Roses are red, violets are blue, if you need someone to write a Valentine’s Day card, Keion Jackson can probably help you. If you’re looking for a last-minute card with just the right message you should definitely track Jackson down at this year’s Kidscreen Summit, since the now prolific kids TV writer (who is sitting on the Groundwork for Growth: Setting New Creators Up To Succeed panel later today) on shows for Sesame Workshop, 9 Story and Silvergate actually got his start at Hallmark.
Fresh from college, Jackson joined the famous card maker where he wrote everything from greeting cards to catchphrases for stuffed animals and even sassy mugs. But while he was there he actually learned a lot of lessons that apply to kids TV.
“It was this anthropological thing where you have to study trends and relationships and culture in order to be able to write about people’s life experiences,” says Jackson.
At 21, he had to write cards for 20th wedding anniversaries, and one from a grandmother to her grandchild. Stepping in and out of those experiences taught him to think about how other people may experience their milestones, which today helps him write characters, skills he carries into all of the TV shows, plays and books he’s writing now.
But more than that, he learned about rejection while he was writing humor cards, since the department has a 90% rejection rate. (One of his favorite ultimately rejected ideas featured two toilets with one saying to the other, “You look beautiful tonight.” “Stop that, you’re making me flush,” landed the punchline.)
While at Hallmark, he also worked on six children’s books for the media company’s publishing banner, including Super Me!, Jellyfish’s Bright Idea and The Dream Machine.
Working on these books sparked the desire to write for kids, leading him to the kids entertainment world, which “marries art with purpose,” he says. He got his foot in the door with the Sesame Street Writers’ Room Diversity Workshop.
“Keep in mind I was in Missouri, which is very far away from the happening, very far away from this culture,” says Jackson.
He kept his job at Hallmark all throughout the workshop (and didn’t quit until 2018—“I have bills so I couldn’t just stop everything, I was learning and hoped that I could meet a puppet but I couldn’t completely jump in while Sallie Mae is knocking on my door so I was going back and forth for awhile.”) But the experience led to a development deal, followed by a first-look deal with Sesame and writing credits for seasons 49 and 50 of Sesame Street.
While he can’t share much about his project, he says it is deep into development and will hopefully go into production soon. In the meantime, he’s also got other projects on the go with 9 Story and Silvergate, on which he served as story editor for each company on two unannounced series.
Still fresh in his kids career, he attributes much of his early success to being true to his own voice. “I wrote as myself with a southern voice. The things that I did with language were rooted in hip hop, rooted in southern baptist call and answer,” says Jackson. (When his first-ever episode of TV aired—a Cookie Monster segment about cinnamon toast in January 2019—his family and friends gathered for a watch-party.)
And while working on iconic characters is a dream opportunity, he also sees it as his responsibility as a black man in the room to work as hard as he can and open the door for others like him. To further those efforts on screen, he wants to write characters that dig deeper and explore culture in a nuanced way. There’s a misconception in the industry that diversity is for diverse people, he says. But if only black people watched Black Panther or listening to Beyonce, neither would be nearly as popular as they are.
In his view, diverse representation on screen succeeds when characters are rooted in the culture they’re trying to represent. Overly generic won’t work. “Kids TV needs to get really specific and allow characters of color to have the same fun as other characters. I think the true opportunities lie in what race and culture really mean in a person’s lived experience,” Jackson says.