'Lions' a New Classic for Kids on PBS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A whopping gold star to PBS for its fine-tuned, ground-breaking new educational series, "Between the Lions."

Beginning its daily schedule today, this stellar literacy tool can claim pride of place with the best of the best: PBS' "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street," the Disney Channel's "Bear in the Big Blue House" and Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues."

Using all the elements that make those outstanding shows so true to a very young target audience--child developmental integrity, respect for children as thinking individuals, a wellspring of creativity--the learn-along, entertaining "Between the Lions" has been carefully crafted to actively involve an older group: the ready-to-read set and beginning readers, ages 4 to 7.

That care is evident from the moment viewers are ushered into the fantasy library world belonging to the Muppet-style Lion family: librarians Theo, Cleo and their inquisitive cubs, Lionel and Leona.

Each half-hour episode, composed of multiple segments, is themed with a featured text, key word and "target vowel." In the series opener, a rhyming tale, "Pecos Bill Cleans Up the West," sets the stage for everything to come. Read by Theo, the text is highlighted, illustrations come to animated life and a line from the story, repeated, becomes a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along with on-screen lyrics.

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In a "Cliff Hanger" cartoon--another regular feature with words in comic-strip balloons and identifying labels on objects--a big-jawed hero tumbles off a cliff toward the ground where movers are carrying the letters "ed." Just a mite too late, he adds a "b" to soften his landing. He grabs a branch to break his fall, all set up for another cliffhanging adventure.

That's just for starters. Back in the library, Click, a computer mouse puppet, clicks up Pecos Bill's cyclone (an animated paper twister), wreaking havoc in the library. She clicks up Pecos Bill (another animated paper cutout) to help, and the Lions realize they'll have to write a new story so that Bill can tame the cyclone and clean up the "mess"--another key word.

Each episode contains regular and recurring features. Here a rabbit in a hat announces variety acts, a wacky puppet named Arty Smartypants emotes on stage, reading "e" words, and "The Word Doctor," Dr. Ruth Wordheimer--played by guess who--helps a puppet orangutan sound out the word "impression."

As varied as the inventive segments are, this is no scattershot, catch-as-catch-can approach. With rhyme, songs, repetition and witty, imaginative visuals, each segment clearly builds on the next in a smooth melding of "whole language" and phonics, coming full circle to reinforce the day's lesson.

PBS: Go to the head of the class.

* "Between the Lions" can be seen weekdays at 2 p.m. on KCET. The network has rated it TV-Y (suitable for very young children).

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