Nine PBS and Lion Forge Animation, a studio known for co-producing the Oscar-winning short Hair Love, have created a multiplatform initiative in an effort to boost children’s literacy.
Their program Drawn In debuted this month on the St. Louis station. An animated adventure series, it follows Black, Asian American and multiracial protagonists who love comic books and live in the fictitious Midland City, where they take on challenges using their reading and problem-solving skills.
But Nine PBS and the animation studio wanted to do more than just start a program. They also built a reading initiative to accompany the show and a website where kids can watch episodes and access the comic books that the show is based on. Games associated with the series will be available at a later date.
“There’s elements on all platforms, on-air and online, but there’s also an ‘on the ground’ part to this, which is essential to ensuring that Black and brown kids in our region are really able to thrive and use this content as a tool and resource,” said Angie Carr, VP and chief impact officer for Nine PBS.
Two 30-minute Drawn In specials premiered on Nine PBS Dec. 5 and reaired last week, featuring scenes from the eight short episodes that are available online. In the first episode, a robot named Spartacus escapes from a comic book and causes chaos in Midland City before Jadyn, one of the protagonists, helps put it back inside the book in the second episode.
In the fourth episode, “Saving Grace,” the titular Asian American character solves a case that started in the third episode. Episodes five through eight follow a similar arc of introducing mayhem rectified by Grace alongside Tyler and Jaydn, who are Black, and Nevaeh, who is multiracial.
The show and its reading program targets children around the ages of six to eight. Since the initiative started, Nine PBS has hosted more than 50 literacy workshop sessions, or “Power Hours,” where it distributed 190,000 comic books based on Drawn In with help from organizations like St. Louis Public Schools, St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature and the weekly St. Louis American newspaper, which serves a Black audience.
Carr said Nine PBS chose those organizations because “we really wanted to be where our Black and brown individuals are in our community and make sure they had access to that content.” Because “at-home libraries are not growing these days,” she said, the station wanted to provide free resources.
Kids at the literacy events also listened to readings of comic books and wrote and drew their own comics. Long term, the station and Lion Forge aim to depict some of the children’s drawings in future seasons of Drawn In.
Fighting a crisis
Carr stressed that getting community buy-in was essential. In addition to soliciting feedback from parents who would use the services, the station worked with a group of approximately 30 community advisors who identified literacy rates as a key issue in St. Louis and around the country. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, average reading scores among fourth graders have declined by three points since 2019 and are at their lowest since 2005.
Data from the city of St. Louis shows that only 25.7% of the city’s Black third-graders and 32.1% of Hispanic third-graders demonstrate reading proficiency, compared to 64.5% of white third-graders. The study, which assessed students in public and charter schools, also said 54.5% of Asian third-graders in the city read at proficient level.
“Children in our St. Louis region are struggling to read proficiently,” said Lisa Greening, an advisor and literacy project director for Turn the Page STL, in a news release. Greening’s nonprofit looks to improve children’s reading levels before third grade.
“To combat this crisis, it will take everyone (not just teachers in classrooms) to provide the necessary building blocks of literacy,” she said.
David Steward II, an emeritus board member for Nine PBS and CEO of Lion Forge Animation, is a native of St. Louis who grew up watching public television. He noted that Nine PBS has a history of producing children’s literacy programs, including The Letter People, which aired from 1974–76. That makes Drawn In a new addition to that history.
Although Lion Forge has worked with large commercial media companies like Disney and Sony Pictures Animation, Steward said he wanted Drawn In to be created with Nine PBS specifically because of the station’s mission-driven approach.
“It’s not just about the programming that goes on over the air, but all of the other work, all of the community outreach,” Steward said.
Carr said Nine PBS has aspirations to get Drawn In distributed nationally. “Same thing with the Power Hours … they can be replicated at other stations,” she said.
“Literacy goals in the state of Missouri are not good, but they are not good across the country,” she said. “This is something we all need to be pushing behind and making sure kids can read by third grade, because if they can’t, there’s a lot of other results that we really as a country do not want.”