This week saw the premiere of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, a new series from PBS Kids that gives children aged 4-7 a chance to look back through history and learn about some of the most influential and inspiring people in the world. Based on the "Ordinary People Can Save the World" illustrated biographies by comic book industry veterans Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulous, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum even features a cartoon version of Meltzer himself, feels a little like Linus from Peanuts, with a lot of anxiety andn a not-too-infrequent "AUGH" look on his face as he is faced with situations he is not yet ready for.
Here's how the PBS affiliate in Nashville describes the series, which is a pretty solid synopsis: In each half-hour episode, intrepid Xavier Riddle, his indomitable little sister Yadina and their reluctant, yet determined, friend Brad – along with their robot buddy, Berby – turn to the Secret Museum. Here they travel back in time to consult real-life historical figures when they were kids to get help solving a problem. Helen Keller, George Washington Carver, Amelia Earhart, Zora Neale Hurston and Charles Dickens are the “kids” Xavier and his pals meet in the first week of shows. Upcoming “guests” include Harriet Tubman, Neil Armstrong and Susan B. Anthony.
Of course, with a lineup like that, you get a lot of people who will promote this show as a salve for a culture that is lacking heroes and retreating to the past for somebody they can appreciate. Meltzer says there's some truth to that, but it isn't just that.
"It’s funny, I don’t think it’s because it’s black and white; I think it’s deeper than that," Meltzer told ComicBook.com. "I think it’s a real need by our culture right now. A culture gets the heroes it needs, and I think it’s no coincidence that last year the two big biographies were Neal Armstrong and Mr. Rogers -- selfless people who were all about humility and kindness. It’s not coincidence, and the culture needs that right now. We started working on the series three years ago and the book series five years ago. We had no idea where the culture would be, but it’s clear to us that we were the people in the right place at the right time. Kids are starving for real heroes right now."
Kids are starving for heroes, and PBS is starving for content. Or at least that's how it would seem from the outside. As Meltzer pointed out, with I Am Walt Disney, he and Eliopoulous have 19 books in the series. Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum has 35 episodes, with two heroes per episode.
"We lap the books in the first two weeks," Meltzer said, adding that he isn't worried about which comes first. "Leonardo da Vinci was done as an episode when I started writing the book. it’s the next book in the series but it’s the first one we did where I was like 'wait, we already did an episode on him. Let’s see what we did in the episode.' The backgrounds [in the book] are breathtakingly complex because we were able to use the assets from the show."
He added that the TV series allows a breadth of content that wasn't possible when it was just two guys working on the books. The books haven't even reached some more "obvious" heroes like Nelson Mandela yet, but Meltzer teased that on Xavier Riddle, they have already gotten a chance to explore an "obscure Japanese painter and calligrapher" with a fascinating and inspiring story.
He also believes that, contrary to the popular narrative, there are still heroes to be found in the world, regardless of a culture where one wrong thing said on Twitter will get you cancelled.
"We complain that there aren’t great heroes left in the world but there are heroes everywhere," Meltzer said. "The problem with our culture today is that we do want to see things in Black & white. We want to look and say 'I found the flaw.' If you’re looking for perfection in your heroes, you will find no one. There’s God and there’s no one else. As I’ve said from the start with this series, ou have to accept the fact that no one’s going to be perfect. If you think they’re going to be perfect, you’re going to be disappointed. We’re all flawed."
That leads into an interesting conversation that maybe was a little less urgent for the books -- which come out a few times a year and are, by that nature, incredibly rare and selective -- and the show, where they need to find more interesting stories to tell: where do you draw the line between someone whose flaws are flaws in a good person, and someone whose flaws are disqualifying for a kids's how?
"That’s a fair question and we do wade into it," Meltzer said. "You know cruelty when you see it. We all wish those things aren’t there, and weren’t there, so we can accept our heroes fully and say they’re perfect in every way."
Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum airs on weekdays on most local PBS stations. Check local listings for exact times, as it can be variable depending on local programming.