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A Liberty's Kids Retrospective

As an elementary school student in the 2000s, it seemed that every class was divided into two camps when it came to cartoons. You had the Disney Channel kids who were diehard fans of Kim Possible and The Proud Family, and the Nickelodeon kids who were devoted Spongebob Squarepants viewers and fans of anything Butch Hartman was the brain behind. There were a handful of Cartoon Network kids, too, but I don't recall there being as many among my peers.

And then there's me: what I call a "PBS Kid by choice."

Back in the day, PBS had a reputation for being the channel you'd end up watching when you were stuck at Grandma's for the weekend or if you were not allowed to watch the other channels. It wasn't what the cool kids were into.

And yet, PBS was still my pick.

I remember racing off the bus so I could watch Adventures From The Book Of Virtues before starting my homework. Arthur is not only a childhood favorite but still held in high regard by the kids who grew up with it. Heck, I was rewatching Cyberchase in college because it helped fill in the gaps in my understanding of mathematics.

But out of all the shows on PBS, none were as dear to me as Liberty's Kids, a show set during the Revolutionary War.

Via Wikipedia

The show followed Sarah, a British girl who traveled to the colonies to live with her father; James, an American who starts off as a misguided and kind of sarcastic kid that matures over time; and Henri, a French immigrant who provides the majority of the show's comic relief.

The trio helps out at Benjamin Franklin's newspaper, contributing stories about major events and interviews with historical figures including Deborah Sampson, Joseph Plumb Martin, and Margaret "Molly" Corbin.

The cast is impressive and features a lot of stars including Walter Cronkite, Billy Crystal, Sylverster Stalone, Ben Stiller, Liam Neesoncould go on. As I was looking at the list of actors, I kept doing double-takes because I had either forgotten they were a guest star or because I did not recognize the name as a kid and can appreciate it all the more as an adult.

Plus the theme song was a total bop performed by Kayla Hinkle and Aaron Carter (RIP) with lyrics that are moving to this day.

I'm looking at life through my own eyes

Searching for a hero to idolize

Feeling the pain as innocence dies

I'm looking at life through my own eyes

Liberty's Kids was different than the majority of animated children's programming airing at the time. Rather than each episode being its own, contained story, they were structured as one chapter in a longer, connected narrative, which makes sense given its premise following the timeline of the Revolutionary War.

It covers the events you would expect to see discussed in an elementary school classroom like the Boston Tea Party and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but it also broached other, at times darker subjects in a way that younger audiences can understand.

In one of the earliest episodes, James sees a man being tarred and feathered one night and thinks it's hilariousuntil he is taken to visit the victim and quickly realizes the severity of the subsequent injuries.

Moses, another character working from the Franklin Gazette, is a freed slave and talks about how he must always carry documentation on him; his brother, Cato. is not as fortunate and is at one point seen being brought to a slave auction.

This was the first discussion of slavery that I remember being exposed to growing up, and the show did a decent job of introducing it in a way children could process, showing Moses and Cato being taken from West Africa in chains and the conditions not only on the ship but on soil. Moses also made it clear that his freedom was a rare blessing he worked incredibly hard for.

Cato, on the other hand, joins the British army in the hopes of winning his freedom, a hope ultimately dashed. He eventually travels to Nova Scotia to gain his freedom in Canada.

There was a maturity in Liberty's Kids that you didn't see in a lot of animated shows back then. It had a fair amount of levity and humor, but it wasn't afraid to handle heavier subjects.

Even though the show is intended for children, it does assert the violence of war, often alluding to death and wounds suffered by those in battle. It's not gruesome or anything, with much of the violence happening off-screen, but it's not expected in children's programming. I've always appreciated its willingness to broach that reality. It's not this trio of kids going off on goofy adventures with Benjamin Franklin every episode. It's real life.

Above all else, the thing that stands out to me in my recollection of Liberty's Kids is Sarah's character arc. In the pilot, she's a little standoffish towards James and other characters, especially characters who align themselves with the American Patriots, and staunchly supports the opinions and actions of the British opposition because, in a lot of ways, that's what she was raised to believe and what she is accustomed to. As the series goes on, Sarah experiences a fair bit of self-doubt and begins to question things. This is exemplified when she reunites with her father and is shocked to learn he is more closely aligned with the American side of the conflict and living with the Shawnee nation.

Over time, Sarah becomes more compassionate towards the colonists and willing to consider both sides of the story, and particularly focused on highlighting voices in The Pennsylvania Gazette that would otherwise be left unheard.

In so many children's shows, characters often remain consistent in their behavior. They might undergo small arcs, but significant changes are rare. How many episodes of Spongebob Squarepants see Squidward being a grouch despite all of Bikini Bottom rallying to support him in "Band Geeks?" He still pushes people away and wants nothing to do with them.

That's why hearing Sarah say something along the lines of, "I'm an American, too." after being a steadfast British Loyalist for so much of the series is something that struck a chord in me even as a seven-year-old.

The focus on character development and storytelling at length amid these historical events made Liberty's Kids the first animated show to really make me feel something deeper as a viewer. Early on, Sarah loses the necklace given to her by her parents, who she is at present apart from, and is rightfully upset. James takes it upon himself to offer a consolation despite their getting off on the wrong foot. He takes a hammer to the ring belonging to his father (who died in a house fire in which an infant James was the only survivor), and he creates a pendant in the shape of Sarah's.

The fact that James gave up one of the few remaining connections he has to his late parents in order to restore a sense of Sarah's connection to hers resonated with me even as a child because it demonstrated what powerful storytelling can do.

Liberty's Kids was poignant right up until the end. In the series finale, Moses remarks that although the Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal, he does not feel treated as such. To this, Franklin responds by saying it will likely take another war for all men to be equal, alluding to the Civil War yet to come.

Twenty-some-odd years later, I'm still deeply fond of Liberty's Kids. Even though it was not 100% accurate, with some events being condensed or toned down for younger audiences (and the computer game was way harder to navigate than it needed to be) it remains a staple of not only of my childhood but of my journey to becoming a historical fiction writer. I was watching it on PBS around the time I would have been reading The Magic Treehouse and the Dear America and My America books, and it’s helped me learn how to write solid character arcs and handle darker themes in fiction. For example, Marcus from my (tentatively titled) WIP A Measure of Healing having been in a press gang was inspired by a college rewatch of Liberty's Kids. It's a gritty topic that can be tough to weave into romance, a genre typically that is typically more lighthearted and draws in readers who are not actively seeking talk of death and war. But it's as prevalent in the lives of my cast as it is for that of Liberty's Kids.

There is a lot that Liberty's Kids does well, yet it remains an underrated hidden gem of 2000s animation.

It may not have the prime meme material of Arthur or the longevity of Spongebob Squarepants, but Liberty's Kids is highly worth the watch at any age.



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