A boy aardvark with his own TV show is looking for a little help from his fans to help children better understand peers with special challenges.
Arthur, of book and PBS fame, and creator Marc Brown have tackled blindness and dyslexia, head lice and peanut allergies among the gang in Elwood City, the small town where the man and the aardvark first settled together in 1976.
Starting Monday, they're teaming up to invite children to create a new Arthur character, but not just any friend. They're looking for one with a unique ability, character trait or disability that might make life different, but no less fun.
Through March 31, children can send in drawings and descriptions of their creations for a chance to appear on TV in a short live-action segment. The winner will also get to meet Brown, who as author and illustrator has put out about 70 Arthur titles that have sold more than 65 million copies in the United States alone.
The contest, Brown said, is aimed at helping young people see past differences to accept that peers come in all shapes, sizes and abilities, like the variety of species in Arthur's world. Brown is proud of his efforts to promote inclusiveness and diversity through his Arthur work but acknowledged such issues are often confined to secondary story lines in children's television programming.
"I wish I had a very good answer for why that is," he said. "Arthur has included more diversity than a lot of other shows." The contest is "baby steps," Brown said, "but the more people who step up to the plate, it's going to become more and more comfortable."
Arthur himself was conceived on the basis of a challenging trait after Brown's oldest and now-grown son Tolon asked for a bedtime story one night when he was 5. Brown had just lost a job teaching art in Boston at a junior college that closed when Tolon begged: "Tell me a story about a weird animal."
Tired and a little depressed, Brown said he relied on the top of the alphabet to come up with both an aardvark and the name Arthur, making up an Everyboy who had a long, droopy snout. Arthur hated his nose so much that he visited a "rhinologist" to have it changed, but he soon realized he just wanted to be himself.
"Then Tolon wanted a picture, and I drew a picture. It was wonderful. I forgot all about where to find a job, how to buy diapers."
It took Brown only six months to get his first aardvark book, "Arthur's Nose," into print, relying on his sister and other relatives to flesh out his characters. Tolon, whose name and those of his two siblings are often hidden in Brown's Arthur drawings, now helps oversee on-screen media for his dad and will be one of the contest judges.
Growing up in Erie, Pa., Brown and his three sisters were treated regularly to stories from their grandmother. He later trained at the Cleveland Institute of Art, working as a truck driver, cook, freelance illustrator and TV art director along the way. Transitioning Arthur to TV in 1996 was nerve-racking for Brown.
"I had to learn to share," he said. "That was a really good lesson for me. Those characters had been all mine. I wasn't prepared for that really. It took a little while to get to the point where I thought, 'OK, I love the idea that Arthur's going to be on TV.'"
Over the 30 years Brown has been drawing Arthur, the long snout has slowly disappeared while his popularity exploded. Last season, the Arthur show reached more than 6 million people in the U.S. each week. The cartoon, co-produced by public television station WGBH in Boston, has six Emmys and a Peabody and is seen in 100 countries.
While Brown has allowed the characters to be used on a variety of merchandise, from backpacks to food, he remains suspicious about the commercial impact of television on kids.
"I have a problem with the majority of children's television, where it's really used as a vehicle to sell products," Brown said. "That's not really our focus. Arthur is what television should do — look for ways to be helpful to kids. It's such a positive medium if it's used well."
For the contest, Arthur is partnering with pharmacy and health care corporation CVS Caremark. Eileen Howard Dunn, a senior vice president for the company, considered Arthur a perfect vehicle to promote the "importance of friendship and the value of accepting and including kids with different abilities from all walks of life." It's a goal CVS has promoted through a broader program that lent its name to the contest: "All Kids Can."
"One of the reasons why we chose children with disabilities is because of the lack of awareness of the issue," said Dunn, who has five kids ages 2 to 10. "I just think you have to keep working at it and you've got to have new ways of explaining it and evolving it."
Dunn recalled a time years ago when a mother whose name and face she couldn't immediately conjure accosted her outside preschool to fawn over her oldest son, Jack.
"She was going on about how he was the most amazing child ever and I said, 'Thank you very much, blah blah blah,'" then Dunn asked Jack who she was.
"She was the mother of the deaf child in the class and Jack had interacted with her on a regular basis. He had lunch with her and played with her on the playground. He was explaining her trouble speaking when he said, 'If you just wait a little bit you can pretty much get what she means.'"
The experience "always stuck in my brain," Dunn said. "We want our kids to see kids as kids, not the wheelchairs or the walkers or the speech delays. Arthur teaches that, the value of inclusion."
On the Net:
Contest rules and entry form: http://pbskids.org/arthur/allkidscan/index.html
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