Rick’s Review: Brad Meltzer makes history fun with ‘Xavier Riddle’ on PBS

Rick's Reviews

“Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum” comes from best-selling author Brad Meltzer. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

BAKERSFIED, Calif. (KGET) — Brad Meltzer has been sharing his love of history for years through non-fiction books like History Decoded and the television series “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History.” He’s now sharing that passion with a younger audience through the new PBS series “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.” The series is  based on his children’s book series, Ordinary People Change the World, with illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos.

In the series, Xavier Riddle, his little sister Yadina and their friend Brad face problems where they must turn to the Secret Museum to travel back in time to meet real historical figures. The meeting starts with the time-traveling trio dealing with the historical figure when they were children. The episodes point out the key character skills that helped shape the vision of each historical figure and stresses the simple idea that the people who shaped history were not born heroes.

Meltzer’s daughter was 8 years old and his son 5 when the first two book in the series – I Am Abraham Lincoln and I Am Amelia Earhart – were released in 2014. Five years later, his children and other PBS viewers now get to see some of the greatest figures in history with the animated series that features five back-to-back episodes. The series has spotlighted George Washington Carver, Charles Dickens, Amelia Earhart, Zora Neale Hurston, and Helen Keller.

In a special episode of the series, three-time Gold Medal-winning Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee becomes an animated character for “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Movie: I am Madam President,” set to debut March 16. Yadina, is shocked to discover that no girl (or woman) has ever been President of the United States, so she goes on a journey to meet some of history’s boldest women, including ceiling-smashing female athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to find out exactly how she too can do something that’s never been done before.

Meltzer’s motivation for writing the books and now the series is very personal.

“The reality is that I did this for my own kids,” Meltzer says. “I wanted my kids to have better heroes to look up to. I was tired of them turning on the TV and seeing politicians when what I want to show my kids are leaders and we all know there is huge difference between a politician and a leader.

“We are a country right now that is starving for lessons of compassion and kindness. We need to give our kids those lessons. Whether you like it or not, your kids are going to pick heroes and you might as well have some say in it.”

The idea is to make the show both entertaining and informative for youngsters ages 4-7 but Meltzer’s convinced there’s enough humor and historical facts to make the shows fun to watch by older viewers. He points out that in the episode dealing with magician Harry Houdini, the skill that is featured is how Houdini would take a deep breath before doing his tricks to help him escape his bonds.

“The other day I was getting stressed and I stopped and thought I need to be like Harry Houdini and take a deep breath. That’s when I realized even I was learning from the show,” Meltzer says.

There doesn’t look to be any shortage of figures to be featured in the series. There have been 19 books released in the series that have included looks at a diverse group that includes Rosa Parks, Jim Henson, Jackie Robinson, Lucille Ball and Ghandi. The initial plan is to create 70 episodes of “Xavier Riddle” but should the show continue, Meltzer has a long list of historical figures that could be featured.

The only limitation on who is featured in the books or the new public television series is how much historical material is available. Both projects push beyond the usual facts and figures especially when looking at the young years of the subject.

“I said to my daughter, ‘You know, Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean. Isn’t she amazing?’ I thought that was a great story. And my daughter said, ‘Big deal, Dad. Everybody flies across the Atlantic these days.’ She was not impressed at all,” Meltzer says. “Then I found this story, that when Amelia Earhart true story was seven years old, she built a homemade roller coaster on her back yard. My daughter listened to that story, and she’s like, ‘Dad, tell me that one again.’

“She realized in that moment that Amelia Earhart was not some black and white figure in the history books, but Amelia Earhart was just like her. She was bold and she was daring, and she was fun. And that’s how we found the children’s series. We found it by trying it out on my own kids and seeing what they responded to.”

Along with airing on PBS, “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum” will also be available on the PBS KIDS 24/7 channel and PBS KIDS digital platforms.

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