It wasn’t long after his son’s birth in 2011 that the talented TV writer behind Kung Fu Panda and Shark Tale, Jeremy Shipp, started to play extra close attention to the faces of cartoon characters. There was one face that was especially dear to him that he didn’t see represented in the media. That was the face of his son, Henry, who was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate.
As his son grew and underwent several surgeries, Shipp and his wife made sure that Henry felt comfortable with his condition. They bought him a doll with a cleft lip, and it instantly became one of Henry’s favorite toys. They made a point of talking about Henry’s facial difference openly, and so Henry wasn’t particularly worried about it.
Still, Shipp noticed that the numerous surgeries and long recovery times sometimes left Henry feeling like he was missing out, as if, in his absence, the outside world just went on without him.
Where Are the Cleft Lip Kids?
And Shipp, who spent his days writing story lines for children, realized that there weren’t any characters in his son’s favorite cartoons or movies who looked like him.
Despite the fact that close to 4,000 children are born in the United States every year with a cleft lip, there was a complete lack of representation of children with facial differences in the media.
“He’s never said, ‘where are the cleft lip kids?’” Shipp says of his son Henry. “But I certainly have noticed.”
He also knew he was in a good position to change that. Shipp wanted to bring a cartoon character to life who, like his son, would have a cleft lip. So he pitched his idea to the team behind Firebuds, the Disney Junior series that Shipp is now working on.
They Jumped on the Opportunity
Not only did the Firebuds team embrace the idea of adding a character with a cleft lip, but the show’s executive producer Craig Gerber also suggested that they add a therapist character to the show. The therapist could introduce to their young viewers the concept of empathy and explain what kids with cleft lips or cleft palates might be going through.
After getting the green light from Henry, Shipp got to work. He created a vehicle named Castor that has the vehicle equivalent of a cleft lip. In an episode titled “Cleft Hood”, Castor expresses his nervousness about going in for yet another surgery. He even runs off to try to avoid it.
Shipp purposefully chose to forego the well-trod path of a character who is made fun of or ostracized for his differences. Instead, Castor is already one of the gang. He carries around a stuffed car with a cleft lip named “Anya”, an homage to Henry’s own treasured toy. Even better, it’s Shipp’s son Henry who voices the character.
The Emotional Aspects of Having a Cleft Lip
The show highlights how Castor deals with his reality and focuses on the emotional aspects of having a cleft lip. Thanks to the therapist character, there are teachable moments. Young viewers learn about how kids who have to undergo surgery may be feeling and how they can support their friends.
Shipp hopes that by using the popular cartoon’s platform, he’ll be able to reach thousands of children with a message that destigmatizes facial differences and teaches children how to show empathy and support their friends.
He also wants kids like his son Henry to feel seen. “It’s a natural thing of life,” Shipp says of his son’s birth defect, “so he [Henry] has no problem talking about it.” Shipp wants that to be the case for all kids with facial differences.
“I really wanted to do a story that honored him and that showed a character that looked a little bit like him, that was positive and happy, had friends and was happy-go-lucky.”
Castor is exactly that. Firebuds combines a group of energetic kids with their vehicle buddies, sending them on fast-paced and lighthearted rescue missions together in their community. An episode on empathy and embracing differences fits right in with the show’s main themes of helping others, working as a team, and showing responsibility. Other episode titles include “The Art of Friendship” and “Care-a-Van Club”.
The show, which has been nominated for an Outstanding Children’s Programming Award by GLAAD Media, also plans to introduce a character with spina bifida who gets around in a wheelchair. Featuring diverse characters is not something new for Firebuds. The series has already included characters from multi-racial and LGBTQ+ families.
Firebuds has been renewed for a second season—so if after you’ve caught this episode, you want to see more, rest assured that this good family fun continues. There will likely be many more inclusive, loving, teachable moments to come.
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