I’m a 40-year-old guy who doesn’t have any kids, so there is no real chance of me running into the creative works of 10-year-old Ryan Kaji intentionally.
Often, I will see his face in big-box stores, selling his toy-centric wares, or mentioned in articles written to explain a phenomenon that is basically unprecedented in modern culture: A kid who became famous for playing with toys alone.
But it makes for utterly fascinating reading, I will say that, and a recent New York Times Magazine piece lays out just how unusual of a flip this is, and how it impacted the lives of both him and his family. (And arguably, the thousands of imitators who can’t quite reach Ryan’s level of success.)
The family part is the most interesting to me, as Jay Caspian King’s story describes a family that stumbled into once-in-a-lifetime success with a YouTube channel, with parents that somewhat begrudgingly quit their jobs in service to a kid whose success arguably puts him on a level of child-star fame comparable to Gary Coleman, Macaulay Culkin, or Dakota Fanning—megastars whose success came early and turned them into household names, sometimes to disruptive effect. (Of course, unlike those actors, Kaji is known primarily among people his own age, as well as the people that raise said youngsters.)
Kaji’s parents did not start out as showbiz parents, and had much more traditional careers—his mother Loann, a teacher, and his father Shion, a structural engineer—before their son’s ability to play with toys proved too hard to ignore.
But once they did commit to this idea that Ryan could become the breadwinner for their family, they actually took steps that made him even more successful.
One particularly important one: Rather than just playing with toys made by other companies, they should create some of their own, inspired by Ryan’s own personality. And rather than making the toys the star, focus on the kid everyone’s watching playing with them.
As writer Jay Caspian King puts it:
Which is all to say, these aren’t your stereotypical parents of a child star, who, frustrated with their own crashed Hollywood dreams, put their kid through singing and dancing lessons in the living room of a bungalow in Van Nuys. But neither are they just an adorable couple who stumbled into fame and fortune. They’re much cannier than that.
To me, that’s the real story about Ryan’s World, the media and product-marketing empire that emerged from a kid actually telling us what he wanted, rather than a bunch of adults in a boardroom simply guessing. I don’t think you could, by any means, call what Ryan Kaji’s life is anything in the ballpark of normal.
But the fact that his parents, each from families that are first-generation immigrants to the United States, have apparently proven so savvy about their 10-year-old son’s success is interesting, too. The success of the YouTube show and its many offshoots (including for the cable channel Nickelodeon) also creates a very ironic situation, as King puts it:
“The Kaji empire and its thousands of imitators, oddly enough, have created perhaps the only world in which children do not stare at screens,” he writes. “It’s a nice dream, I admit, but not to the extent of persuading me to allow my daughter to keep watching videos. The limits we set as parents may be arbitrary, but they are all we’ve got.”
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: alarm goes off