Blackness, animation and the norms: The importance of JoJo & Gran Gran


In March, JoJo and Gran-Gran became the first animated show focused on a black British family to launch in the UK. In doing so, it has helped to offer a unique depiction of a familiar tale.

The first CBeebies commissioned animation of its kind, JoJo and Gran-Gran attempts to tell a familiar story of the cross-generational bond between grandparent and grandchild. Yet the shows formula which approaches this through the perspective of St Lucian native Gran-Gran and her granddaughter JoJo offers a sweet, encouraging and different view of the bonds often depicted within the black British family.

The show follows the everyday adventures of young JoJo as she spends her days engaging in several activities from baking to dancing as well as visiting farms and learning how to send mail via post. JoJo (voiced by Taiya Samuel) is warmly ushered through these activities by her loving Grandmother Gran-Gran who takes care of her when JoJo's parents are at work. The show, which begins its episodes narrated by Gran-Gran (voiced by the charming Cathy Tyson) revolves almost entirely around their relationship, but as fleeting as they are viewers are familiarized with some side characters namely the Shopkeeper Jared and Great Gran-Gran (Llewella Gideon).

In doing so, the show does an excellent job of navigating themes of community, family, and heritage all of which prove to be central to its many stories. Laura Henry-Allain - the author of the children’s books on which the show is based credits her Grandmother Marie Helena or ‘Mama' as being a major source of inspiration. In an interview with the BBC, she reflects on how ‘Mama would share stories’ adding: “She looked after children, so she was officially like a childminder. She was passionate about children, she absolutely adored children so I believe she has had a big imprint on me and has influence many areas in my life.”

Beyond paying homage to the spirit of Marie Helena in how Gran-Gran is represented, the show is equally successful in its level of self-awareness. As the time spent with it increases so too does the sense that it is many of the shows more cursory elements that go unattended that paint the broadest pictures. If we are to take episode 2 for instance, the sight of a woman wearing native clothing as JoJo and Gran-Gran wait with Jared for the bus is but one example. The elderly woman on the bus with an afro, the black female bus driver at the front of the bus – all in one scene, all in a handful of frames. All of these constitute things that may very well be seen on any given day but are seldom depicted, falling just short of normalcy to warrant coverage.

There is a well-handled appreciation of culture with Gran-Gran always incorporating aspects of her upbringing into their activities. This is perhaps most clear in episode 11 written by Kerri Grant, which sees Gran Gran show JoJo a native St Lucian dance – the Moulala.

Beyond the topic of culture, there is value to this depiction of the Grandmother even as a matter of appreciation. Gran-Gran helps to reflect a reality of the crucial role in which grandparents have and still do play in the lives of their children’s offspring within many households in Britain. As Laura Henry-Allain herself states in the aforementioned BBC interview, the stereotype of the grey-haired grandma knitting is often at odds with the realities of the active role they play in their grandchildren’s development.

In this regard, JoJo and Gran-Gran is less reinvention of the wheel as it is polishing off the nightstand. The formula itself is not new but the creators deserve credit for creating a children’s show with appealing characters, charming stories and shining a light on oft-ignored aspects of black British culture in the medium of animation. That this is handled with such care, means that the show feels particularly worthy of merit.

For all its fantastic qualities little of what we see in JoJo and Gran-Gran is earth-shattering (not that it needs to be) nor is much of it particularly new, rather, it is refreshingly normal and that is largely what makes it so appealing. Is it a view of ‘normal’ seen from a different perspective? Yes, but the crucial thing here is that it represents a type of normality as worthy of being depicted as any other.

Even more important are the educational benefits of such shows in depicting a world removed from one toned depictions of society. Here, where colour forms part of the equation and by extension the norm, there is a great benefit to be had especially when captured through the medium best placed to express this to children.

It is a victory for creative storytelling and for black creative's with Laura Henry-Allain’s story being brought to life. Likewise it is a victory for black screenwriters with Keri Grant, Trish Cooke and Seyi Odusanya all appearing as lead writers on individual episodes, once more serving as evidence of how increased representation in positions of creative leadership can be of benefit.

The things which have made JoJo and Gran-Gran such an appealing show have long been there to draw from. Both our history and surroundings are not new, but the breakthrough of JoJo & Gran-Gran points toward the fact that when normality is viewed through a different lens and as perspective shifts, figures which might otherwise be relegated to the background can indeed shine through.

Mayowa Ayodele