An Interview with Carol Greenwald
by Mary Brigid Barrett
Carol Greenwald is Senior Executive Producer of Children’s Programs at WGBH Boston where she has produced some of the best-loved children’s shows on television. She is co-creator and Executive Producer for the multiple Emmy and Peabody Award-winning Arthur, now the longest running children’s animated series on television. She is also currently Executive Producer for two other series on PBSKids: Curious George, which premiered on PBS in Fall 2006 and is now one of the top rated series for kids 2 to 5, and Martha Speaks based on the books by Susan Meddaugh, which premiered Fall 2008 and supports the development of oral vocabulary.
In the education community some people view television as the evil enemy of reading and books. You evidently do not. Why?
Television is such a strong presence in the lives of children today that we ignore it at our peril. According to a Kaiser Foundation survey, the average kid is watching up to an hour of television every day. So why not try to harness the power of television to promote reading?
When you were a kid did you love books and television equally? Did the love of one discourage you from appreciating the other?
I was probably more of a reader than a television watcher, but I did and do enjoy both mediums.
What books did you love as a kid? Did you share those books with your children? What books do you love to read to your children now, and when they were little guys?
I loved all kinds of books when I was a kid and as my own kids grew up I very much enjoyed introducing them to books. Some of our favorites were the Narnia Chronicles, the Black Stallion series, A Wrinkle in Time and classics from Dickens to Jane Eyre. I’ve also enjoyed discovering new books with them like Skellig, Holes, and Lily’s Crossing. These days my kids are so grown up (twelve and fourteen), that we rarely get time to read together. Our new strategy is that when one of us discovers a book we think everyone else will like, we pass it around. Or my husband and I will re-read a book that one of the kids gets assigned in school. Then, it’s great to have dinner table conversations about the books.
Why did you choose the Arthur books by Marc Brown for a television series? What attracted you to the books? Why do you think kids like them? What age group is the show aimed at?
Actually I discovered the Arthur books through my son, when someone gave him Arthur’s Tooth for his third birthday. Here at WGBH, we had just read research that said that kids were motivated to read by watching television programs based on books and the Arthur series seemed like the perfect vehicle. I loved the humor of the stories, the charm of the characters and the illustrations, which had the potential to give a unique look for animation. But the main reason I liked them is the same reason I think kids connect to these books: the stories feel very true to life. The series is aimed at kids four to eight, but our audience ranges from toddlers to sixth graders and plenty of parents as well.
Is each Arthur program a television interpretation of a specific Arthur book? Do you expand on the story? Are other features included?
Each Arthur program consists of two separate stories, linked by a live action segment in which real kids do an activity connected to the theme of the story. Many of the stories are based on the original Arthur books but since we’ve produced over two hundred stories we ran out of books to use a long time ago. Instead our talented team of writers works closely with Marc Brown to write new stories that expand Arthur’s world. And now, some of the newer books are based on the stories from the television series!
Some authors are disappointed when their books are interpreted in television and the movies, and other authors are thrilled. What do you think makes an interpretation of a book into the television medium successful?
I think it’s critical to try to figure out what the essence of the book is and then interpret it. I don’t think you can always do a literal interpretation – just taking what’s in the book and putting it on television. But a good adaptation should go to the root of the author’s goal and ideas and build from them. After all, that is what makes the book such a success in the first place! And it helps to have the author working closely with you – though that’s not always possible.
Are you working on any new projects using television to connect kids with books and/or promoting reading?
We have several new projects in the works including one based on the Time Warp Trio book series by Jon Scieszka. We’re especially excited about this series because it targets the Arthur graduates – kids who are about to become independent readers. We think that the Time Warp books are terrific introductory chapter books that help motivate kids in the direction of reading.
As a parent, if you were to give one suggestion to young parents concerning their children’s television viewing, what would that be?
I think the more parents stay connected with what their kids are watching, the better off they are. I know it’s not realistic to watch TV with your kids all the time – as a parent I understand that at some point you need to cook dinner or take a shower! But, if you know the shows and can talk with your kids about them, it helps develop your child’s ability to make good judgments about television. It’s really about developing another form of literacy – media literacy. And of course, I always think that PBS is a terrific resource for parents to find programs that are both entertaining and educational.
What do you think is the best way to encourage kids to become enthusiastic lifelong readers?
Start them young and keep going. And don’t forget to make time to do your own reading. Parents are important models for their kids’ behaviors, and if at some point you choose to turn off the TV and pick up a book, your kids are just a little more likely to do the same.