Having a best-selling author over for breakfast isn't exactly a kid's dream come true, unless, of course, you're splitting oversized muffins and downing creme-filled strawberries with the creator of "Arthur," the Harry Potter of the preteen set.
Marc Brown, who created the star of 100-plus children's books and PBS' most popular series among elementary-school students, escaped from his studio on Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard to spend Thursday with fellow artist Connor Gordon, an 11-year-old renaissance boy from Savage whose other hobbies include playing violin, gardening, T-shirt design, skateboarding and teasing his 8-year-old sister, Anna.
The summit meeting was the reward for a nationwide contest to find a new character to join the "Arthur" family, one who struggles with a disability.
Connor's entry -- a 10-year-old fox with hot-pink glasses and a backpack strapped to the back of her wheelchair -- beat out 8,500 entries to earn the house call, as well as the chance to show off Connor's new friend to stunned students at his former school, St. John the Baptist in Savage.
The two displayed an instant rapport -- even if some of it was manufactured by the show's producers, who would sometimes whisper "impromptu" questions into one of the subject's ears, juicing up conversation that will appear on an episode airing this summer.
Without the help of the film crew, the two discovered they had a lot of shared loves: kneaded erasers, 2B pencils and a passion for spinach. (Brown suggested his protege try creamed spinach with bacon bits; Connor urged the master to try spinach after dessert).
"I'm liking this kid more and more," said Brown, who is gentle enough to remind you of his mentor, Fred Rogers, yet hip enough to share photos that he illegally took on the president's plane.
'We love Arthur here'
Connor wasn't the only one who got an audience with royalty. About 75 second-graders at St. John the Baptist were told of their surprise guest Thursday afternoon, just hours after their first communion together as a class. The uniformed students squealed and screamed "Oh, gosh!" (the Catholic-school version of swearing).
"Arthur" is not only part of their weekday-morning ritual at home, it's part of their curriculum. "We love 'Arthur' here," said principal Beth Behnke, who learned of the visit only last week. "They are age-appropriate story lines that teach life skills."
What makes "Arthur" unique -- other than the fact that its protagonist is an aardvark -- is that it's unafraid of tackling weighty issues, or at least an 8-year-old's version of weighty issues. Topics have included head lice, peanut allergies, picky eaters and, most famously, underwear.
"They always teach a lesson," said Anna, the Gordon family's No. 1 "Arthur" fan and a budding artist in her own right, doodling flowers and suns while the cameras rolled on her brother. "Every episode has a moral."
That formula made "Arthur" the perfect partner for CVS Caremark All Kids Can, a charity branch of the pharmacy giant that sponsored the contest.
"Kids with disabilities too often sit on the sidelines," said CVS' community relations director Jennifer Veilleux. "Connor's character really nailed our mission. He's going to help raise awareness."
The contest is also raising Connor's awareness. Before Thursday, he had only met two people who use wheelchairs. By the end of the day, he had visited with two wheelchair basketball teams at the Courage Center and even gotten into a chair himself to shoot a few hoops.
How much the rest of America sees of the new character, Lydia Fox, is still up in the air. She'll make an appearance on the episode featuring the Gordon family, but it's up to the show's writers to determine if she'll be an "Arthur" regular.
At least for one day, though, she was a Savage superstar, as was Connor, who didn't hide the fact that he was loving the attention. But the spotlight can get hot even for a proud artist who signs his name in John Hancock-sized letters.
After a question-and-answer session in the school library, where kids raised their hands with such enthusiasm it's a wonder their fingers didn't graze the ceiling, Connor turned to his former principal and asked: "Can we sit down now?"
Brown, who knows that good publicity is just as important as a good pencil, smiled.
"Wouldn't that be nice?"
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