There really is an Elinor, it seems, and she often wonders why.
That’s key to “Elinor Wonders Why,” which has just started. (It’s 10:30 a.m. weekdays on most PBS stations, plus 3:30 and 11:30 p.m. on PBS Kids.) “We wanted the show to be fun for the kids and to engage with them,” said co-creator Daniel Whiteson.
So each episode has a little girl/bunny named Elinor discover things about nature. And yes, that girl is a lot like Elinor Cham, daughter of the show’s co-creator.
The idea started three years ago, Jorge Cham said. “She was about 4, which is just at that perfect age where she really does wonder why, all the time. Any answer you give her, she’ll (have) a follow-up question, another why.
“She would ask, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ It was really inspiring.”
Whiteson has a daughter about the same age, Cham said; both girls have California childhoods that are fairly free-range. “We try not to hover around her, and to let her pursue her interests.”
These are a couple of ordinary dads … except for advanced degrees – Cham has a Ph.D. in robotics, Whiteson is a physics provessor at University of California Irvine – and unusual childhoods.
Whiteson grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., surrounded by nuclear scientists. “My mother is a computer scientist and engineer and my father is an assistant engineer,” he said. “Though I can’t tell you what they did, because they were working on top-secret files.”
Cham is Asian-American, but grew up in Panama, where his parents worked in the Canal Zone. He was a grad student and teaching assistant at Stanford, when the student paper asked for comic strips. He had never been an artist, but “Piled High and Deeper” (better known as “PhD Comics”) was born, centering on a group of students.
Nowadays, he calls himself a “recovering academic,” focusing on the comic. It’s free to student papers and at www.phdcomics.com, so he makes money through books, merchandise and side projects.
One idea came from Whiteson. “Jorge and I partnered about a decade ago in describing things like the Higgs boson (particle) and dark matter … in a way that’s accessible,” he said.
Another came from Linda Simensky, the content chief at PBS Kids. “I was a huge fan of his comic strip (and) thought it was hilarious and nervously reached out,” she said.
That was three years ago. Gradually, the notion emerged for a cartoon about a little girl (who also happens to be a rabbit) roaming the woods with her friends (a bat and an elephant), discovering nature.
And what will life be like for the real Elinor, once her cartoon version becomes famous?
“We always say that there’s a line-item in the budget for future therapy, just in case,” Cham joked. “Maybe for her, maybe for me.”