STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's time for another installment of our series In Character, which explores fictional characters who affect our real lives. This morning, we'll talk about a character who causes kids to dash to their TV sets.

(Soundbite of "Dora the Explorer" theme song)

For nearly a decade, Dora the Explorer has been part of the daily routine for millions of preschoolers and their families. The animated cartoon, which airs on Nickelodeon, is the most popular show for kids aged 2 to 5. Dora is a Latina, 7 years old, a leader, a problem-solver, Spanish speaker.

As part of the series In Character, NPR's Rolando Arrieta explores how Dora came to be.

ROLANDO ARRIETA: Sharon Bennett of Washington, D.C., says her TiVo is clogged with recorded episodes of "Dora the Explorer." But for her and her 3-year-old it's worth it.

Ms. SHARON BENNETT (Parent): The tiny frustrating thing is I don't speak Spanish, so I don't understand everything. Sometimes she'll ask me what a word might mean, and I might not know off the top of my head.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer")

Ms. KATHLEEN HERLES (As Dora): Hola. Soy Dora.

Mr. HARRISON CHAD (As Boots): And I'm Boots. We're at the beach. Have you ever been to the beach?

ARRIETA: "Dora the Explorer" debuted in the summer of 2000. Nickelodeon had already been successful with launching interactive-type programming for kids. So they asked producer Chris Gifford to create another one. He says there were many attempts to engineer the ideal character that would motivate kids to participate. They tried a squirrel, a martin. One promising idea was a bunny.

Mr. CHRIS GIFFORD (Producer, "Dora the Explorer"): It was a bunny who would go on a trip with his mommy. But it wasn't a bunny for very long.

ARRIETA: That's because his boss, Brown Johnson, was thinking of something altogether different. She said, throw the bunny and all the other animal ideas away and make the character a Spanish-speaking Latina.

Johnson had gone to a conference about media, race and gender — where she learned that Latinos were not well-represented in children's television.

Ms. BROWN JOHNSON ("Dora the Explorer"): One of our goals with Dora was to position the whole idea of being multicultural as being super-special.

ARRIETA: The notion of multiculturalism didn't start with Dora. Sesame Street, for example, has had an ethnically diverse cast since the 1970s. Nickelodeon had plans for an animated show where kids would go on a make-believe journey. Chris Gifford says along the way, they would face obstacles and learn strategies to overcome them.

Mr. GIFFORD: Like stopping to think.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer)

Ms. HERLES: (As Dora) Let's stop and think.

Mr. GIFFORD: Asking for help throughout the show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer)

Ms. HERLES: (As Dora) Who do we ask for help when we don't know which way to go?

Mr. GIFFORD: Preparing information and using it strategically like through the story, through the journey.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer)

Ms. HERLES: The map. The map. The map, that's right.

Mr. GIFFORD: These were basic to the conception of the show from the beginning.

ARRIETA: But they still had a lot of questions. What would this Latina character look like? What would she wear? So Gifford and Johnson asked for help.

Ms. JOHNSON: We must have more consultants than any television show in the entire universe.

ARRIETA: Schoolteachers, sociologists, historians, cultural and language experts were all brought in to help. And mistakes were made — like when they came up with the character Tico, one of Dora's friends.

Ms. JOHNSON: Tico was always sleepy, and sort of asleep under a tree. And our cultural consultant said to us, Not such a good idea, you know, to have the Latino character, who only speaks Spanish, who's the littlest character, always asleep. It's like, just not a good idea.

ARRIETA: Plus, that might have angered the Costa Ricans, who affectionately call themselves Ticos.

And as for where she would come from, the creators and consultants decided she would not be from anywhere.

Professor CARLOS CORTES (History, University of California, Riverside): We framed her as more of a pan-Latino character, so that she can actually be a source of pride and identity for anyone of Latino background.

ARRIETA: Carlos Cortes teaches history at the University of California in Riverside. He's author of Children are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity. He says being pan-Latina also meant the writers needed to choose Spanish words carefully.

Professor CORTES: For example, make certain that the words that we were using were universal Spanish terms and not Spanish terms that meant one thing in Cuba and something else in Mexico and something else in Peru.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer)

Ms. HERLES: (As Dora) (Spanish language spoken) (Unintelligible) said he's sorry. He didn't know your cake was on the step.

ARRIETA: So after about a year and many iterations, a smart, 7-year-old problem-solver named Dora Marquez was born.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer")

Ms. HERLES: (As Dora) I need your help. Will you check my backpack to find something that will make the bucket slip off the Big Red Chicken's foot? You have to say backpack.

(Soundbite of music)

ARRIETA: And why the name Dora? The Spanish feminine word for explorer is exploradora. Her last name came from the acclaimed writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

And when it came time to sketching the way she looked, she wasn't your stereotypical Latina.

Mr. GIFFORD: Short hair, not long, flowing hair. A little more tomboyish, because that's - it seemed like, you know, a girl who was more interested in adventure and play and exploring than someone who thought a lot about what she looked like.

(Soundbite of "Dora the Explorer" theme song)

ARRIETA: Gifford knew kids would like it. He and his team produced a pilot and showed it to a group of preschoolers.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer")

Mr. GIFFORD: I mean, you know, the kids were just so crazy about it.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer")

Ms. HERLES: (As Dora) Black. Blue.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm pretending to swim. I'm Dora the swimmer.

ARRIETA: Gifford says preschoolers screen all Dora episodes before they air, and they can be really tough because they tell it like it is.

Mr. GIFFORD: Oh, it's awful. It can be so scary. The 3-year-olds come at you, and you're just petrified.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARRIETA: As a father, Gifford believes that Dora the Explorer is what all parents want their daughters to be.

Mr. GIFFORD: Well, she's courageous. She's kind. She's got unbelievable interpersonal skills.

ARRIETA: Some parents might also find her a little annoying — like when she encourages kids to yell.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer)

Ms. HERLES: (As Dora) Say (unintelligible). Louder. (Unintelligible)

ARRIETA: And Dora never fails.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Dora the Explorer")

We did it.

(Soundbite of music)

ARRIETA: Despite all that, Dora the Explorer just might be the first icon for the children of a new America that today is about more than 14 percent Latino and fast growing.

Rolando Arrieta, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And if you've never met Dora, you can join her for a music lesson at our Web site. Just go to npr.org/incharacter. If you can't find it, use a map. And while you're there, tell us about your favorite fictional characters. Your essay could end up on the radio.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.