Sunday, April 02, 2000

PBS encourages kids to read Between the Lions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Well, tickle me Elmo! It's taken 30 years, but public television finally has produced an encore for Sesame Street.

        Between the Lions, PBS' new reading series for ages 4-7 starting Monday, fills the gap between Cookie Monster and kindergarten.

Library Lions Loe and Cleo are puppets that encourage reading.
(WGBH photo)
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        Librarians Leo and Cleo the Lion lead the hippest cats on TV for kids (and adults) since Sesame Street spoofed Springsteen with “Born to Add.”

        A trio of Sesame graduates — head writer Norman Stiles, puppeteer Peter Linz and Emmy- and Grammy-winner Christopher Cerf — prove they learned the ABC's of educational TV at the Children's Television Workshop. The Lions share of their format — a story line on the main library set interrupted by animation, songs, puppets and computer graphics — is a carbon copy of TV's greatest children's series, now in its 31st season.

        And that's not a bad thing.

        Kids who love the childlike Big Bird and Elmo will empathize with 4-year-old Leona the Lion, who's struggling to learn to read.

        What: Between the Lions
        When: 4:30 p.m. weekdays Channel 48; 3 p.m. weekdays on Channel 16.
        “Sesame Street teaches numbers and letters, and Between the Lions is aimed at the next age group, 4- to 7-year-old children who are just learning to read,” says Judith Stoia, executive producer of the 30 half-hour episodes.

        From the opening scene, Between the Lions links spoken words to text on the screen. Hands reach up to change the letters during the opening theme: “Hey now, Hey wow, Here's how, Come and read between the lions. Come on, Come in, Begin ... ”

        Between the Lions makes phonics as easy as 1-2-3 letters. In animated segments, the letters “E” and “N” slide back and forth on a seesaw, with consonants added to form “hen” and “pen.” Later “pen” changes to “pet,” then “wet.”

        In the library, kids will meet a cast of crazy animals, not unlike Kermit's crew. The puppet populations includes Click the Mouse, Hopping Hen, a barrel of monkeys, and disagreeable Walter and Clay Pigeon, who comment on the proceedings similar to those two elderly gents, Statler and Waldorf, on the old Muppet Show.

        My son's favorite character was Arty Smartypants, a puppet who puts four words into his “magic smarty pants,” does “a magic smarty dance” and pulls out an item based on the four words. @subhed:Parodies for parents @body:

        For parents, the coolest parts of Between the Lions are the clever parody characters that are too hip for the playroom, another lesson learned from Sesame Street:

        • A knight in shining armor hosts “Gawain's Word,” in which two jousting knights, “Sir W” and “Sir et,” collide to form the word “Wet.” Kids will love the silly slapstick humor, while their parents appreciate the spoof of Wayne's World, a film made in 1992 before the target audience was born. Excellent!

        • Kids will smile at the introduction for a puppet R&B group singing the praises of “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.” But even their parents may be too young to know that “Martha Reader and the Vowelles” are based on a 1960s Motown group, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.

        The wee target audience also might not get the joke behind country singer Tammy Lionette, a rock star based on Jimi Hendrix, or Leo the Lion as B.B. the King of Beasts, who sings the blues about the letter “Y” having three different sounds.

        “We definitely set out to create a program that adults would enjoy watching with their children,” says Ms. Stoia, who produced PBS' AIDS Quarterly with Peter Jennings in 1989. @subhed:Staple of cartoons @body:

        Clever cartoons, another Sesame staple, also will be found Between the Lions.

        • The evil “Un People” slap their prefix on a marching band, turning them from the best-dressed to an undressed corps in a parade. The heroic “Re People” save the day, quickly making the band the best redressed marchers.

        • “The Adventures of Cliff Hanger” stars a dashing comic book hero who uses literary skills to rescue himself from the edge of a cliff. When he spies two movers carrying the letters “E” and “D” beneath him, he drops a letter “B” from his backpack to form a “bed” to break his fall.

        “A lot of things that are on our show, characters and animations, are designed to teach specific parts of the curriculum,” says Mr. Cerf, a National Lampoon founder who has written music and lyrics for CTW productions for 25 years.

        “Verbal blending, (or) putting sounds together to make words, is a hard thing to do dramatically in the classroom. We have sort of Monty Python knights who run together at high speeds with parts of words and the words fuse. That's great as entertainment,” Mr. Cerf says.

        It's all aimed at getting kids hooked on books. That's not a bad thing.

        “We can bring (a) book to life. We can have characters jump off the page and intermingle with our lions,” Mr. Cerf says.

        The Web site launching today ( lets kids play with the concepts. They can hear a vowel spoken on demand, or make their own words by slamming together “Gawain's Word” knights.

        “There are, unfortunately, something like 20 percent of the kids in this country getting into school without having a single book in their homes,” Mr. Cerf said.

        “We hope we can provide some kind of reading experience, and motivate these kids to go to the library, or have books in their house.”

        Can you tell me how to get beyond Sesame Street?

        Take my advice: Head straight Between the Lions.

John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.