'Arthur' is a beloved children’s book-turned-television-series right alongside classics like 'Babar' or 'Frog and Toad.' Now with over 100 related books and a 26-year run on PBS, it has paved the way for young readers and writers alike. In an enlightening interview with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Arthur creator and three-time Emmy award winner, Marc Brown shared a bit of advice and insight on what happens during the shift from children’s publishing to children’s entertainment.
September 29, 2023
MB: Arthur became a television entity in 1994 after WGBH, a PBS affiliate in Boston, called me up and asked me if the TV rights were available. I said, “yeah, but I'm not really interested in doing television.”
They found me from a talk I did at a local library in the Boston area. Carol Greenwald, the executive producer, just happened to be there that night with her two kids. She liked what I had to say about writing and illustrating books, and her kids really liked the 'Arthur' books. So that's how it started.
I really wasn’t interested in doing television. I had turned down a couple of offers for network animation. I was worried that I’d have no control over what was going to happen with my characters. But Carol had a really interesting agenda: she wanted to use TV and animation, these two seductive forces for kids, to make them want to read and go to the library. So that's what won me over. And so the big adventure with 'Arthur' and television began.
MB: I liked PBS because it wasn't using television to sell things to kids. I had a respect for their programming.
As far as being assured control: it took a year to negotiate a contract for this, and I had a good lawyer who just stood firm on certain issues. We were following 'Barney' and the incredible financial success that [show] had. PBS did not really share in a fair way with that yield and they were withholding in the deal that they were doing with me. I had to stand up for what it was that I felt was fair, and we worked it out.
I became executive producer and I was involved creatively. I knew nothing about television other than a brief career as a set designer at a local NBC affiliate when I was still in college (and I didn't last too long). I really cared about what was going to happen with my characters. So I was a little bit of a control freak.
MB: I had [over 20] books at the time so we went through all of those first. The writers based screenplays on all of those books. Then we had to move into uncharted territory with other stories that kids would find helpful and interesting. We had the start of it but there was a lot of room for new stories.
MB: I like kids. I respect kids. I want to be helpful to kids. I had a really good friend in Fred Rogers, who I held in high regard for how to use the media to reach children and be helpful to them. He set a really high bar and I just tried to get as close to that as I could.
We had high standards. We weren't afraid to tackle subjects that were not tackled in children's animation. We took risks and I think, for the most part, they really paid off well. We allowed kids to hear things talked about on television and animation that normally weren't. For example, I think of the Mr. Ratburn episode.
Every year we'd get together and we'd have a brainstorm meeting. We'd all come with ideas for shows with the writers. They would find subjects that they felt a certain affinity with, and go off and write scripts. We wanted to have Mr. Ratburn get married. The more we talked about it, we thought it was an opportunity to do something for kids that was special and that dealt with a subject that wasn't represented enough on television. So we had Mr. Ratburn marry Patrick. And the focus was on the kids. They loved Mr. Ratburn and they just wanted him to be happy. So that's really the focus of that story and it really resonated with so many people.
I can't tell you the number of letters and emails I got from kids and young adults wishing that story was around when they were growing up. It was just really heart warming because, not that many years before, we did a spin off of 'Arthur' with 'Postcards from Buster.' It was about connecting kids with other kids, trying to show the ways in which kids lived differently all over the world. We did one episode that was focused on Vermont, maple sugar, and making cheese. That family happened to be a family with two moms.
When the Department of Education learned this, they pulled all of our funding. They made it really difficult for us to continue with that series, which was really unfortunate. It was embraced by kids and families in a big way so that really hurt. What hurt most was having to talk to that family and those kids: “Why can't we be on TV?” I mean, we spent some time crying together over that. So, fast forward [about ten years] to Mr. Ratburn and that being accepted. It really showed that we're making progress.
MB: I’m all for freedom of speech. Not everyone is going to like what we do and I understand that. What I found really endearing about it all was that these young adults who grew up with Arthur still identified with these characters so strongly that they could make a meme, and use them to suggest a certain attitude or feeling. So for me, it was all good.
I still get letters every day from kids and, now, many young adults who grew up with Arthur, writing the most sincere, wonderful letters about what certain episodes meant to them and how they changed their lives. I just have to sit down and take it in. They’re wonderful! That they would take the time to do that and send me these letters.
MB: Arthur has allowed me to understand how to make stories for television that are successful. When we knew that we were gonna end on year 25, I had already started to think about a show for younger children. I really admired what Fred Rogers had done for a younger audience. I thought, with the power of animation, I'd like to see what I could do.
One day, it just happened with a doodle. I drew this little frog and I noticed that one leg was a little shorter than the other. I thought, well, that could be interesting. So I started to imagine this world for him.
Then I got together with my son, Tolon, who had been a producer on 'Arthur' for 22 years, and our head writer, Peter Hirsch, who is a good friend. We started to have regular meetings about developing a world for 'Hop' and what we could do with characters with different disabilities. With 'Arthur,' we occasionally had characters with disabilities but they were never ongoing major characters. So what would it be like to have a show with the majority of these characters? One is blind. One is autistic. Hop has difficulty walking a little bit. We started to build this world and, now, it's going to launch next year on Max. And I'm really excited about that.
MB: I find it more difficult now.
Because of 'Arthur,' I had a little bit of a head start with 'Hop.' We pitched it to all the major studios. The first place we pitched it was HBO Max; I just felt at home there. The people who we were talking with really understood what we were trying to do and liked it. They got the humor so, fortunately, that worked out.
But, at one point, all of a sudden they cut so much of the children's programming [after the Warner Bros. and Discovery merger]. Many shows were affected, including ours. Months passed, then they said, "we're gonna honor our commitment and you can go on with the production," which was so nice.
I think publishing is harder as well. It used to be that you could just talk to an editor about a project. They had people who just reviewed unsolicited manuscripts—that's gone. You really have to have an agent now to get your foot in the door.
I also fault publishers to a certain degree for “over publishing.” I wish that they were more discriminating at the beginning and focused on the projects that they believed in the most and really get behind them. Don't even get me started on celebrity books! The amount of money, time, and energy spent on those when 95% of them probably never earn back those enormous advances. That [money] could have been dispersed among ten young people who are starting out, and they would probably get ten better books!
A lot has changed. I feel like I've seen a lot of change in both television and publishing. It's harder in both areas to get your foot in the door than it used to be. But, you have to keep going.
MB: I don’t consider myself an author! I think I'm an illustrator, and it was out of necessity that I became an author because I wanted to publish books and illustrate them, and I wasn't getting any good manuscripts or hardly any manuscripts at all.
I was fortunate enough to grow up with a great-grandmother and a grandmother who were wonderful storytellers. That gave me a little bit of encouragement: that maybe I could tell stories. Having a child and telling him bedtime stories, that's how 'Arthur' was born. That's how I got my start.
But for me, [being an author] is hard work. I like the feeling of that hard work and getting the story in shape so that I can do the artwork, which I love.
When I made the transition from books to TV, I was struck at how similar a picture book and an animated show are. You’ve invented your characters. You're writing your scripts. You're casting. You're doing this directing, setting up costuming and sets. But with a picture book, you have to stop the frame. That's always hard because things are moving in my head. The characters don't stop easily. So when I moved to television, I was really excited that my characters could talk. They could move! It just felt kind of liberating.
MB: I would be gardening full-time. I'd love to grow things. I balance my time by being in the studio and going out, planting things, and moving things around. I've been teaching myself about perennial flowers, which I always had a fascination with but never had the courage to try.
I might have been an architect if I had been better in math. When I say that to the architects, they go: "I’m not good at math!" Now, you tell me! I’d just like to renovate old houses.
MB: There's so many things that come to mind.