What Makes PBS’s Super WHY! So Super?

When Angela Santomero was a little girl, she’d lean into the TV set and she just knew she was special, because Mr. Rogers told her she was.  And so did I.  And I’m willing to bet, so did you. superwhy1

We are the generation who learned our ABCs on PBS, and now our children are too, but they are learning so much more, so much faster, and Angela Santomero is one of the reasons why.

Maybe you don’t recognize her name… unless you happen to pay close attention to the credits of your children’s favorite shows.  She is creator of Nick Jr.’s Blue’s Clues  and creator, executive producer, and head writer of the award-winning PBS show, Super WHY!   She has the Midas touch of children’s programming, so I jumped at the opportunity to peel back the layers at PBS headquarters May 6 and find out just what goes into putting together a show like Super WHY! 

The Invitation

JavaGirl was afraid of our official PBS greeter at first.

How did I get in on this gig?  Quite simply through the DC Metro Mom Blog.  Lesli Rotenberg, Senior Vice President of Children’s Media of PBS is reaching out to bloggers in order to reach out to parents everywhere to get feedback about the role media plays in our lives, especially with regard to our children.    She wants us to start an online dialogue — on our blogs but also on PBS Parents about how we use not just the television shows, but the PBS web sites, pbskids.org, pbskidsgo.org, and the pbs.org/parents site (which I didn’t even know about, frankly!) to engage the naturally curious minds of our children.  Or as she said, “Children are born explorers, we are trying to provide a safe environment for them to explore.” 

Around the table there were a lot of nodding heads… we already trusted PBS.   PBS is what we were raised on — Sesame Street, the Electric Company, so fortunately for them, half the battle was already won out of the gate.  But back in our day, there wasn’t a Disney Channel or a Nick Jr. or… gasp… the WEB to compete with.  So just winning parents over isn’t the entire battle if you want to win in the game of capturing the audience of young children — you have to be entertaining enough to keep the kids interested and educational enough for the adults in the house to approve.  That’s a tall order.  Fortunately for PBS, Santomero was just the person to fill it — and in the two-hour briefing, we learned a little bit more how, but even better, there is an interactive component to this — a week long of activities you can do with your own children and you can comment here as well as on PBS.  And the kind folks at PBS have even offered to give me a prize to offer up — which  I will give away in a drawing for my commenters.  How cool is that?!

Pssst… Want to Know the Secret to Building an Award-Winning Children’s Show?

Angela Santomero

Angela Santomero

As we bloggers quieted down around the conference table, we were told we’d get to put an award-winning show on the operating table and find out how one is really put together.  Having grown up in the television industry, I found the idea quite intriguing.  Each of us around the table came from different backgrounds, while all of us are of course, writers, some are teachers, some are lawyers, some  are in politics— and many in the group I am still learning about.   So we each approached the show with a different eye and probably each left the briefing with a different takeaway — but we all had one thing in common: we’re all mothers.  And we knew anecdotally what this press release was capturing statistically:  Super WHY! helps young children learn to read.  I know the show is one of the main reasons why JavaGirl knew her ABCs by age 2 and I know that it helps JavaBoy with his reading skills.  There are some shows that you just know work for your kids, and you may not be able to tell why, but you can see that this one engages them and that one doesn’t — so this was a rare opportunity to figure that out.

Santemero says that when she used to watch how kids would kick at the TV screen when they watched the Power Rangers, she wanted to create a show that was that powerful, but inspired children to learn something instead of kick.  So Super WHY!was actually her Master’s thesis when she got her degree in Child Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.   She knew how powerful TV was, “I mean c’mon, I had the ‘Rachel’ haircut.  And did you know that when Fonzi from Happy Days got a library card, the number of people getting library cards went up 500%?”  She wanted to have that kind of an impact, on children, in a positive way.  But she also wanted to be sure that she made books the go-to resource for children, the way books had always been a resource for her. 

According to Rotenberg, unlike many other TV shows, PBS shows begin with a specific need or problem to solve, and the problem Super WHY! tackles is the need was to teach children ages 3-6 to read.   But “teaching children to read” can be a bit nebulous, so they broke it down into more specific terms:

  • letter identification
  • word decoding
  • phonemic awareness
  •  word encoding and phonics
  • reading comprehension


So that is what needs to be taught — but how to do it?   They created four characters to help with specific tasks:  each begins as a “regular” Storybook Village character who then transforms into their “super” character with a special power.  Pig (of Three Little Pigs) becomes Alpha Pig, a builder with alphabet power.  Little Red Riding Hood turns into a rollerskating Wonder Red with word power — whom many little girls have come to adore because she is a non-princess heroine.  Princess Pea (of The Princess and the Pea) transforms into Princess Presto with Spelling Power and is also the one who always picks the right book for the story portion of the show.  The bloggers at the briefing expressed their thanks to Santomero for making Princess Presto your non-stereotypical princess — she’s not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess and that was important to their daughters.  And then there is Whyatt, whom Santomero described as the “Zac Effron” of Storybook Village — he’s the younger brother of Jack, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, and he becomes Super Whywith your more traditional super hero garb, with the power to read.  Personifying each element of the reading process is one of the many ways Santomero’s team of writers helps keep the lesson entertaining.  Of course there is a fifth, very important “character” in the show — the child in the audience.  Super Why! breaks that fourth wall and addresses the child right through the TV screen, asking his or her name, and then “transforms” the child into his/her super self as “and Super You, with the Power to Help!”  The viewing child is asked to actively participate throughout the show.

Each episode has a framework of introducing a socio-emotional problem (i.e. “Jill keeps stomping on my blocks”), then a reading adventure (The Three Little Pigs), then a conflict resolution (make friends).  This not only makes for a plot, but reinforces Santomero’s goal of teaching kids that books are a life resource.

The amount of work, thought and detail that goes into each show is far too much to be captured in a single blog post, but here are some highlights:

  • Because every child is at a different point in their literacy journey, the show has something for everyone — even the non-reader can feel some success simply by singing along to the updated version of the alphabet song with Alpha Pig.  And with Alpha Pig, a child can simply point to the letters that are already on the screen — the answers are right there.  And yet later in the show, there are more complex questions and answers for the more advanced reader.
  • The fractured fairytales are often changed around with some “girl empowerment,” thanks in part, to Santomero’s daughters.  For example, Rapunzel can now get herself down from the tower.
  • Every script goes to a school three times during development.  First as a storybook reviewed by a reading teacher, and later screened as an episode by children where researchers watch how children react and how attentive they are.
  • Santomero pays careful attention to each individual learning element, but also the totality of the final product.  Or as she says,  “With every episode — I’m baking a seven-layer cake.  Each layer on it’s own is important, and has to work, but it also has to all come together and taste good together as well.”

Does Super WHY! Live Up to the Hype?

After the briefing, we were sent home with media kits of activities to try with our children.  You can download many of the same materials here — including the show episode and a week’s worth of activities.  I’m going to post about our day-by-day results with the activities as well.  Please post back about your experiences with these activities, the show, or any other comments about children and media here and you will be entered into a drawing for a prize from PBS!