NewsAug 1, 2019

Elevating voices and blazing trails in kids TV

An early consultant on 'Molly of Denali,' Professor Mary Ann Cappiello sees her work come to life in new PBS series

Molly of Denali hugs her grandfather.
Above: Photo courtesy of ©2019 WGBH Educational Foundation

Graduate School of Education Professor Mary Ann Cappiello helped launch the first children’s animated television series to feature a Native American lead character, “Molly of Denali,” which premiered July 15 on the PBS Kids channel.

In 2016, Boston public television station WGBH reached out to Cappiello — professor of language and literacy and co-author of The Classroom Bookshelf, a School Library Journal blog — to serve as a consultant for the initial proposal, as well as the series pilot. Cappiello worked with the WGBH team brainstorming story lines for Season 1 and types of informational texts, mapping those ideas to PBS’s “Ready to Learn” Learning Frameworks. When WGBH was invited by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create a pilot episode, Cappiello reviewed drafts of the script and animation, suggesting where and when to highlight informational texts in developmentally appropriate ways.

Mary Ann Cappiello headshot, outside
Mary Ann Cappiello wants to see "Molly of Denali" spark other TV shows and books featuring Native Americans.

“When WGBH reached out, I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. No one does children’s programming like WGBH,” Cappiello says. "Exploring nonfiction and informational text with young people is one of my greatest passions, and also one of the most important shifts that elementary schools can make to support children’s overall literacy development.

“To know that millions of children will benefit from the exposure to informational texts in “Molly of Denali” is just transformative. For those children to be exposed to such texts while immersed in contemporary Native Alaskan culture — that’s even more transformative.” 

In addition, WGBH worked mainly with native Alaskans to bring the series to fruition.

According to WGBH, which produced the series, “Molly of Denali” follows the adventures of a 10-year-old Gwich’in/Koyukon/Dena’ina Athabascan Alaska native, Molly Mabray, her dog Suki, and her two friends, Tooey and Trini, in the fictional village of Qyah, Alaska.

Molly of Denali in a canoe with two friends on the water. They're all raising their oars above their heads.
Photo courtesy of ©2019 WGBH Educational Foundation

“PBS KIDS has a longstanding commitment to celebrating inclusiveness and diversity, and we’re delighted to further that mission through Molly of Denali, said Linda Simensky, vice president, Children’s Programming, PBS, in a press statement.

"Molly of Denali" is grounded in a pioneering curriculum focused on informational text, a foundational aspect of literacy education. Informational texts are designed to convey information and can include written words, images, graphics, video and oral language. In every episode, Molly navigates her world and solves problems with the help of books, online resources, field guides, historical documents, maps, tables, posters, photos, Indigenous knowledge from elders, her very own vlog and more.

Cappiello believes the launch of “Molly of Denali” can serve as a watershed moment in American culture. “I hope that the success of this television series can prompt the publishing industry to publish more texts by and about Native Americans and Native Alaskans,” she says. “Our children and our schools need those books.”

For more information about the series, visit PBS Kids.