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Franklin the turtle

Franklin could count forward and backward. He could zip zippers and button buttons. He could count by twos and tie his shoes. He could even sell 65 million books in 30 languages, star in his own TV show and license his likeness to the makers of plush toys and lunch boxes.

Which was all pretty remarkable because Franklin wasn't a boy wizard or a talking mouse. Franklin was a turtle.

It has been 25 years since author Paulette Bourgeois and illustrator Brenda Clark published Franklin in the Dark, the endearing tale of a little green turtle who is afraid of crawling into his own shell. Today, Franklin is an industry.

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Kids Can Press currently publishes 29 original Franklin storybook titles as well as another 55 Franklin treasuries, activity books and stories drawn from the animated television series. That series, created by the animation powerhouse Nelvana, was launched in 1997 and has played in heavy rotation on the children's specialty channel Treehouse every since.

On Friday Treehouse retires it and introduces an updated Franklin series from Nelvana, featuring computer-generated animation and new stories. The new series, Franklin and Friends, has already been sold to seven international broadcasters covering more than 15 countries, including France, Finland, Poland and Indonesia.

With Bruce Cockburn playing his theme song as he problem-solves his way through a peaceable, multianimal kingdom accompanied by his best friends Bear and Beaver, Franklin is a Canadian icon. Published by Kids Can, animated by Nelvana and broadcast by Treehouse, all three of which are owned by Corus Entertainment, he is also a vertically integrated icon who maximizes his merchandising opportunities. And, disseminated to the world, he is perhaps the best known product of Canada's highly successful export trade in kids cartoons.

Which may be why his critics complain of Franklin fatigue.

"Franklin is a pretty tacky industry of TV shows, DVDs, video games, et cetera that has smothered the little turtle that could," said Globe and Mail children's book columnist Susan Perren. "The first couple of Franklin [books]starring a fresh, endearing hero were great. ... with the more or less endless sequels they became too much of a good thing, devolving into a sort of bibliotherapeutic monster."

While some parents complain that Franklin stories are forever moralizing, bibliotherapy itself is not a bad thing, say experts in children's literature. Many children's stories are intended to introduce children to problems in a fictional realm before they encounter them in real life, explains Judith Saltman, a library-science professor at the University of British Columbia, and co-author with Gail Edwards of Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children's Illustrated Books and Publishing.

"When they meet a bully, they know about it; when they see selflessness or self-sacrifice they recognize it. Bibliotherapy is a basic tenant of [children's]narrative," Saltman said, arguing that the first Franklin book was psychologically astute in exploring Franklin's anxiety as he learns that all the animals have fears - and strategies for dealing with them.

"The character is such a gentle, sweet, vulnerable character who shows courage, ingenuity and affection," Saltman said. "He is both counsellor and patient."

Although Kids Can Press identifies in its catalogue the aspects of character education each book addresses, including self-respect, honesty and courage, Bourgeois herself never intended Franklin to play a moral role.

"It really came from an emotional place and I thought it was going to be a one-off book," she said. "I didn't know what children's books were supposed to be. I didn't approach the stories with any lesson or moral. I just really liked the idea of a turtle afraid of his own shell. I am claustrophobic."

As Franklin became a series, however, Bourgeois relied on editors to suggest childhood rites of passage she could cover.

"Quite frankly, I was running out of ideas very fast," said Bourgeois, who wrote the last Franklin book in 2001, introducing readers to his little sister Harriet before ending the series. As she accepted others' suggestions, taking Franklin to school or hospital, watching him tell a lie or suffer a bad day, her guiding principle "was how can it make sense from Franklin's point of view, a child's point of view, not an adult's."

Saltman argues that is key to her success: Bourgeois pitches the stories exclusively at children, without winking over their heads at the adults. The children identify directly with the young turtle, a new twist on an old tradition of anthropomorphization in children's literature.

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"Here is a tradition that goes back to Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit: Kids identify with small, vulnerable animals because they are small and vulnerable in a world of large adults," Saltman said. "[But]no one had written about a turtle as a pre-school child."

Saltman adds that Canadian children's fiction has a strong tradition of animal fables, perhaps drawing on a cultural awareness of nature and the wild. Clark's original illustrations reflect those naturalist traditions: She created relatively realistic animals with fur and feathers that can be observed in nature. As the characters moved to television, however, they became softer and more cartoon-like. Now, with more three-dimensional depth created by computer animation in the new series, Franklin, Bear and Fox look increasingly like plush toys.

Of course, as a storybook series moves to television, changes are inevitable: Picture-book plots have to be expanded to create even a 10-minute cartoon, and the limited woodland world of the Franklin characters had to be enlarged to sustain those longer narratives: On TV, Franklin and his friends have more of the trappings of contemporary childhood, including computers.

"The stories in the original books have more of an emotional core and are less driven by what people need to see on TV," Bourgeois said. "Transferring media is always challenging. I have always been really happy with the TV shows … but they do have to expand their world."

Now working as a screenwriter, Bourgeois even tried pitching new Franklin episodes to Nelvana, but said she pulled back because she felt there was a conflict between offering her ideas and commenting on other screenwriters' versions of Franklin as his original creator.

"It's exciting a Canadian character became so beloved," said Ken Setterington, an advocate for children's literature and literacy who recently retired from the Toronto Public Library, and who believes interest in Franklin has peaked. "Franklin grew because people knew exactly what they were getting. There were no surprises. ... They had something simple and they could market it. When you add a TV series, clothing, lunch boxes, it does get saturated and then it dies."

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Try telling that to one small green turtle, who will be busy in his new TV show helping Bear overcome his shyness and discovering that chores can be fun as the Franklin machine churns on.

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