A new cartoon on Nickelodeon features Chicago’s own Dusan Brown as the title character and also keeps the focus on education’s hottest topic right now, the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
“Blaze and the Monster Machines” debuted earlier this month and can be seen daily on Nick Jr. It’s a cartoon about a series of monster trucks, one of whom is named Blaze. Brown portrays Blaze’s best human friend, 8-year-old AJ, in the series that was created by a team of writers who also worked on modern kid-classics “Backyardigans,” “Blues Clues” and “Little Einsteins.” AJ, Blaze and others solve scientific problems or make, say, physics concepts kid-friendly. If that all sounds odd, think “Schoolhouse Rock” updated for 2014.
“It is very, very cool,” says Brown, who signed on to the show when he was 11. “It’s reached very advanced concepts to kids, but they’re making it easy to understand. I learned some new things while I was recording the show, things like fulcrum and diameters. The target is preschool but the graphics are so interesting that I would have my friends watch it.”
The show creators, Emmy winners Jeff Borkin and Ellen Martin, take kids into a world that solves problems by using concepts including friction, adhesion and trajectory. It’s the first cartoon to exclusively focus on these concepts for a preschool audience.
“Little kids are such an amazing audience because they don’t know that much about the world yet,” says Borkin. “They’re still learning about a world full of possibilities. Why can’t a little boy be best friends with a monster truck? Why can’t a little girl have awesome power tools and fix anything?”
And to that end, why can’t a little boy — who happens to be black — be the title character of a cartoon? Brown as AJ adds to a short list of solo, main cartoon characters who are black, including Doc McStuffins. “We felt like, for little kids, there aren’t that many visible African-American role models in the world of STEM. And we knew little kids wouldn’t bat an eyelash [at AJ]. It’d be totally normal and totally cool. AJ could be a real role model in the world of science and engineering. This is someone you could aspire to be.”
Brown stood out for the role, say the creators. “Casting in general is so hard ,” says Martin, who says that each episode takes about 18 months and 130 people to produce from creation to finish. “You hear so many great voices. [Dusan] was a standout. We’ve been, in some ways, writing the character as Dusan ever since.”
Blaze and the Monster Machines airs at 11:30 a.m. daily on Nick Jr.