year-old French orphan who escaped involuntary servitude as a ship’s cabin boy. Providing adult supervision is Moses (D. Kevin Williams), a former slave who purchased his freedom, moved north and learned the printer’s trade.

The kids become reporters for Franklin’s newspaper, a clever device which allows them, over the course of 40 half-hour episodes, to experience most of the major events of the Revolutionary period and meet everyone from Patrick Henry to Phyllis Wheatley. The script’s writers (13 are credited) work lots of factual information into the dialogue—having the kids serve as reporters is an extremely useful device in this regard—and incorporate excerpts from famous speeches as well, so watching the episodes is like a cram course in American history.

The series creators go out of their way to include female and African-American characters, and although the point of view is predominantly pro-American, the British also get to have their say. Of course historical events are simplified, and the invented characters and events are not always entirely credible but, on the whole, each episode is satisfying and tells a complete story. The animation is typical of higher-quality long-running series: The characters are well differentiated but simplified and movement borders on the crude, but the backgrounds are impressively detailed. Many celebrities voice historical characters, including Walter Cronkite (Benjamin Franklin), Annette Bening (Abigail Adams) and Warren Buffett (James Madison). Voicing of the four leads is a bit more disappointing; D. Kevin Williams is particularly stiff as Moses, while Kathleen Barr’s "French" accent as Henri is annoying.

Adults as well as kids may find themselves learning a thing or two from these programs. For instance, do you know who Lord Dunmore was? I didn’t, so I looked him up. He was John Murray, a British Peer who served as the last Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia. One of his notable ventures was to offer emancipation to slaves who deserted their American masters to join the British. Unfortunately, his "Ethiopian Regiment" met a fate similar to many Native American tribes: They were exposed to smallpox during an outbreak among the British. Having neither previous exposure to the disease nor protection through inoculation, more than half died. Dunmore was able to find employment in another British colony after being made redundant by the American Revolution: He served as Governor of the Bahamas from 1787 to 1796.

See what I mean? This series can be quite addictive for adults as well as kids, and the bonus features are fun and educational, as well. "Ben Franklin’s Newsbytes" are short "news broadcasts" including an historical event, the daily weather report, and a riddle. "Continental Cartoons" is a rebus/hangman-type game where you guess the letters to complete famous phrases, names, etc., prompted by images; for Lord Cornwallis the clues are an ear of corn and a brick wall. "Then and Now" looks at how aspects of daily life, from modes of travel to life expectancy, differ between the 18th and 21st centuries. The "Mystery Guest Game" gives three clues of ascending specificity and asks the listener to guess who is being described. There’s also an interview feature with the series creators, and a comparison of the pencil test for a segment of Paul Revere’s ride with the final animated product.

Liberty’s Kids is recommended for ages 8 to 14. The physical presentation is impressive: The six DVDs are housed in three plastic cases, and these plus a map are packaged in a colorful cardboard slipcase. Promotional materials mention a collectible booklet including an episode guide and history timeline, but this was not included in my review copy. The show has a website http://www.libertyskids.com/ which includes further information and activities for kids, as well as suggestions for teachers and parents to encourage interest in American history and the Revolutionary period. | Sarah Boslaugh

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