Will Success Spoil Arthur?

An Aardvark Beats Out Barney And The `Sesame Street' Gang To Become The New King Of The Kid Shows.

April 24, 1997|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

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.

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