Homegrown PBS Kids favorite Arthur is hitting a milestone this fall, celebrating its 20th season. A generation of children have grown up with 8-year-old aardvark Arthur Read, his family (most notably feisty 4-year-old sister D.W.), and friends in Elwood City as they tackle the challenges of growing up.
Senior Executive Producer Carol Greenwald has been with the WGBH-produced show since its very beginning, noting it took about three-and-a-half years from the time she called local author Marc Brown about adapting his book series for television to its Oct. 7, 1996 debut. Now 225+ episodes strong, the Emmy-and Peabody-award-winning show holds bragging rights as the longest-running children’s animated program. It is also well-known for educating kids on a range of tough topics over the years, everything from lice and bed wetting to dyslexia and cheating, all without moralizing. We recently spoke with Greenwald, where she looked back — and ahead.
Did you ever envision a season 20?
I don’t think I ever thought that far ahead. I totally knew we had a great book series to work with, which had the potential to be a great TV series.
Is it true Marc Brown was reluctant about adapting his characters for TV?
He was reluctant about television because he’d gotten a lot of interest from other places. He was not reluctant when I talked to him because he was familiar with PBS and WGBH, and he was excited about the opportunity to use his books to promote literacy, which is what we’ve always wanted to do.
How has the show evolved?
To create 225+ stories, we’ve had to expand our cast of characters. So instead of just focusing on the characters who were in the original books — Arthur, D.W., Francine, Buster — we’ve also expanded into some of the lesser characters in the books; and we’ve created new characters who could fill in the classroom and provide different models of who kids are. One of our goals is to have every kid look at the show and say, “There I am.” As a result, we’ve looked at creating a whole bunch of new characters who can help at that identification. For example, we created a new character, Ladonna, who’s from a military family. Every new character gives you a lot of new stories, and it also allows you to think about an audience and reach an audience — that’s really important to us.
No one’s perfect on the show, which I think is what makes the show very identifiable for kids.
That has been our goal from the very beginning. I had two young children when I started working on this show. It was so clear to me that kids navigate the world in very imperfect ways, and if they can see somebody else doing that, it can really make them feel better about the mistakes they make, and also learning from those mistakes. Because it’s those failures that teach them how to grow up.
Arthur viewers range in age from preschoolers to tweens. What is it about the show that helps it retain older viewers?
One of the things we try to do is build multiple levels into the story. If you watch it as a preschooler, you’re going to get the basic story. If you watch it as you get older, you’ll start to notice some of the other things that are going on, and then you feel clued in. I think it’s fun to watch and notice that there are ongoing stories that continue from show to show about different characters, or little jokes that come back. In some ways, it’s about respecting the intelligence of our viewers and giving them enough that they can really sink their teeth into. That’s what I want to see when I’m watching TV; also we try to continue to keep it funny.
You’ve tackled a lot of topics you don’t see in traditional children’s programming. How do you decide which topics to write about?
Typically one of us will draw on an experience that has been important. For example, we did a show where one of our characters, Mrs. MacGrady, got cancer; it was about how the kids would deal with that — somebody in their midst getting really sick. That was because our head writer had a friend experiencing cancer, and he said, “I think I want to write about this. How do people deal with this when they have kids?” We also have a fabulous advisor since the beginning, [psychiatrist] Dr. Paula Rauch of Massachusetts General Hospital. She also runs a whole center for kids whose parents have cancer. That’s an example of a topic coming together that resonated with a key advisor and our writers.
We created our autistic character, Carl, because a woman I worked with at WGBH adopted a child, who turned out to be autistic. She was saying at one point how difficult it was because there was no one like him on TV. So we thought, Well, if there’s no one like him on TV, let’s get somebody on Arthur. It’s those kind of inspirations. I think they work the best when you can talk to somebody and it’s coming out of real experience. I remember in the second season, I was supposed to have a phone call with someone who does the show’s international distribution, and he had to cancel the call. Later in the day, he called me back and said, “I’m so sorry, my son got on the wrong bus after school and we didn’t know where he was.” Of course, it immediately was an Arthur story. We had a writer call his son, he interviewed the son, and then we created a story about Arthur getting on the wrong bus. It’s those things that bump into us every day.
What has the series’ greatest achievement been so far?
That’s a tough one. Maybe just surviving for as long as we have? [laughs] The fact that we have been on television for as long as we have is a testament to all of those different pieces — respect for the audience, stories that come out of people’s different experiences, and the willingness to tackle the tough issues. I’m amazed that we’re still around and very proud of that fact.
What’s next for Arthur and friends?
We’re doing a one-hour special this season, which will be on next spring, about D.W. turning 5; it’s a very big deal. As you can imagine, D.W.’s birthday is not going to live up to her expectations because she has very high expectations. Over Season 20 we have new episodes, some airing this fall and some next spring, along with the D.W. Turns 5 birthday special. In Season 21, which we’re already working on and will air fall 2017, we have an Arthur Halloween Special coming.
Arthur can be seen daily on WGBH Boston and pbskids.org. A host of Arthur resources and fun can be found at pbskids.org/arthur/.