Ahem, folks: An aardvark is creeping onto our cultural landscape.

Unlike other creatures that television makes ubiquitous, this one is neither fluffy nor purple nor wimpy. He's someone for whom the world is an uncertain place, and he's trying to find his way, with humor.

His name is Arthur. He wears huge glasses and an occasional bow tie, frets over his essays, thinks his wisecracking little sister D. W. is the world's biggest pest. A true nerd, is Arthur.

But his debut on television after 20 years in books has been so successful that nerds may never again be uncool. That is, if success doesn't spoil him.

Halfway through its first season on public television, "Arthur," the animated stories of an aardvark and his friends, third-graders all, surpassed "Barney" and "Sesame Street" as PBS' most-watched children's show.

And in defiance of the usual wisdom about TV numbing the brain, demand for Arthur books first printed in the 1970s and 1980s has publisher Little, Brown scrambling: Reprint orders ran at 2 million in March alone, propelling Arthur books ahead of R. L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series, the most popular line of kids' books of all time.

To Arthur Read, and his creator, Marc Brown, it's all been wonderful but rather astounding. You see, they are both fairly cautious and circumspect. For years they rejected all manner of offers from television for fear it would corrupt them. Why tamper with success? After all, they had sold 10 million books since 1976.

Of course, it's gratifying, too. For the same number of years, Brown has been complaining about the poor quality of writing on children's television shows. Studies of children watching this show find that 80 percent of them want to read about Arthur, too. That's 80 percent of 8.5 million children.

Wow. That's just what PBS was looking for when WGBH-Boston executive producer Carol Greenwald approached Brown with the idea for "Arthur" -- a television show that would inspire children to read. She read Arthur books to her son, now 9, when he was just 3; neither parent nor child tired of it. "Kids are really attracted to the stories because they can see themselves in them," she says.

Brown, an artist, invented Arthur the Aardvark as a bedtime story for his oldest son and wrote the first book after losing his teaching job. The first book was about Arthur's nose, and it paved the way for nearly 30 books on life through the eyes of an 8-year-old: Arthur gets glasses. Outwits a bully. Endures the arrival of a new baby sister. Opens a pet business and gets a dog. Overcomes the humiliation of being the only kid in class to still have all his baby teeth.

"In Arthur's world, the world is a series of problems -- as it is for me -- and it is how we solve them that's important," Brown said in a phone interview from his home in Hingham, Mass., the backdrop for Arthur's adventures.

When you're walking down the street in this world -- as the show's theme song goes -- everybody that you meet has an original point of view. Everybody has a different look, too.

Arthur's best friend, Buster, is a rabbit. Mr. Ratburn is his teacher and, yes, a rat. His pal Francine, first draft for baseball teams, is a chimpanzee. There's Muffy, snooty Muffy, and pretty Prunella. And there's Arthur's nemesis, Binky Barnes. He's a bulldog.

A Binky Barnes once terrorized Brown himself in grade school. "I dreaded recess," Brown says. "Clarence Jordan was there lurking by the swing set."

Though Arthur is only 8, he is attractive to viewers of all ages because what he bares so totally is -- to some degree -- inside everyone.

"We're a little unsure of ourselves," Brown offers.

Drawn from his life

Some adventures come from Brown's three children, Toulon, Tucker and Eliza, whose names and birthdays are etched on car license plates and dresser drawers and other odd places in Brown's rich watercolors for the Arthur books. But much of "Arthur" is autobiographical.

"Arthur is a reflection of me as a child in some ways," the illustrator says. "I was probably more introverted than Arthur as a child." If Arthur were to take a personality test, Brown says, he would be slightly extroverted. "Arthur is my way of being extroverted," he explains.

In one TV episode, Arthur's confidence is so shaken when Binky Barnes chooses a front-row seat at the magic show Arthur is giving that bunnies turn up everywhere but in his black hat. But when Arthur requests that Binky Barnes come on stage for the final trick -- the one where Arthur saws a volunteer in half -- Binky's smugness gives way to terror. Even Mr. Ratburn sneaks a laugh.

Some long-time readers of Arthur fear Binky Barnes is being "dumbed down" for television. But Brown says television presents the opportunity to "get inside his head more, to find out what makes him so miserable." An episode now on the drawing board reveals that Binky Barnes is afraid to sleep without his night light.

Arthur, meanwhile, seems even more modest and lovable on TV than in his books. He's the kind of fellow who thinks first of what Santa would want for Christmas. An aardvark who tries hard and, to his surprise, sometimes wins. He is speechless, for instance, when he learns he has to read his winning essay to the president of the United States! But he manages it when the bratty but loyal D. W. climbs a tree on the White House lawn and unfurls Arthur's speech on cloth so he can read it the way TV anchors read the news.

Having way-cool parents also helps. His mom pulls out his baby pictures just when he is feeling blue. Dad vacuums with Baby Kate strapped to his back.

'Arthur'! 'Arthur'!

For a while Brown tired of Arthur books and pledged to return to painting when his book contract expired in 1995. It never happened, he says, because every time he visited schools and libraries, kids wanted more stories about Arthur. And then PBS came calling.

He hemmed and hawed over the offer the same way Arthur did over the arrival of a new sister. Finally, after he was given final say on the script, the toys, the music, the kids' voices, the animators, well, the last word on everything, Brown said OK.

That kind of deal is unusual, but Brown didn't want Arthur to be used and abused. There are only 30 Arthur books, and 60 15-minute TV episodes were needed in the first season alone. The first thing he did was to unload all of his ideas on screenwriters, some of whom also write for "Saturday Night Live," "Ellen" and "Seinfeld." Many of the new episodes are stories he doesn't have time to write.

Brown and WGBH chose CINAR Films, the Montreal-based company that animated the "Madeleine" and Richard Scarry stories, to bring Brown's characters to life. The labor-intensive art is wildly expensive for a daily children's series -- $13 million for the first 30 shows -- and each of the three parties helps fund the show.

Now, as Brown finds himself inspecting Arthur pajamas and lunchboxes in a bid to maintain control of his creation, he thinks of Arthur's success as a case of "be careful what you wish for," he says.

Plush versions of Arthur and friends, designed by the same company that produces the fine Paddington Bear, Madeleine, and Beatrix Potter characters, were sold in stores like FAO Schwarz long before he went to TV. Now Arthur stuff is about to show up in Toys R Us. Three videos are on sale and more are coming.

Parents tell Brown not to be so elitist -- if a kid can only afford an Arthur T-shirt, why not let him have it? But Brown wonders why kids need that kind of thing, anyway.

So he oversees licensing "like a hawk," trying to walk the line between being embarrassed about selling Arthur -- a pretty un-Arthurlike thing, really -- and wanting to help fund the show.

Too commercial

Brown says he was personally offended when Barney products exploded when that show took off -- there were more than 400 licensees at the peak of the purple dinosaur's half-billion-dollar empire -- and that's something he could never do, he says.

"I could see how quickly one could be seduced to just turning it over to the commercial world," he says. "It is just not anything that holds a lot of interest for me. I was successful before the television. This is just something that is going on. It's amazing to me. I can't process it."

So though he's made a ton of money, success has put Marc Brown in a kind of nether world between creativity and routine. Writing and illustrating Arthur books was once what Brown did for fun. Now it's business.

Television has only increased the pressure: WGBH is flooded with 1,500 e-mails a month for Arthur from children who want to hear more from him. "I am moving, Arthur," begins one child in a typical inquiry, "what do you think I should do?"

Brown doesn't pretend to have all the answers. But like Arthur, he'll try to handle it on his own terms. One PBS episode coming next season: Arthur tries to kick the TV habit.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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