How a Culture Editor Covers the Kids’ Entertainment Beat

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Laurel Graeber grew up loving the theater and museums. But she never thought she would write about them for The New York Times — or that she would do so for nearly three decades.

“I was an editor, but I always wanted to write,” said Ms. Graeber, who helped lead the Culture desk’s copy department for more than 10 years before she retired from full-time work in 2017. “And when the freelance assignment of writing our weekend kids’ entertainment column became open, I said yes.”

She has written regularly about culture for young people for nearly three decades, spotlighting the best activities that parents or caregivers can do with children each weekend in New York City. She also writes features on new television shows, movies, museum exhibitions and podcasts for kids.

“What I find most enjoyable is stuff for adults that’s also good for kids, but not necessarily geared toward them,” Ms. Graeber said in a recent interview.

Though her own two children are now adults, Ms. Graeber says she is still excited by the kids’ entertainment beat. She shared how she finds ideas and what appeals to her about children’s programming. Read the edited exchange below.

You’ve covered the kids’ entertainment beat since 1997. What got you started?

One of the people whom I had worked with as a freelancer at The Times, Dulcie Leimbach, inaugurated the column. When she went on maternity leave, I filled in. When she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore, it was offered to me. It was initially called “For Children” and then “Family Fare.” I did it for years and years, even after my own children grew up. Now it’s a blurb labeled “Kids” that appears online and in Friday’s print edition in a roundup of the best things to do in New York City.

I used my own kids as guinea pigs when they were little and took them to events and children’s plays. Though my kids are now grown up, I’ve kept going. I try to find new and different areas for kids. I haven’t grown tired of it.

Do you have a performing arts background?

I was one of two arts editors at The Yale Daily News, and I also acted in lots of undergraduate theater productions in college. I never thought I’d have a career on Broadway, but in high school and college, I was always trying out for plays — when I wasn’t writing about them.

What initially attracted you to the beat?

I was interested in companies and organizations that tried to stretch the boundaries of what was thought to be acceptable for kids. Children are often underestimated, and they shouldn’t be. Kids are able to deal with a lot of sophisticated topics if those topics are addressed in an appropriate manner. The idea that children ought to be shielded from some of the harsher realities of life isn’t fair to them. Not only are they going to face challenges as they grow older, they’re going to be the generation that helps cure some of the world’s problems. No one wants to cause a child anxiety or distress, but it’s important to keep them aware of what’s happening in the world around them.

I like being able to champion things like the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which provides screenings for viewers up to age 18. A lot of what they show wasn’t created for children but selected because it’d be interesting for children.

Where do you find story ideas?

I get tons of email, much of which includes tips from people in the field. Sometimes I find things on my own. There are various organizations I keep track of, and I follow what a number of museums are doing for kids.

Do you go to shows by yourself?

I often go with my daughter. Even though she’s over 30 and doesn’t have kids, she’s still interested. It’s become a fun mother-daughter get-together.

Even though you’re not the target audience, do you enjoy the work?

By and large, really good children’s work is not something only a child can enjoy. The best children’s entertainment works on two levels: It appeals to adults as well as kids. It has jokes or references embedded for adults to smile at, which a child won’t necessarily pick up on.

How have you seen programming for children change over the past three decades?

Efforts are being made across the board to be more inclusive, to have more productions and shows that deal with kids who aren’t necessarily affluent or white. We’re now seeing work that presents the perspective of kids who may have grown up in a different country, or who may be immigrants. There’s also a lot of work being produced for kids who are disabled, or who may be on the autism spectrum.

You’ve chatted with LeVar Burton about his new comic mystery podcast and Lin-Manuel Miranda about starring in an animated kids’ travel show. Who is the coolest person you’ve interviewed?

Jane Goodall. She was the inspiration for a TV show I wrote about last year called “Jane,” which has a character who shares a first name with her and looks up to her. She also consulted on the show. I asked if I could talk to her, never thinking that it was going to happen. But she had a small window for an interview, and it worked out.

What is the best thing you’ve seen recently for children?

One of the best shows that’s not annoying for parents is “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience,” which is a TV special based on a Mo Willems book. There’s an animated show called “Curses!” on Apple TV+ that I wrote about recently that’s introductory horror for kids — it’s not violent or stomach-turning, but it has an “Indiana Jones”-like feel. LeVar Burton’s new comic mystery podcast, “Sound Detectives,” is also a lot of fun — adults will get a kick out of it.

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