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Brad Meltzer gets kids to care about history in PBS’s ‘Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum’

The best-selling author of thrillers for adults and the ‘Ordinary People’ series for children translates his books to a new animated series.

Brad Meltzer gets kids to care about history in PBS’s ‘Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum’
[Image: courtesy of PBS]

Little adventurers and history buffs will soon get the chance to travel back in time and meet some of the world’s most inspiring historical figures⁠—when they were children.

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Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum is the newest educational offering coming to PBS, starting Monday, November 11. It’s described as an adventure-comedy series, and it’s based on author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos’s New York Times best-selling children’s book series, Ordinary People Change the World. The series⁠ will debut with five episodes that follow Xavier, his little sister, Yadina, and their friend Brad, as the heroes they meet attempt to help them solve problems.

Meltzer, who serves as executive producer, was inspired by his own children to write the Ordinary People books. That inspiration also lends itself to the TV show.

Brad Meltzer [Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS/Flickr]
“Xavier is up for anything. He’s enthusiastic. If you ask him, ‘What do you want to do?’ he says, ‘Yes’ before you even finish what you’re saying. But like my own son, who was built exactly the same way, his shoes are untied, he’s a mess, and he’s total chaos. So he is for the ADHD generation—that kid who wants to do it all, but none of us are perfect in any way,” Meltzer tells Fast Company. “His sister, Yadina, is determined to grow up and be president. That’s her dream. So when she goes back and meets Abraham Lincoln and she meets George Washington, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, these are my people. I’m going to live in the White House one day,’ and she’s just really fond about that. And then of course there’s my favorite character, Brad, one of the most handsome cartoon characters ever drawn.”

Meltzer describes Brad as having “delusions of averageness.” Brad is overly apprehensive and anxious about everything, but his friends encourage him to live a little, and to learn about the world in the process. He’s the perfect example of what happens when you think you can’t do something, try it anyway, and realize that you are capable of more than you thought, which builds character—one of the most important lessons conveyed in the cartoon.

“I’m someone who is a writer by living,” says Meltzer, who is perhaps best known for writing a dozen very popular thrillers. “I’m not an animation executive, but the reason that I’m involved with every single episode is that we’ve been able to—in the books—capture that thing that kids can use in their own lives. Kids don’t care about the dates and the facts in terms of when they happened. What they care about is, ‘Show me and give me a lesson that I can use in my own life.'”

When it comes to Amelia Earhart, the lesson is she knew no bounds. Abraham Lincoln spoke his mind and spoke for others, and so on. Meltzer’s newest best-selling kids book, which features Walt Disney, is about the power of creating dreams.

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The first batch of episodes airing on PBS will feature the pint-sized versions of George Washington Carver, Charles Dickens, Amelia Earhart, Zora Neale Hurston, and Helen Keller, with input from some of their estates—another victory in the quest to inspire children to be great.

“When we were doing the book series, we started with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln. We did Rosa Parks. We did Albert Einstein, and then suddenly, we started doing people like Jane Goodall, who got involved with her book. Or Billy Jean King, who got involved with hers,” said Meltzer. “And then on the TV show, we have these tapes of Neil Armstrong and Amelia Earhart. Thurgood Marshall’s son [contributed] on his [father’s episode]. I mean, it’s an incredible experience to be working with these families, and in some cases, with the people themselves. To be able to have them weigh in is the best part of the show.”

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