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Feature

Time Travels

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, July/August 2005 | Volume 26, Number 4

What would the world look like if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo? Everyone in Brooklyn would be speaking French and eating goat cheese on their pizzas. To prevent this catastrophe, three ten-year-old buddies from Brooklyn--Joe, Sam, and Fred--travel back in time to ensure Napoleon's defeat.

The encounter with Napoleon is one episode in a new children's television series, Time Warp Trio, based on the books by John Scieszka. With support from NEH, WGBH has produced twenty-six episodes that begin July 9 on Discovery Kids on NBC, and will also air on the Discovery Kids Channel and public television.

In the shows, the three boys travel back and forth in time through a magic book Joe has received from his eccentric uncle. They ride on the Chisholm Trail and meet Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, visit Mary Shelley and her friends in Switzerland as she begins her tale of Frankenstein, and travel one hundred years into the future where they meet their great granddaughters--Freddi, Samantha, and Jodie--who have inherited the magic book and are doing their own time traveling.

"The kids travel in far-ranging fashion," says executive producer Carol Greenwald. "They go to India during the Gupta Empire. They visit Shaolin monks in China. They learn about the mystery of Amelia Earhart. They get involved with a Maya ringball game. There is a little bit of peril there, as there is in all the shows, because if they lose, the penalty is pretty extreme: they get their heads cut off."

The premise of each adventure is that the magic book transports the kids to a new and often accidental destination. As they travel, they learn about history, whether it's Leif Eriksson's journey to North America or Leonardo da Vinci's invention of the alarm clock.

"We know that kids of this age are fascinated by all of the details," says Greenwald. The targeted audience is ages six to eleven. "So while the characters are visiting Leonardo da Vinci, they have to dodge garbage thrown out the window because they are in Italy and that's the way it was during the Renaissance. At the same time, they're learning about his codices and his interest in time. We enrich the stories by taking a lot of period detail and inserting it seamlessly into a great action-adventure plot."

To ensure historical accuracy, the series has a content adviser who works with a historian on the specifics.

"We have a show where the kids meet Genghis Khan as a young man right after his father is killed," Greenwald says. "Our director decided that he was going to check into how Genghis Khan actually ran his battles. He researched the battle tactics and incorporated that into a scene in the show. All you see if you're watching it as a kid is that there is this strategy where he has a few people go, and then surrounds the fort with a larger force. But as you read and learn more about Genghis Khan, you'll see that's really what he did."

The author of the books, Jon Scieszka, is on the advisory board for the series. His inspiration for the books came from his experiences teaching history to second graders.

"I think kids enjoy having fun with real knowledge," says Scieszka. "That's the real appeal because it gives humor legitimacy. You're not going to get the joke if you don't know how Vikings really operated. Kids love to show what they know. The best thing we can do is to give kids an opportunity to use that knowledge, because then it makes sense to them."

An accompanying Web site enables children to put their new knowledge to use. They can interact with the storylines and change the course of history. Other areas test their knowledge of time periods in order to return stolen artifacts to the correct eras or to allow them to eat at Mabel's Diner, a virtual rest stop for time travelers. By answering questions such as how tall Napoleon was, they can build a BLT, piece by piece, until they have a whole sandwich. There are places on the site to leave messages for other fans of the series. A special section is devoted to providing lesson plans for teachers. And the site has clips from the episodes themselves.

The adventures expose many myths. Cowboys did not lead the glamorous life depicted in old movies. The Vikings didn't wear horns on their helmets. Not all pirate flags had a skull and crossbones. "What we're trying to do is expose kids to the wider world," says Greenwald.

"The whole series tries to debunk the notion that people were less intelligent just because they lived before us," says Scieszka. "We seem to think we've reached some kind of pinnacle of knowledge and everything else that came before was just building up to us. But then you start looking back into history and realize that the Maya calendar is actually more accurate than ours is today."

"Kids are always astounded when they verify some piece of history that they thought no one else knew about, which is almost anything, because when you're a kid, it's all new to you."

WGBH received $1 million from NEH to create the Time Warp Trio television series, Web site, and educational materials.