Since 2014, author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos have introduced young readers to inspiring historical and contemporary individuals in Dial’s Ordinary People Change the World series, which has 2.8 million books in print. PBS will bring the series’ extraordinary heroes and heroines to life on the screen with the November 11 debut of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, premiering with five episodes on PBS stations nationwide, the PBS Kids 24/7 channel, and the PBS Kids digital platforms.
The TV series, comprised of two 11-minute stories per episode, follows the adventures of intrepid Xavier Riddle, his indomitable younger sister Yadina, and their reluctant yet determined friend Brad. In each program, the often bullied trio faces a problem and, via the Secret Museum, travels back in time to meet real-life historical figures when they were kids to help them solve it.
In the inaugural PBS episodes, the kids encounter and receive counsel from young George Washington Carver, Charles Dickens, Amelia Earhart, Zora Neale Hurston, and Helen Keller. Every episode aims to encourage viewers to recognize a connection between the attributes that made each individual a hero (including courage, resilience, and commitment to one’s goals) and those same qualities within themselves, helping them recognize their own unlimited potential.
Not surprisingly, the tenets and aspirations of Xavier Riddle echo those of Ordinary People Change the World, which grew out of Meltzer and Eliopoulos’s determination to introduce their own children to real-life role models. “The initial inspiration for the book series was actually quite selfish,” Meltzer told PW. “At the time, my daughter was spending a lot of time dressed in princess outfits, and I knew I could give her better heroes to emulate.” The author had a vision for doing that, and contacted Eliopoulos, with whom he had bonded on Twitter over their shared love of comic books, to ask if the artist had any interest in teaming up with him to create a book series about historical and living heroes.
Eliopoulos reported that Meltzer’s timing was impeccable. “I had been working in illustration for some time and was looking to get into publishing,” he recalled. “And out of the blue, Brad sent me a message saying, ‘I have this dream, and I want you to join me to work on it.’ In one shining moment, I knew this was something I wanted to do. I have to say that the best thing to me has been the friendship we got out of it.”
Their creative teamwork proved smooth-going from the start, as the two collaborated on I Am Amelia Earhart, one of the series’ debut titles (along with I Am Abraham Lincoln), which Dial released in January 2014. “I had done a rough mock-up displaying my quick vision of the book to show Chris,” Meltzer said. “And then I did something that I’ve learned to do with an artist: I shut up!”
That turned out to be a wise move. “Any cartoonist can do cute and some can do funny, but the hardest thing to do is show heart,” the author said. “I knew that if we were going to have a generation of kids fall in love with Amelia Earhart, we had to capture heart. And Chris knocked it out of the park. The best part was that, for both of us, the series came from a pure place. We both had young kids and we saw which ‘heroes’ were being fed to them, and we knew we could do better for them. We never had any idea that the series would take off the way that it did.”
Casting a Wider Net
The idea of further extending the reach of the series’ message came to its creators early on, Meltzer said. “I had known Linda Simensky [v-p of children’s programming for PBS] for decades, and talked to my agent, Jodi Reamer, about approaching Linda about doing a program based on our book series. Chris and I thought it would be a good way to continue to use our creativity for good in this world.”
Simensky agreed and gave Meltzer and Eliopoulos the go-ahead to create Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. “At PBS Kids, we always want children to see themselves in our characters,” she said in a statement. “This program aligns with this commitment, showing kids that they can be change-makers through the relatable stories of history’s most iconic figures. Brad is a visionary storyteller, and we’re thrilled to partner with him and Chris and 9 Story Media Group to bring this series to life. We hope that it will help kids across America discover that anyone can change the world.”
Meltzer and Eliopoulos (along with Vince Commisso, Blake Tohana, and Rob Weisbach) are executive producers of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, which is a production of 9 Story Media Group’s animation studio, Brown Bag Films, in Toronto. Eliopoulos, who designed the characters for the PBS show with the goal of “making them look just like the books, so that both viewers and readers will recognize them immediately,” noted that “the animation team at 9 Story did a phenomenal job of making sure that happened. Brad and I have both been involved every step of the way, which is wonderful. It’s so important to us to keep it pure—this book series is our baby!”
And the collaborators anticipate that both series—the one on the page and that on the screen—will continue to grow. With each episode of Xavier Riddle showcasing two heroic individuals (future subjects include Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Neil Armstrong, and Harriet Tubman), the creators have compiled a sizable master list of additional potential subjects for the PBS show. That list extends beyond the existing backlist of Ordinary Heroes titles—and Meltzer is hopeful that many of those individuals will eventually be spotlighted in the book series, whose 19 titles include I Am Marie Curie and I Am Walt Disney, released in September.
But on the eve of the premiere of Xavier Riddle, Meltzer focused on his expectations for the PBS show. “When I watch my own kids watch this series, I get to see them realize that there’s extraordinary within the ordinary,” he said. “This was my hope in creating the book series for my kids—and my hope for children around the world. Through this show and the individuals it features, I hope all children find their own heroic abilities and feel empowered to change the world.”