When Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson pitched the idea for the math-focused preschool TV series Peg + Cat to PBS Kids – which was looking for content to support a STEM curriculum – their goal was to integrate math principles seamlessly into the fabric of the show. “We didn’t want the narrative to stop and then have a lesson. We wanted to weave math into the story,” says Oxley.
Candlewick will be publishing the first tie-in picture book, The Race Car Problem, in September in the U.S. and Canada under its Candlewick Entertainment imprint and in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand through Walker Entertainment. The show launched on PBS Kids in fall 2013.
The plot of each 11-minute episode is a math word problem, and math is integrated visually into the world where Peg and her cat live. “Jennifer created a world that looks like math,” Aronson says. “People think math isn’t cool, and they have a fear of it. But that’s not true. It’s empowering. Math is everywhere and you have to know it.”
Oxley had some experience with tie-in books; her background includes creating the look of Nickelodeon’s Wonder Pets (where she met Aronson, who was head writer) as well as roles on Blue’s Clues and Little Bill, all of which had licensed publishing programs. Aronson’s eclectic career ranges from working on musicals, including creating the original concept for Rent and the dialogue for Click, Clack, Moo!, to authoring science-themed books for W.H. Freeman Books for Young Readers, to writing for Beavis & Butthead.
The two authors see their Candlewick books, over which they maintain creative authority, as different from other tie-ins. “The Nickelodeon books felt like TV tie-ins,” Oxley says. “They’re in a different part of the store. These really feel like picture books. You use the show as your guide and you have backgrounds and assets you are able to use, but we find ourselves creating a lot of art. We’re having fun with the page turns and the flow.”
“The goal is for the story to feel like the show,” Aronson adds. “We make sure the words and art reflect it. But there might be an opportunity to include a gag that doesn’t work on TV. And we put a lot into the book to make it work as a whole. You don’t read it just once and outgrow it.”
The show’s natural harmony with the print medium is underlined by a serendipitous encounter that occurred during the creation of the TV concept. Oxley was discussing some ideas with Kate Klimo of Random House when she mentioned that she was working on a pitch to PBS. Klimo asked to see the bible – a document used to describe the concept for a new TV show – that Oxley and Aronson were creating as part of the pitch process. She liked it so much that Random House ended up publishing a standalone picture book starring the same characters, The Chicken Problem, which has since been reprinted with a burst about the TV series.
In addition to the TV show and the Candlewick tie-in books, which are tailored to ages 3–7, Oxley and Aronson are also working on the show’s website, housed within PBS Kids, as well as a series of game apps.
The show is produced by the Fred Rogers Company and is funded in part by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.