Back in 2005, I wrote a column in USA Today about the animated PBS kids show, Postcards From Buster, in which the cheerful cartoon bunny from Arthur (another popular PBS cartoon) criss-crosses the continent, befriending an impressive array of real, live-action American families. The idea of the show, of course, is to teach kids the blessings of diversity, and in his first season, Buster visited, among others, Mormons in Utah, American Indians in Wyoming, and a trailer-park family in Virginia.
But when Buster hit Vermont, the rabbit pellets hit the fan. The reason? Word got out that in the yet-to-be-aired episode, the happy-go-lucky hare dropped in on a two-mom family. (Yes, lesbians!) Predictably, Christian conservatives went into a hyperventilating tizzy, heaping endless loads of hellfire onto the show. Then Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling--in her first public act in that office--joined the mob.
"Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode," Spelling said.
In the end, WGBH in Boston (which produces Buster), decided to offer the episode individually to each PBS station, as opposed to sending it out nationwide. Of the 349 stations that could carry that particular segment, only 57 opted to do so.
I watched the episode (now available on DVD), and naturally, no mention whatsoever is made of the moms' sexuality. Instead, the family is shown lovingly, with parents and kids hanging out in the kitchen and building a bonfire outdoors to welcome the spring--that sort of thing.
Still, as a result of the controversy, Postcards from Buster lost its funding, and went into an unscheduled hiatus for its second season.
Well, the good news--no, the great news--for 2007 (and it's only January!) is that Buster is back. And as a testament to what's really important, in one of the segments he returns to New Orleans to check in with children he'd visited in the first season, prior to Hurricane Katrina.
"Our goal with Buster is not about being controversial," the show's executive producer, Carol Greenwald, told me by phone last month. "It's about getting kids to understand other kids. Adults can find that scary. In the current season, Buster also visits a family on an Army base, where the Dad has shipped off to Iraq. We thought it was important for children to understand what it must feel like to be a kid in a military family.
"But these children in New Orleans," Greenwald continued, "they were something special. They triumphed over adversity, and you can see in the segment just how much they'd grown up since the first time Buster had visited them. They had to reach deep down inside to become their best selves. They really hung in there."
The same can be said for WGBH in Boston. Hats off to the brave folks there for sticking to their convictions, and for understanding the most important thing about children: that, quite often, they can be so much smarter and kinder than adults.
(The New Orleans segment of Postcards from Buster airs on PBS on February 19. Even if you don't have kids, tune in. You'll be giving a worthy show the ratings it deserves.)