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 already 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.
Now 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.
The contest, Brown says, 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.
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 says 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,” says Brown. “It was wonderful.”
It took him 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.
Tolon, whose name and those of his two siblings are often hidden in Brown’s Arthur drawings, helps oversee on-screen media for his dad and will be one of the contest judges.
Over the 30 years Brown has been drawing Arthur, the long snout has slowly disappeared while his popularity exploded.
Last season, the Arthur show reached more than 6 million people in the U.S. each week. The cartoon, co-produced by public television station WGBH in Boston, has six Emmys and a Peabody and is seen in 100 countries.
For the contest, Arthur is partnering with pharmacy and health care corporation CVS Caremark.
“One of the reasons why we chose children with disabilities is because of the lack of awareness of the issue,” says Eileen Dunn, a senior vice president for the company who has five kids ages 2 to 10.
“I just think you have to keep working at it and you’ve got to have new ways of explaining it and evolving it.”