Amid the convoluted daytime landscape of Pokemon, "All My Children" and Rosie, a new TV entry arrives today with a simple purpose: Teach children to read.
PBS' "Between the Lions" delivers a frenetic mix of puppets, live action, animation and music that takes on the task of combating illiteracy with full fervor. This half-hour series is packed with educational pieces that lock together like the most intricate of puzzles. " 'Between the Lions' is for graduates of 'Sesame Street,' for those kids who have gone past very beginning concepts," says its creative director, Christopher Cerf.
The latest recruits in the fight for reading proficiency swish furry tails and roar when awakened unexpectedly. Librarians Theo and Cleo are the proud parents of lion cubs Lionel and Leona, whose (mis)adventures provide the fodder for each lesson. This small pride evokes memories of C.S. Lewis and Disney's more recent rendition of the king of beasts, but the inspiration for the name seems much closer to the urban jungle.
"We wanted to base [the show] in a library, and most libraries have those stone lions out in front. So, you have to walk between the lions to get inside," says Judith Stoia, executive producer. "Every good idea starts with a bad pun. That's ours."
This one also started with good intentions. Six years ago, a group that included members of Jim Henson productions and "Sesame Street" decided the link between illiteracy and other social ills was too strong to be ignored. They went to work raising funds and assembling top reading specialists, who developed the series' curriculum. A coalition of experts, innovators and literacy organizations emerged. Boston's PBS station, WGBH, helped put the resulting children's program on the air. Today's debut episode is a whirlwind of activity as Pecos Bill's tall tale of taming a twister illustrates a lesson in words with the short vowel "e."
Songs are interspersed with stories and skits that blend the whole language and phonics methods of teaching reading.
"Though the show has a lively attitude, there's nothing in it that isn't deliberate. The curriculum came first," says Stoia.
Finely woven through each program is a thread that links the main story with complementary segments on phonics. These self-contained scenes highlight words that spin off key words, such as: best, bet, bell. "We built in all kinds of switches with different consonants," says Cerf, a "Sesame Street" contributor.
Skit titles such as "Cliff Hanger," "Gawain's Word" (think "Wayne's World"), "Arty Smartypants" and the "Re and Un People" resemble a G-rated version of "Saturday Night Live." But these irreverently funny sketches are likely to strike a nerve with kids tuned to a faster pace than previous generations.
The bookends to this sanctioned silliness are original stories, familiar fables, folk tales and poetry.
These feature the lion family and their ensemble cast: the live computer mouse, Click; a talking bust of the library's founder, Mr. Barnaby B. "Don't Call Me Buster!" Busterfield; pigeons Walter and Clay; Dr. Ruth (yes, THE Dr. Ruth) Wordheimer, who specializes in "long-word freakout and other literary disorders"; Martha Reader and the Vowelles; and Heath the Thesaurus, a dinosaur. "We wanted our characters to serve the curriculum," says Cerf.
"Kids learn in different ways so we wanted to appeal to them in many ways: comedy, music, episodes, word combinations, all within the context of stories. Then we realized we could animate the entire process," says Cerf. He said they knew they wanted puppetry because "the younger part of the audience needed to see the interaction in the real world," and "animation makes possible all sorts of things in storytelling, and older kids like the edginess of it."
Independent research commissioned by the "Lions" group and gathered last summer pointed them in this direction. "We were surprised at how much TV teaches children," says Stoia. "It's great for teaching reading, as strange as that sounds."
With 30 original episodes set to air weekdays and repeating in order for nine cycles, she hopes "Between the Lions" will make its daily presence felt.
Reinforcing that is the series' companion Web site, pbskids.org/lions, which goes live today just like its counterpart. It was conceived to be used in tandem with each episode. Aspiring readers can play 12 different interactive games; see a retelling of any or all 30 stories; download puzzles, letter-writing guides or any of the individual segments from the show; use a Word Helper glossary and listen to songs in QuickTime.
Parents also have resources on the site: 300 tips for the "10-minute parent," lists of recommended books, tips on reading to children and activities for the entire family. An extensive outreach campaign also encourages teachers to access materials and teach the lessons in class.
'Between the Lions'
What: New children's TV series
Where: PBS stations
When: Weekdays at 11 a.m. and 3: 30 p.m. on (Channels 22 and 67) and at 3: 30 p.m. on WETA (Channel 26)