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Don't tell kids 'Dragon Tales' is a show that's good for them

The new PBS children's series "Dragon Tales" is a lot like that old cereal commercial. Don't tell the kids it's good for them and they'll enjoy it while they're ingesting something worthwhile.

This animated show is cute, cuddly and entertaining. Not "Barney" cute and cuddly -- parents of young kids will find "Dragon Tales," which is targeted at 3- to 6-year-olds, considerably easier to sit through.And parents can take comfort in the fact that the show is actually teaching their kids a thing or two about how to achieve goals and succeed in life, albeit not in a heavy-handed way, thank goodness.

"Dragon Tales" is a show that "lets children be children," said Alice Cahn, group president of the Children's Television Workshop TV and Video division. "It's high-touch rather than high-tech. It encourages participation and understanding rather than inspiring awe at special effects. It's warm and enfolding rather than sophisticated and ironic.

"'Dragon Tales' ' fantasy and adventure respects children's sense of humor and play, and their real need to find ways to face the challenges in their lives, whether it's learning to do stuff like tying a knot, or whether it's learning to understand stuff like -- your way of doing things might not be everybody else's way of doing things. 'Dragon Tales' supports children in their childhood by respecting their ability to solve problems and make friends and fix stuff using their own good sense and ingenuity."

Of course, there's a story into which each of these lessons is woven. "Dragon Tales" follows the adventures of 6-year-old Emmy and her 4-year-old brother, Max, who find a magic dragon scale that transports them to Dragon Land. There they befriend a group of dragons -- Ord, Cassie and a two-headed dragon, Wheezie and Quetzal.

Each of 40 half-hour shows includes two 12-minute adventures, plus music and comedy. The dragons and kids learn to solve problems and overcome challenges.

"What this series is about is helping children have strategies to face new challenges in life, to become enthusiastic learners, to take chances, to know that there are many ways to approach new experiences," said executive producer Nina Elias Bamberger. "And I think one of the most unique and important parts of the curriculum is that partial success is a wonderful thing. And that if you just succeed a little, that gives you confidence to try again and succeed some more."

The show tackles three different kinds of challenges kids face:

Physical challenges like, "I can't tie my shoe" or "I want to learn how to ride a bike."

Social challenges like, "I'm afraid of those boys" or "I don't want to join that play-group."

Emotional challenges like, "I'm afraid of the dark" or "I'm afraid of thunder."

And "Dragon Tales" doesn't expect kids to climb their mountains all at once.

"What we're doing is saying, 'OK, maybe you can't do that today, but here's a strategy. Try this,' " said executive producer Jim Coane. " 'Oh, that didn't work either. Try this.' That's real life, and if we can give kids real-life lessons, we've succeeded, I think."

UNUSUAL SOURCE: A show like "Dragon Tales" isn't unusual for PBS, but it is fairly unusual for Columbia Tri-Star Television, which is producing the series.

Columbia Tri-Star is much better known for its prime-time programming, which ranges from "Party of Five," "Dawson's Creek" and "Dilbert" to "Early Edition." And the company is coming out this fall with some of TV's most controversial new shows, like "Action" and "Manchester Prep."

But the other producing partner, Children's Television Workshop, has more than a bit of experience in both kids' TV and public TV. CTW is the force behind "Sesame Street," after all.

"At the time I created the series, I was working at Columbia Tri-Star," Coane said. "The partnership with Children's Television Workshop was an accident almost."

He took early drafts of his work to people he knew at CTW.

"I trusted them and asked them flat out, 'Is this any good?' And they said, three days later, 'This is great and we want to partner with you,' " Coane said.

And there was never any thought of trying to take "Dragon Tales" to a commercial broadcast network.

"In my mind, PBS was the only destination for this," Coane said. "This was never, in my mind, really a network show. And so it just seemed like that was the natural home for it."