TV’s latest heroes don’t live in Gotham or Metropolis, but in a Midwestern city that looks a lot like our own. They don’t have superhuman strength or x-ray vision, yet by harnessing the power of reading, they protect their hometown from the mayhem unleashed by mischievous creatures, conniving villains, and rebellious robots.
Since making their debut in December, Tyler, Nevaeh, Jadyn, and Grace – the fearless foursome of the new, made-in-St. Louis series “Drawn In” – have captured the imagination of viewers in St. Louis and ignited their love of learning with every new adventure.
“Drawn In” is a multimedia initiative developed by Nine PBS and Lion Forge Animation, a leading Black-owned full-service animation studio and creator of the Academy Award®-winning animated short “Hair Love,” to promote early literacy through videos, games, and comics books that engage and entertain young learners. Each episode starts in Lady Magnitude’s Imaginarium, a comic book shop and the kids’ favorite hang-out. When characters pop out of the comics, it’s up to the “Drawn In” crew to lure them back into the pages, using Lady M’s Magnificent Words to power their vocabulary and create a plan of action.
The comic book aspect of “Drawn In” is key to promoting the importance of reading. While some may think comic books and graphic novels have no literary merit, the Library of Congress, the International Literacy Association, and the Poetics and Linguistics Association have all found that they increase children’s early literacy skills, especially in today’s visual society.
Said Carl Reed, Lion Forge co-founder and “Drawn In” executive producer, “I personally come from a community in St. Louis similar to the communities we’re targeting. As a kid who loved comics and was exposed to them early on, they were my gateway to becoming a voracious reader. If kids walk away from ‘Drawn In’ with the desire to pick up a comic book – or any book – and have the ability to whip out Lady M’s words as a tool to analyze or compare and contrast what they’re reading, I think we’ve hit a home run.”
A community-based approach to early childhood education
Lifting up kids’ reading skills right here at home was at the center of everything Nine PBS and Lion Forge did to bring “Drawn In” to TV and computer screens. The show was conceived, created, and produced in St. Louis, and the majority of voice talent is based in the metro area.
In addition, because the lack of early childhood literacy skills continues to be an issue in the City of St. Louis, with fewer than 10% of third-graders testing proficient in reading, the “Drawn In” team relied on community advisors to form solid building blocks for its young viewers.
“Nine PBS has a community engagement model, so we follow a process of sharing the content out, getting feedback, evaluating it, and continuing the loop,” explained Alex Stallings, senior director of early learning at Nine PBS. “For the concept we landed on with ‘Drawn In,’ we knew that we needed those invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we needed experts in literacy spaces. So, we really focused on – what are the gaps for children around literacy, how do we make a difference filling them in, and what are the steps forward? The community advisory board really represents that spectrum.”
Once the project launched, Nine PBS and Lion Forge relied on their community partnerships to get ‘Drawn In’ in front of kids’ eyes and in their hands. Nine PBS has hosted more than 100 “Drawn In” Power Hour literacy workshops and family sessions, and distributed more than 140,000 comic books with help from the St. Louis American, St. Louis Public Schools and the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature.
Just as important to the “Drawn In” team as closing the literacy gap was ensuring the show positively represented kids of color. “Drawn In” has become one of the first animated shows in public media to feature lead characters who are BIPOC, inspiring and empowering every child who tunes in.
“When we were in the early character design stage, Nine shared some of the images with their community team,” said Lion Forge producer Caroline Manalo. “We got a video back from a mom who expressed her gratitude. When she showed the character designs to the daughter, the daughter said, ‘She looks like me!’ And it wasn’t just the complexion or color of her skin – it was what she was wearing. This little girl wore a tutu and cowboy boots just like the Grace character. We’ve gotten so much feedback from kids seeing themselves, and I just love to hear that.”
For Reed, who as a child rarely saw Black animated characters on screen, having the opportunity to create heroes kids can identify with is something he takes to heart at Lion Forge.
“When you’re a young child, you’re trying to find yourself and forming connections that build your view of society. If you’re bombarded with media, and you can’t see yourself, it doesn’t make it any easier. I want kids to watch the ‘Drawn In’ characters and say, ‘Oh, I’d really like to be like her,’ or ‘That’s my older brother, that’s my cousin.’ That’s when they see themselves connected to the world at large and know they can be a hero, too.”
Your kids can watch episodes, read the Drawn In comics and play games on the Drawn In website at drawnin.org.
Kids can meet the voices behind Drawn In, keep building their "magnificent vocab," get Drawn In printables and lots more at the Draw In Facebook page.
Find out when the next Drawn In episode airs on Nine PBS at ninepbs.org
Metro East mom Nicole Plegge has written for STL Parent for more than 12 years. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL
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