Charming 'Riddle'

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U-M alum’s books come to life with animated series Nov. 11th

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer and artist Christopher Eliopoulos’ “Ordinary People Change the World” series of children’s books about historical figures is being adapted into a PBS KIDS animated series called “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.”

“Our mission is clear: We’re instilling lessons of kindness, compassion, and character in a new generation of kids. The best part is, we’re not doing it alone. We have the estates of Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, and so many others with us. ‘Xavier Riddle’ is our attempt to put more good in the world. And to give kids better heroes to look up to,” said Meltzer, 49, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, who’s written thrillers, comics, and non-fiction.

Debuting Monday, Nov. 11, this animated series follows the adventures of Xavier, his sister Yadina, and their friend Brad. In each episode, the three kids face a problem and turn to the Secret Museum to help them solve it. The Secret Museum allows them to travel back in time to meet historical figures when they were kids who will give them insight into how to overcome their obstacles.

For instance, the three turn to Rosa Parks for advice about dealing with bullies in one episode. In the first episode, Brad wants to enter the big bike contest, but he’s afraid to remove the training wheels.

“So Xavier and his friends go back in time to meet Amelia Earhart. She teaches them that, sometimes, you just need to ‘Go for it!’ Needless to say, when they see how amazing she is, Brad is inspired to solve his problem,” said Meltzer.

However, Meltzer isn’t providing the voice of Brad, whom he called “the most super-handsome of characters.”.

“All the voices are actual kids, so kids can see themselves,” he said.

This is the same reason why the historical figures in the books are drawn as little kids.

“Early on, we decided that kids relate to other children. We also wanted to show that these historical figures weren’t born as immortal bronze statues; they were once children like all of us,” explained Eliopoulos. “My biggest influences growing up were ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ so my style has a bit of both. To me, I’m the sugar that helps the medicine go down. I provide a fun and cute entry to what might otherwise be an unrelatable topic.”

Meltzer has enjoyed seeing his collaborator’s artwork come to life.

“We weren’t just doing biographies, we were doing a series of books to inspire, and that’s what (PBS KIDS) were looking for (when I pitched this to them),” said Meltzer. “We came up with the premise and look for the series and are directly involved in every aspect of its creation. It’s the (‘Ordinary People’) books come to life and we’re thrilled to be the creators and executive producers of the series!”

“At PBS KIDS, we always want children to see themselves in our characters,” said Linda Simensky, Vice President, Children’s Programming, PBS. “‘Xavier Riddle’ aligns with this commitment, showing kids that they can be change-makers through the relatable stories of history’s most iconic figures. (Meltzer) is a visionary storyteller, and we’re thrilled to partner with him 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.”

“Xavier Riddle” debuts exactly 50 years and one day after “Sesame Street” debuted on Nov. 10, 1969. “Sesame Street” had a profound impact on Meltzer.

“When I was 5, ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ and ‘Sesame Street’ taught me that you could use your creativity to put good into this world,” said Meltzer. “Today, with ‘Xavier Riddle’ and these books, that’s all we’re hoping to do.”

The impetus behind the “Ordinary People” books occurred when Meltzer was taking his then-8-year-old daughter shopping for clothes. All they could find were shirts featuring Disney princesses and pro athletes. He wanted all three of his children to learn the difference between being famous and being a hero.

“This began out of a dream to make a library of real heroes that people could use to build determination, kindness, and joy. It just goes to show that we are all starving for heroes these days – people who have courage and patience and creativity,” said Meltzer.

    With 3 million copies in print worldwide, the “Ordinary People” series began five years ago with the release of “I Am Abraham Lincoln” and I Am Amelia Earhart.” In September, the 18th and 19th books in the series – “I Am Marie Curie” and “I Am Walt Disney,” respectively – were released.

“I want (children) to realize there’s extraordinary within the ordinary, which will help them reach their unlimited potential,” said Meltzer. “Look around. Whatever your politics are, our country is starving for heroes. We need values and character more than ever. The whole book series has been a way to show the values and character of some of our most famous historical figures. The books are our way of giving children a moral lesson as well as guiding principles to live their lives.”

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