On May 11, Netflix Kids and Family Originals is premiering The Who Was? Show, a 13-episode TV series based on Penguin Young Readers’ bestselling Who Was? biographies. The live-action production, featuring a diverse teenage cast, tells the story of two historical figures per episode, in a show-within-a-show format that incorporates sketch comedy, improv and impersonations, animated shorts, and music videos.
“It’s The Muppets meets SNL meets You Can’t Do That on Television,” explained Francesco Sedita, president and publisher of Penguin Workshop and an executive producer of the show.
The Who Was? books have gained a strong and engaged following among teachers, librarians, and readers, all of whom are not shy about letting the publisher know their opinions. “We get letters from kids,” said Jane O’Connor, v-p and editor-at-large at Penguin, who inaugurated the series and still serves as one of its editors. “I’ve been corresponding with one boy who just keeps sending me more and more ideas for books.”
“There is this great participation and ownership of the series by the readers, and we wanted to capture that in the [TV] series,” Sedita said. “So we handed it over to kids. They are doing the performing and the teaching.”
The covers of the Who Was? books are instantly recognizable, with the historical figures illustrated as bobbleheads. “I wanted the covers to have that collectible look,” said O’Connor. “I thought they would stand out on bookshelves, and my hope was that kids would, as they say, collect them all.”
“The fans trade the books, in almost a baseball card kind of way,” Sedita explained. That was part of the impetus for pairing two unlike historical figures into each TV episode in a “what would happen if….” format. “I think about the bookshelf in a kid’s bedroom, where you would see a biography of Walt Disney next to the Great Wall of China, next to Alcatraz. There are all of these different points of history together, and that’s how I wanted the show to feel as well.”
Sedita believes the series could appeal to parents along with their kids. “I hope it will be a family viewing moment,” he said. “The parents will get a laugh from how silly the show can be, and they might even learn something about history. That secret education is always a part of it for me.”
Grosset & Dunlap launched the Who Was? book series with four titles in 2002. O’Connor, who was “a rabid reader of biographies as a child,” noted that at the time that there were plenty of easy-to-read, heavily illustrated biographies on the market, as well as a range of text-heavy biographies for older kids, but nothing for young middle grade readers who needed 100-plus pages but still were intimidated by books without illustrations. “The inspiration was to fill that niche.”
In its early years, Who Was? was a sleepy series for school and public libraries, with a few titles added each season. When Sedita joined Penguin in 2008, he and his team saw trade potential. “That marked the beginning of this phenomenal climb that has been really rewarding,” O’Connor said.
“We had started to see this beautiful growth in the series,” Sedita recalled. “We started to think about it differently.” The team added more contemporary figures as subjects and expanded into historical events (What Was?) and landmarks (Where Is?). All told, Who Was? and its two spin-off series—collectively known as WhoHQ—will encompass 231 titles by the end of 2018, with more than 35 million copies currently in print worldwide.
After Sedita made a short marketing film a few years ago to convey the story of what his imprint was up to, his then-boss suggested he create something along the same lines for Who Was? He and some college friends who were filmmakers produced a six-minute pilot in which Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Andy Warhol. Two years ago, Sedita pitched it to potential partners at the Kidscreen conference, where Netflix was on board immediately; the 13 episodes were shot in Brooklyn last summer.
O’Connor had never thought about Who Was? translating to TV. “I’m such a book person,” she said. “The TV series—that was Francesco, Francesco, and Francesco. He made this a cause. I think [the TV producers] did a really masterful job of weaving in the facts and the comedy, and the music is driving me over the moon. It’s just very, very clever. It’s mind-blowing!”