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The Lions' Tale
Shannon Maughan -- 4/3/00
PBS launches Between the Lions, a new literacy series for kids

Literary lions bring books to TV
"Sunny day/chasing the clouds away/ On my way/ to where the air is sweet..." Any adult or child of a certain age will recognize these words as the opening strains of the theme song to Sesame Street, the enduring (and revolutionary) educational program for preschoolers on public television. Well, sunny days are here again with the buzz about Between the Lions,a new children's literacy series which debuts on PBS Monday, April 3rd and hopefully picks up where Sesame Street leaves off.
The daily, half-hour program stars a family of lion puppets--parents Theo and Cleo, and cubs Lionel and Leona--who oversee a magical library where stories, books and words come to life, singing is encouraged, celebrities visit and much fun is had. But most importantly, the place "between the lions" is where children (target age 4-7) can receive help and encouragement as they learn to read. The show's creators and producers believe the combination of puppetry, humor and animation, backed by a solid literacy curriculum, can get kids "wild about reading." The show also aims to entertain parents who watch with their kids, and perhaps aid those adults whose first language is not English.

As a co-venture between educational entertainment company Sirius Thinking, Ltd., which was co-founded by several of the creative folks behind Sesame Street and The Electric Company,and WGBH Boston, home to such previous successes as Arthur and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Between the Lions has a solid pedigree. The series has been in various stages of development for about five years, but according to creative producer and Sirius Thinking co-founder Chris Cerf, the idea of "a reading program that's educational, entertaining and irreverent dates back to the late '60s," when Sesame Street first arrived on the scene.

Cerf, Michael Frith and Norm Stiles, all partners at Sirius, provide the series with an expertise rooted in their many years as key creative players in programming from Children's Television Workshop and the Jim Henson Company. But their creative ideas needed funding to become a reality. In 1995 Sirius Thinking attracted such corporate leaders as former Apple Computer CEO John Scully and secured the partnership with WGBH when they presented a pitch for the new show. The WGBH alliance led to major funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and several other sources.

Building a Curriculum

Though they had long had a vision for Between the Lions, Cerf says that he and his partners knew that "a solid curriculum needed to be built first, then we could add all the music and entertainment elements around that." To that end, Sirius enlisted experts in both the education and library fields to develop an approach to reading that includes both whole language and phonics teaching methods. "We gathered experts from the whole language and phonics sides and came to an agreement on a curriculum that emphasizes skills teaching and a love of literature," he says; "we think it teaches skills in context." On Between the Lions, characters read whole texts (original stories, p try, familiar folktales and fables), and deconstruct them into smaller parts by singing through some phonics practice with Martha Reader and the Vowelles, for example, or sounding out words with Dr. Ruth Wordheimer (played by the real-life Dr. Ruth Westheimer). In addition, sessions with librarians and tours of libraries in different parts of the country helped the show's producers understand the ins-and-outs of how a library works and how people use it.

In further research, Cerf says that the University of Kansas (which also performed studies for Sesame Street)is conducting a pre-airdate study of kindergarten and first-grade students to test the efficacy of the program. "So far, the early research is very promising," he said. Cerf adds that a few smaller tests, using the pilot episode of Between the Lions,were given by some educators last summer, with equally positive results.

Sirius's commitment to teaching kids to read and its dedication to in-depth field research have ensured the support of many literacy and educational organizations, which have signed on as founding partners of Between the Lions. The American Library Association, Reading Is Fundamental, First Book, Library of Congress, Center for the Book and the International Reading Association are among the organizations on the series' roster. A number of corporate sponsors including Cheerios and eToys.com have also recently come on board. All of them will incorporate Between the Lions and its charactersinto new and existing outreach programs, projects and promotions that reach children in schools, libraries and communities.

According to Cerf, outreach is paramount for Between the Lions. "This project is really an educational initiative with a TV show at its center," he says. "We want a show that is fun, but has a serious purpose, too." He adds that the show's Web site will be a critical part of the initiative. Visitors to www.pbskids.org/lions will find content that complements each TV episode including activities for kids, downloadable stories and resources for parents.

Licensing Ventures

And in this age of synergy, Between the Lions has already entered into several licensing agreements for ancillary items. "We want to be very careful about rolling out any licensed products, because this is definitely not a purely commercial venture," says Cerf. Among the first items out of the starting gate are tie-in activity and novelty books from Golden, available this summer. "All of them are meant to be fun, but they reinforce the curriculum too," he explains. Though Golden will be producing the tie-in editions, other publishers are not completely left out. Books by various companies will sometimes appear on the program.

Plush toys of the Between the Lions characters will be available from Eden later in the summer. Fisher-Price will unveil Between the Lions toys in fall 2000 and Hallmark will gradually rollout a line of cards and party items, possibly beginning with a Christmas ornament in fall 2000. Home video and audio licensing deals as well as a textbook agreement are in the works, and Cerf says talks are ongoing with a major retail outlet that could give Between the Lions more exposure in 2001.

So far, Cerf agrees that the future of Between the Lions looks mighty bright. "It's taken years to get here," he said, "but we wanted to build something that will last. We believe TV can be a good way to teach reading; the two media [books and television] are not necessarily enemies. If it all works together, we hope we can make a difference."
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