NEW YORK — A boy aardvark with his own TV show is looking for a little help from his fans to help children better understand peers with special challenges.
Arthur, of book and PBS fame, and creator Marc Brown have tackled blindness and dyslexia, head lice and peanut allergies among the gang in Elwood City, the small town where the man and the aardvark first settled together in 1976.
Starting Monday, they're teaming up to invite children to create a new Arthur character, but not just any friend. They're looking for one with a unique ability, character trait or disability that might make life different, but no less fun.
Through March 31, children can send in drawings and descriptions of their creations for a chance to appear on TV in a short live-action segment. The winner will also get to meet Brown, who as author and illustrator has put out about 70 Arthur titles that have sold more than 65 million copies in the United States alone.
Contest rules and entry form: pbskids.org/arthur/allkidscan/index.html.
The contest, Brown said, is aimed at helping young people see past differences to accept that peers come in all shapes, sizes and abilities, like the variety of species in Arthur's world. Brown is proud of his efforts to promote inclusiveness and diversity through his Arthur work but acknowledged such issues are often confined to secondary story lines in children's television programming.
"I wish I had a very good answer for why that is," he said. "Arthur has included more diversity than a lot of other shows." The contest is "baby steps," Brown said, "but the more people who step up to the plate, it's going to become more and more comfortable."
Arthur himself was conceived on the basis of a challenging trait after Brown's oldest and now-grown son Tolon asked for a bedtime story one night when he was 5. Brown had just lost a job teaching art in Boston at a junior college that closed when Tolon begged: "Tell me a story about a weird animal."
Tired and a little depressed, Brown said he relied on the top of the alphabet to come up with both an aardvark and the name Arthur, making up an "Everyboy" who had a long, droopy snout. Arthur hated his nose so much that he visited a "rhinologist" to have it changed, but he soon realized he just wanted to be himself.
"Then Tolon wanted a picture, and I drew a picture. It was wonderful. I forgot all about where to find a job, how to buy diapers."
It took Brown only six months to get his first aardvark book, "Arthur's Nose," into print, relying on his sister and other relatives to flesh out his characters. Transitioning Arthur to TV in 1996 was nerve-racking for Brown.
"I had to learn to share," he said. "That was a really good lesson for me. Those characters had been all mine. I wasn't prepared for that really. It took a little while to get to the point where I thought, 'OK, I love the idea that Arthur's going to be on TV.' "