20 People Who Changed Childhood

In a special look back, CHILD salutes the innovators in the fields of education, entertainment, medicine, and more who forever altered what it means to be young in America.

Innovators 1 - 5

Walt Disney

In 1928, when Hollywood animator Walt Disney created three cartoons starring a mouse named Mickey, his plucky rodent was just another character vying for screen time with favorites like Felix the Cat. To help Mickey Mouse stand apart, Disney experimented with a new technique: synchronizing one of his cartoons with sound. Brought to life with music, the animation was a hit with audiences, launching Disney-and Mickey-into stardom. Disney went on to pioneer other ways of capturing kids' imaginations: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the country's first full-length animated feature, and Fantasia (1940) dazzled with its avant-garde storytelling techniques. Disney died in 1966, but through his Disneyland and Disney World theme parks (the latter completed after his death) and dozens of unforgettable classic films-including Dumbo, Pinocchio, and Bambi-his legacy lives on in the hearts of children around the world.

Robert Coles

As the civil rights movement polarized the nation in the 1950s and '60s, Robert Coles, M.D., then a teaching fellow at Harvard University, stepped back from the fray and listened to the voices of the children. How would the climate of social upheaval shape their lives? He canvassed the country to find out, chronicling children struggling with racial integration, children of migrant workers, children whose feelings had never been documented. The result was the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of books Children of Crisis, widely considered a masterwork. Dr. Coles, who retired as a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard Medical School and the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, has written many books revealing kids' inner lives, changing the way others in his field approach the study of children. "If you find yourself bored by children," Dr. Coles once said, "you're not really observing them."

Michael Jordan

To his millions of young fans, Michael Jordan proves that if at first you don't succeed, try again. He was cut from his high school basketball team for being too scrawny, then went on to become one of the most astonishing athletes in the history of professional sports. His highlight reel includes six NBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, five NBA regular-season MVP awards, six more for NBA finals, and 32,292 career points. But it was more than Jordan's slam dunks that so influenced kids. As a point guard for the Chicago Bulls from 1984 to 1993 and the spokesman for brands like Nike and Gatorade, Jordan was revered for his easygoing charm, and children worldwide clamored to Be Like Mike. More important, Jordan promoted the value of working diligently, playing fair, and staying true to yourself-a winning formula he brought to every sweaty showdown.

Ruth Handler

Ruth Handler's lightbulb moment came one day in the early 1950s, when she noticed that her young daughter, Barbara, was playing with paper dolls fashioned like adults. Why not develop a three-dimensional version of them for little girls to act out their dreams of growing up? Buyers at the 1959 Toy Fair were dismissive of Handler's figurine-named Barbie, after her daughter-but the doll was a hit, enchanting girls across the U.S. and transforming Mattel, the company Handler co-founded with her husband, from a modest picture-frame business into the world's largest maker of toys. Under Handler, who died in 2002, Barbie morphed from a plaything to a bona fide role model, complete with a kaleidoscope of challenging careers, from doctor to figure skater, and impeccably fabulous ensembles.

J. K. Rowling

Before J.K. Rowling's bespectacled boy wizard went off to study at Hogwarts, some parents feared their kids would never enjoy reading. Once Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone hit U.S. bookstores in 1998, followed by five more installments, parents found their kids couldn't get enough of Rowling's fantasy adventure novels, some longer than 600 pages. To date more than 300 million Harry Potter books have sold worldwide; they crowded The New York Times bestseller list for so long that the newspaper created a separate children's list. "The Harry Potter books not only sparked an explosion of interest in reading," says Lisa Von Drasek, the children's librarian at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, "they inspired kids to go out and discover other great books too."

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