Often criticized for mind-numbing and violent content, Saturday-morning cartoons are still a TV staple. The idea of yet another animated lineup coming to the small screen is hardly earthshaking, but for PBS to be taking the plunge is a first.
“PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch” launches Saturday as a counter-programming gamble that marks a “significant investment” in age-appropriate, nonviolent shows for preschoolers, said John Wilson, PBS senior vice president of programming.
The six-show cartoon block is based on characters and stories created by some of the best-loved children’s book authors and illustrators in the country: Maurice Sendak’s “Seven Little Monsters,” Rosemary Wells’ “Timothy Goes to School,” Andrea Beck’s “Elliot Moose,” the late Don Freeman’s “Corduroy,” William Joyce’s “George Shrinks” and Betty and Michael Paraskevas’ “Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse.”
The shows are produced by Nelvana, the children’s entertainment supplier behind such parent-friendly offerings as Nickelodeon’s “Franklin” and “Little Bear” and the Disney Channel’s “Rolie Polie Olie.” All will be formatted with content promoting books, social skills and educational outreach to day-care centers and communities.
At least two of the authors involved, Joyce and Wells, were initially wary as both are shy about lambasting TV for exposing children to violence and vulgarity. Yes, Joyce is pleased with his Emmy-winning “Rolie Polie Olie” experience, but “I’ve had heads of studios tell me, ‘We just give them what they want,’ ” he said. Joyce’s “George Shrinks” is in the new Bookworm lineup. “We’re going to give them the equivalent [of junk food] because they want it? That’s not OK.”
“Supposing children’s books advocated violence [and] vulgar attitude,” Wells said. “They would never be published.
"[Kids] don’t have any filters yet; they don’t go, ‘This is bad for me,’ ” said Joyce. “Maybe if we slow it down, that will get their attention. That’s one reason why [Sendak’s] ‘Little Bear’ has done so well. It’s so calm.”
When it was clear that Toronto-based Nelvana and PBS would defer to the storytellers, Joyce and Wells were appreciative--and astonished. That PBS is turning so heavily to a Canadian company for its animated kids shows has triggered protests by U.S. cartoonists, who argue that the move is putting them out of work.
Though the cartoonists may be troubled, the children’s authors have found Nelvana supportive of their aims. “They let us be in control,” Joyce said.
“Or we wouldn’t have done it,” agreed Wells, whose “Timothy Goes to School” became the foundation for one of the “Bookworm” series.
Joyce, author of “Dinosaur Bob” and “Santa Calls,” is known for creating sweet-spirited and retro pop culture-influenced fantasy worlds that he illustrates in richly detailed paintings, some with Art Deco themes. Wells’ charmingly chubby animal characters and gentle stories have reflected the challenges and play of young children since the 1970s.
Both oversee all aspects of their shows: designing, writing, approving stories and artwork.
“I would have done 10 ‘George Shrinks’ books, but it takes me a year to do the illustrations,” Joyce said. “In animation, we can build a world and keep using it.” The ironclad rule, he added, is “check your cynicism at the door ... Being mean and funny is the easiest thing in the world.”
For her part, Wells was nervous about Nelvana’s commitment to her story and the characters.
“I was so worried about them doing something else. They did do something else, and I love it. [They] took characters from my other books and made it a really affirmative statement about going to kindergarten. And kids need that.
“Kids are needy in America,” she added. “They’re needy of education, of literacy, of calm, quiet--a lot of things. TV is there. Let’s use it for good.”
“PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch” can be seen Saturdays: “Corduroy (A and B shows)” 7 and 9:45 a.m.; “Elliot Moose,” 7:15 a.m.; “Timothy Goes to School,” 7:45 a.m.; “Seven Little Monsters,” 8:15 a.m.; “George Shrinks,” 8:45 a.m.; “Marvin the Tap Dancing Horse,” 9:15 a.m. The network has rated the series TV-Y (suitable for young children).