It's not overstating things to say that Marc Brown is one of the most influential, least-known people in America.
The children's book character he created three decades ago — a lovable but occasionally fussy bespectacled aardvark named Arthur — became the central figure in a franchise which would culminate in the longest-running animated kid's TV series in history.
Only "franchise" is something Brown would reject. He initially refused to license his character to TV at all, citing the medium's mostly negative influence on children.
But, as you'll see in this interview, he changed his tune. It wasn't just for money that he did so — the Arthur series, which began airing in 1996, has always been on the perpetually budget-challenged PBS.
We spoke with the three-time Emmy Award winner ahead of his repeat gig at the Savannah Children's Book Festival.
This might sound ridiculous. But the world you've created is like something out of Lord of the Rings. So many characters with interlocking storylines. And Arthur isn't always the most important one.
Marc Brown: I felt very strongly when we took the characters from books to TV that, though the show is called Arthur, it was a story about relationships. That makes it so much more realistic and richer an experience for kids to see that each story can be about Arthur's friends and family, and how he is a part of that world. It's a true ensemble cast (laughs). Also, so many characters allows you to tell a better story.
It must be difficult turning over your creation to someone else, in a collaborative sense.
Marc Brown: The turning point for me was having to share characters with other writers on the TV series. Once I accepted the fact that I had to share, I could deal with it. It wasn't easy at first. At that point I had sold about six million books and visited a lot of schools. Arthur had a loyal following and I felt I had a responsibility that went with that. To turn that over would be quite difficult.
But I saw that it was more fun to play with a group of people who understand these characters and respected them, and more importantly, respected children. It has been an amazing experience for me to work with other very clever, very smart writers who can see facets of other personalities in ways I might not even see them.
My good friend Fred Rogers was so smart in using TV to be helpful to kids. That was always my agenda with Arthur as well.
And: Are you ready for this? Arthur is now the longest running animated TV show in history. I can't even begin to process that. And PBS just ordered two more seasons – we're in season 16 now, and there will be a season 17 and 18. I thought it would go maybe two years and I'd be lucky (laughs).
Not to compare Arthur with SpongeBob, but that series experienced an obvious and dramatic decline in quality after its creator, Stephen Hillenburg, parted ways with Nickelodeon. Have you ever wanted to walk away? How have you managed to avoid a similar scenario with PBS?
Marc Brown: I'm a control freak (laughs). It's both difficult and good. When I made the decision to go to TV I had a lot of requirements and a lot of approvals PBS had to agree to. It took a year to negotiate. I couldn't be luckier for them to be producing it. I'm with people who really care about kids.
PBS is quite a different world than Nickelodeon. You know, Nickelodeon started out with a good plan. It sounded like it would be great for kids. But they turned into a toy-selling machine. That's not what we need any more of for kids. Children already have to deal with so much media and being constantly bombarded by advertisements for things to bug their parents to buy for them.
We need more oversight on how kids are being manipulated through TV commercials. I turned down plenty of other offers for TV, because I would have had to say goodbye to my characters essentially. I have a working relationship with the people I work for: Kids. They're my boss.
What is the focus on the print Arthur as opposed to the TV Arthur?
Marc Brown: At point I feel there are so many books out there. I've also seen that some issues are dealt with better as TV series. That's one thing I've learned. I'm always open to new ideas for books when appropriate. One I'm noodling with right now is the subject of bullying. It's something I see being talked about as a real problem at a lot of schools, and it's not going away. The addition of so much technology is making it even worse.
You've been to the Festival before.
Marc Brown: I love it! I feel so lucky to be invited back. I had a great day. When I found out I couldn't use my Powerpoint — I have a presentation about how the books evolve and where the characters come from — I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I had no idea I was just going to get onstage and talk and draw.
But it turned out to be one of the best times I've ever had in public. I was like, OK here it is. I made it up as I went along. I haven't had a chance to do that since!