James Patterson will never forget learning about hell in Catholic school.
A priest pointed through the classroom window to a mountain overlooking the Hudson River, and said to him: “If a small bird took one piece of that mountain every thousand years, and brought it over to our side of the river, by the time that whole mountain had been transported across the river by that little bird — that would be just the beginning of hell’s eternity.”
“I never sinned again,” Patterson says.
Although it’s important for children to be aware of pressing issues, from global warming to obesity, it’s not useful for them to be frightened — or, in his case as a young boy, traumatized, Patterson says. Rather, it matters that kids are excited and involved, that they care about the world and their educations.
That’s the thinking behind “Kid Stew,” a children’s show the best-selling author created for public television that premieres locally on WGBH-2 Saturday at 7:30 a.m. He describes it as a kind of hybrid between the Discovery channel and a “more mild form of Saturday Night Live.”
The series follows a group of pre-teens and their dog Ozzie as they time-travel through history and interview famous figures, including authors Judy Blume, Eliot Schrefer, Ridley Pearson, and Jill Sheeley. Co-produced by Patterson’s hometown station, South Florida PBS, and presented by American Public Television, “Kid Stew” won five regional Emmy awards last year.
The episode premiering Saturday features a music video celebrating the joys of reading, a visit with “the Really Big Brain” to learn about right brain versus left brain, and appearances by author Dave Barry and NFL running back Kenyan Drake.
Although known for his wildly successful adult mystery novels, as well as nonfiction accounts of Aaron Hernandez (“All-American Murder”) and Jeffrey Epstein (“Filthy Rich”), Patterson is also a best-selling children’s author, having written titles such as “Max Einstein,” “I Funny,” and the series “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.”
A longtime advocate for children’s literacy, Patterson runs an initiative called “Read Kiddo Read.” The problem with a lot of children’s literature, he says, is material that condescends to them.
“Kids aren’t little idiots,” he said. “They just don’t have all the information.”
When it comes to television, Patterson feels the same way. “Disney Channel is just full of these dopey sitcoms,” he says. “That’s the best we can do?”
With “Kid Stew” aimed at ages 8 to 12, he and his team are trying to do something different, he says. “We’re moving in the right direction.”
Patterson believes in creating material that works toward “the highest denominator.” Children don’t have to understand every reference in television, because that’s the way they go through life — not understanding everything, and they’re more comfortable with it than grown-ups might think. “The little kids are looking up,” he says.Martha Merrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martha_merrow.