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‘Franklin’: Happy Land for a Turtle

April 17, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ It’s hard to make a turtle warm and fuzzy. Cold-blooded, shell-encased, this is a creature few would certify as cuddly.

Unless, of course, he’s the turtle-tot Franklin.

In two dozen children’s books and for the past year in a cartoon series on Nickelodeon (airing weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET as part of the Nick Jr. lineup), this little guy is every bit as lovable as the kids who follow his adventures.

Meanwhile, the problems Franklin confronts ring true for any preschooler:

_ With his birthday approaching, he promises his friends a huge bash. His parents say no. But the scaled-down party they help him plan turns out to be just as much fun.

_ Franklin faces the first day of school fearful that he’ll be expected to know everything when he walks into the classroom. But, to his great relief, he finds out that not knowing those things is exactly why he’s there.

_ Being toothless, he feels left out when his mammal pals lose their baby teeth. But he learns there are other signs of growing up than a visit by the Tooth Fairy.

``I want to help a child believe that he or she is capable of managing some of childhood’s common dilemmas,″ says ``Franklin″ creator Paulette Bourgeois, ``and that they can find a solution, within their own range. In the stories, adults are guiding influences, but they never tell a child, `This is what you should do next.‴

Wildly popular among the wee set, ``Franklin″ wears well for Mom and Dad, too.

``I think what I’m trying to write is great parenting,″ Bourgeois says. ``When I see how Franklin’s parents deal with him, I realize I’m trying to write the parent I would like to be myself _ and am not.″ She laughs. ``It’s an idealized world in those stories.″

The Toronto-based Bourgeois had trained to be a psychiatric occupational therapist, but gravitated toward free-lance writing. In 1983, with the birth of daughter Natalie, she hit upon the notion of writing a children’s book.

Then, nursing Natalie in the middle of one fateful night, she happened to be watching a ``M A S H″ rerun as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce refused to take shelter in a cave.

``I’m so claustrophobic,″ cracked Hawkeye, ``if I were a turtle I’d be afraid of my own shell.″

Bourgeois calls it ``a lightbulb moment. I started writing the next day.″

The result was ``Franklin in the Dark,″ which told of a turtle lad who, scared of the darkness inside his shell, refused to go in. He dragged it behind him with a rope. But by the end of the tale, he conquers his fear, embraces his turtleness, and learns to be comfortable in his own skin, er, shell.

Bourgeois had stumbled on a powerful metaphor, then transformed it into a storybook character. But despite the vast symbolic value, Franklin’s identity as a turtle was never Bourgeois’ point.

``For me, always, Franklin was a 5-year-old,″ she says. A sweet, rambunctious, soccer-loving kid. For her, that much was clear.

``But I had no image of him,″ she confesses. ``I don’t think visually.″

Even when Bourgeois found a publisher to buy her manuscript, Franklin remained unpictured in her mind. Kids Can Press presented the text to an up-and-coming illustrator named Brenda Clark.

Clark says she drew Franklin as a hybrid of box turtle and Galapagos turtle who can walk (and run) upright. She outfitted him with a baseball cap, neckerchief and backpack-like shell, and colored him lustrous green.

``At the time, green was not popular in design terms,″ she notes. ``But I found a green turtle was much more appealing than brown.″

Then she placed Franklin and his friends _ Bear, Fox, Goose, tiny Snail and the rest _ in a verdant countryside befitting any fairy tale. There, they radiate goodwill and good cheer. Everybody’s usually smiling.

``I try to draw the characters the way you’d like your mother, or your child, to look at you,″ Clark explains. When her son Robin, now 9, was born, ``I could look at him and see the facial expressions I’m talking about, and they inspired me.″

On the other hand, Bourgeois has seldom borrowed from children Natalie (now 16) and Gordon (14) in writing the stories. She mines her own childhood, instead.

``I would remember feeling horribly like an outsider,″ she says, ``and then I would look for a situation where Franklin would either feel like the outsider, or make some other child feel excluded.″

In one story, Franklin is disappointed when he is made stage manager for the school play, rather than assigned an acting role. Out of sight backstage when his parents come to see the show, he feels like he’s let them down.

Turns out, Mom and Dad are extra proud of him for handling such a big responsibility. They make sure he understands that, even out of the spotlight, he’s a star.

And that’s the message of ``Franklin″ _ going out to every kid.


ON THE NET: http://www.nickjr.com


Elsewhere in television ....

NBC’S BIG DEAL: Filmmakers Lauren Shuler Donner (``You’ve Got Mail″) and Richard Donner (``Lethal Weapon″) have signed a production deal with NBC Studios. The two-year arrangement, which begins in June, gives NBC first look at a variety of TV projects from the hitmaking pair. Richard Donner has deep roots in television: He directed such classic series as ``The Twilight Zone″ and ``The Fugitive″ before shifting to feature films.


Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore ``at″ ap.org

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