The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 
CHRISTINE RAHIMI PHOTO

Art director and photographer John Shearer in Katonah.

 
By CHRISTINE RAHIMI

John Shearer is a man on a mission: The award-winning photographer and author of the 1970s Billy Joe Jive detective book series is working hard to bring his eponymous character back into the public eye and, hopefully, to the big screen.

Like his father Ted Shearer before him, the first black person to have a syndicated cartoon as well as the first black art director in the country, Mr. Shearer also dove into his career at the tender age of 17, working as a photographer for “Look” magazine. “We were very close, although I started to work for ‘Look’ when I was 17, oddly enough.”

Mr. Shearer’s interest in writing children’s books stemmed from his own struggle with learning how to read, which bred a desire to create a character that black kids could relate to and find engaging. His first book, “I Wish I Had an Afro,” addressed the question of identity and what it meant to be black, and was deemed by many to be a culturally significant work. His next book, “Little Man in the Family,” was the parallel story of two boys in contrasting cultures, illustrated with Mr. Shearers photographs.

At that point, however, Mr. Shearer realized he wanted to collaborate with his father, a cartoonist and illustrator, rather than use his own images. So he called an editor friend for lunch to talk about writing a kids’ detective series. As he was riding the train home, the name “Billy Joe Jive” popped into Mr. Shearer’s head, and the iconic character was born.

Their first book, “Billy Jo Jive Super Private Eye: The Case of the Missing Ten Speed Bike,” was inspired by the theft of his own bike as a child, a common occurrence that he knew his readers would relate to. The other books had similar themes, and all featured Billy Joe Jive and his sidekick Smart Susie Sunset.

After writing the first couple of books, Mr. Shearer got a call from a woman at Sesame Street saying the producer, Jon Stone, had fallen in love with his stories and would he be interested in doing animated films for them? “You want to fall off your chair. It’s like, yeah, I think I’d like to do that. I had never done animation,” he said about receiving the call. It was also the first animation experience for Sesame Street, and the series did well, running from the late 1970s to the early ’80s, though the language needed tweaking to make it less “ghetto” for a mainstream audience. It was a busy time, with Mr. Shearer and his father working and traveling as a father/son team. Eventually, though, due to the increasing demands of his photographic career, Mr. Shearer quit writing.

Thirty years later, a number of friends began urging him to bring back Billy Joe Jive. He started working on several new stories, and got himself an agent. Around that same time, Mr. Shearer received a call from a man named Derek Ham of Meriday Animation. Mr. Ham said that a consortium of people had been looking for a black character for a couple of years to use as a means of exposing children to positive black imagery. They wanted a figure to tell stories and send messages through that their kids could relate to. They saw Billy Joe Jive online and jumped at the opportunity. When Mr. Ham asked whether Mr. Shearer would be interested in working with Meriday, Mr. Shearer replied, “Oddly enough, I’ve been bringing the character back.”

So they spoke about the aims Mr. Ham had in mind and the steps to achieving them. He said a weekly half-hour TV show and ultimately a movie were his goals. Thus began a “slew of promotional efforts,” which included building a website and creating a Facebook page, updating the website games and activities monthly, and sending out a series of teasers. In addition, the Harvard Graduate School of Education is now developing a set of teaching tools, and using a program called Flipbook to feature excerpts from the earlier books. The California-based Museum of Uncut Funk has a Billy Joe Jive section it will promote, for which Mr. Shearer will be guest curating the exhibit. “I’m just stunned by all the activity. And so far, the response has been surprisingly good,” Mr. Shearer said.

There will be a few changes to the beloved series. For example, Meriday Animation will be modernizing the graphics to keep them in line with today’s high-tech visuals. There will be several new characters that a modern audience can relate to — rather than the Billy Joe Jive and Smart Susie Sunset duo, it will be more of a “posse,” as Mr. Shearer put it. And, of course, there will be adjustments for today’s Internet world, speech patterns and other cultural changes; but overall the character will retain his essence and Mr. Shearer will stick to his initial aims. Most important of all, Billy Joe Jive and his cohorts will still be solving mysteries!

To watch the videos, play games and more, visit www.billyjojive.com/. There is also a Facebook page on which Mr. Shearer urges people to leave feedback, especially suggestions for improvement.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

 

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ARCHIVES

SEPTEMBER 7, 2012
Katonah’s John Shearer brings back a cartoon legend
‘Pops, Patriots and Fireworks’