PBS Kids introduces a six-year-old heroine with ‘Alma’s Way’

Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK (AP) – Alma has a dilemma: The six-year-old New Yorker has tickets for a baseball game on Saturday with her grandfather, but she told her uncle she’d help him with a dance recital that day.

“I promised I’d help him. I made a commitment,” she said, taking a moment to think about her choices. “Okay, I know what to do.” She breaks the news to her grandfather – a promise is a promise. “I completely understand,” he told her. “It’s good to honour your commitments.”

Alma is the lively, thoughtful heroine of Alma’s Way, a new animated PBS Kids series set in the city’s melting pot Bronx borough and featuring a Puerto Rican and biracial extended family. It debuts this week.

The Fred Rogers Productions series has some starry creators. It was sparked and produced by Sonia Manzano, who played Maria while winning 15 Emmys as a writer on Sesame Street.

And no less than Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda helped supply the theme song. “The main overriding hope is that I want kids to understand that everybody has a brain and they can use their brains and they can think. It’s as simple as that,” said Manzano.

A scene from ‘Alma’s Way’. PHOTO : AP

Designed for children ages four-six, each 11-minute episode tries to help kids find their own answers to problems, express what they think and feel and recognise and respect the unique perspective of others.

In one episode, Alma tries to help make her mom’s mofongo dish better by quietly adding more and more ingredients. But it ultimately tastes lousy and she needs to come clean. In another, she stands up for her artistic vision on a mural, and in a third, she figures out how to cheer up her brother.

Alma’s Way isn’t just set in the Bronx, it’s grounded in it, with authentic-looking houses, multicultural residents, elevated train tracks and honking cars.

The series even asked the city transit authority for permission to use a likeness of the six train (and the announcer’s call “Stand clear of the closing doors, please”).

“I think that more specificity just leads to more relatability, because the more real, the more true the characters feel, the more interesting it is,” said Executive Producer and Chief Creative Officer of Fred Rogers Productions Ellen Doherty.

Manzano, who also voices the grandmother, wanted it to look like the neighbourhood she knew so well and the people she grew up with.

She considered every detail — even Alma’s nose.

“I didn’t want to be perky and turned up, I wanted to be round, I wanted to have a little Afro-Puerto Rican in her,” she said. “I think this is the first time that I have seen a Hispanic character that has an Afro-Puerto Rican vibe to her.” Her voice is supplied by nine-year-old Summer Rose Castillo, the daughter of April Hernandez Castillo, an actor with roles in TV shows such as Dexter, ER and Law & Order and was in the movie Freedom Writers.

Summer Rose nailed the audition, in part by rapping about her school – Manzano thought she had “swag” – and recorded her vocal parts in a home studio built by her dad. They live, appropriately, in the Bronx.

“It’s challenging to find the right actress. We didn’t want somebody too slick, but we wanted somebody who could do the job,” said Manzano. “So she was just perfect.”

Summer Rose said she likes to draw, write and sing. One of her biggest dreams is meeting Miranda. “It’s really important for people to look at Alma’s Way and feel like there’s a mirror and Alma looks exactly like them,” she said.

There is music throughout – salsa, plena and bomba, along with other Latin genres such as Cuban son and Colombian cumbia.

Miranda was tasked with writing the theme song with Bill Sherman and they came up with a delightful mash-up of Latin music, hip-hop and rap.

“He can say with four words what it takes the rest of us 20,” Manzano said about Miranda. “And in the theme song, you have to like pack in what the show is about.”

In the episodes, Alma often witnesses adults deal with an issue – a mom telling her partner that an item of clothing is too small – and then she applies it to her own life after thinking it over. Or she identifies a problem and works through it.

Doherty said the show is designed to help children who are transiting from nursery school to kindergarten or first grade, the times when they are unmoored by their routines.

“There are a lot more moments during the day when they have to figure stuff out, when there may not be an adult as present as they were when they were younger. And in those moments, we want to help them think through what what’s going on,” she said.

Doherty said she was inspired by two things: seeing a credit card company commercial that stops time led to Alma being able to take a beat and think about her situation, and Fleabag, which championed speaking to the camera in a confessional way.

Parents in the show are very human, losing keys or accidentally including a beloved toy in the laundry, but always ready with a hug. Its creator hopes parents and children will watch together.

“I’m hoping that the show is like a good book. When you close a good book, the characters stay in your mind,” said Manzano. “I’m hoping that there’s conversations between parents and child.”