Word up! Meet “WordGirl”


Fresh from Planet Lexicon, there’s a new superhero on the scene whose mission is to fight for justice and build your vocabulary. The Amazing Colossal Adventures of WordGirl debuted on PBS last year as a series of shorts within the PBS cartoon Maya and Miguel. It was enough of a hit to trigger a full development deal. A preview episode aired on Labor Day, and the show launches on Friday, Sept. 7.

WordGirl (aka fifth grader Betsy Botsford, when she’s not fighting crime and poor word usage) is the newest superhero in PBS’s battle against insufficient language development. With the help (or as she might say, “assistance”) of her monkey sidekick, Captain Huggy Face, WordGirl uses her superpowers (super-strength, hearing, ability to fly at the speed of sound … the usual) to overpower villains. But first she uses her super vocabulary (she knows all of the words in the dictionary, plus some hieroglyphics) to distract or confuse them.

For example, when WordGirl faces her archenemy the Butcher in the pilot, she distracts him by explaining that the free barbecue he provides to lure customers and security away from banks and jewelry stores is just a diversion. The dim-witted Butcher doesn’t get (or “comprehend”) it. But repeated and varied explanations teach the word “diversion” to the audience. (Eventually, she defeats the Butcher by luring him to a vegetarian restaurant. The patrons are not tempted by the free barbecue, and Captain Huggy Face is able to overpower the Butcher with tofu. And the audience learns what “vegetarian” means.)

Can I just stop to exclaim how great this is?

That’s a really smart superhero. She’s a girl. And her weapon of choice is words. Plus she’s strong and fast. And she has a monkey sidekick. If I were a six-year-old girl, I would so be dressing up as WordGirl this Halloween. (I believe my actual six-year-old Halloween costume was a cowgirl. Or possibly Mary Poppins.)

When I was a kid, we only had a few girl superheroes. There was Wonder Woman, of course, who was a grownup and rather scantily clad. And there was ElectraWoman and her young sidekick DynaGirl.

They were clever, but not really cerebral. The only word-nerd superhero was Letterman on The Electric Company. I can still hear Joan Rivers’ raspy narration: “Faster than a rolling O! / More powerful than silent E! / Able to leap capital T in a single bound! / It’s a word, it’s a plan, it’s Letterman!”

Again, Letterman was fun, but not someone with whom a young girl would identify.

WordGirl’s creator Dorothea Gillim specifically wanted WordGirl (her alter ego) to be an appealing role model. “I really wanted her to be cool and smart, but not nerdy, so kids would think it’s cool to have an appreciation for words [and not] too geeky.” Although written for children, the show builds in some adult appeal as well. Some of the voice actors (e.g., Chris Parnell and Wanda Sykes) are drawn from sketch and improv comedy. And Gillim wanted this to be a show that parents would watch with their kids.

I suspect this Jim Lehrer/WordGirl interview was not directed at eight-year-olds.

Best exchange in the video:

Jim Lehrer: You come face-to-face with villainy and poor word choices everyday.

WordGirl: Yeah … the villainy is tough, but I have to say the poor word choices bug me more.

She’s a superhero after my own heart.

You can check out WordGirl clips here. And there are more WordGirl fun and games to be had on the web — probably designed for eight-year-olds, but I’m not picky. My favorite thus far is “Synonym Toast,” in which the task is to help Captain Huggy Face defeat Chuck the evil sandwich-making guy’s “gigundo bread making machine” by finding synonyms printed on toast. Yes, it’s that fun.

Check your local PBS listings for WordGirl airings.

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