Peg + Cat seemed like a hard sell on paper: Make an animated series that gets kids excited about math, aka the broccoli of academics. But when children’s programming vets Billy Aronson (Wonder Pets, Rent) and Jennifer Oxley (Little Bill) were approached by The Fred Rogers Company to build a show around the subject, they didn’t see fractions and long division, but a universal language that let kids understand math is cool.
The long-held assumption that kids hate math? It’s not true, as evidenced by the fact Peg + Cat is a massive hit that airs in 180 countries. It’s all due to the show’s ability to teach in a fun and musical way. Aronson, the show’s head writer, came up with a device that let their lead character, Peg, go anywhere in time and space. “She’s on a graph paper and she can talk to anybody,” says Oxley.
The premise is that Peg, and her talking cat (unoriginally named Cat), encounter mathematical word problems that the duo solve. That’s it. There are no parents, teachers, or classrooms that suggest this is school. Instead, there’s plenty of musical numbers and appearances from historical and fictional characters.
With new episodes returning to PBS this June, Fatherly spoke to the creators about dispatching with the boring stigma of math, the high art of creating jingles, and what Woody Allen and Peg both have in common.
Peg + Cat does something unique: it makes math fun with music. In between the musical numbers, how do you keep the show engaging for kids?
BA: That was a challenge. We thought it should never be teachy. A lot of educational programs have this pause. That’s where they’re sort of tricking you to take a lesson in school and then go back to the fun stuff.
JO: We never wanted it to feel like kids were in school. We knew it had to be funny and there had to be characters that they would fall in love with.
Having catchy musicals is a big help too.
BA: We wanted to tell the math through the story and music is great for that. Music gives a feeling of friendliness and love. We can guide you with music. And when we’re teaching something boring, for example, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 — in a jingle — it’s a delight.
Instead of cleaner computer animation, Peg + Cat feels sketched on a math notebook. Was it always your goal to stick out from other kids shows?
JO: When we were creating the show, I had gotten all my art supplies out at home and I realized I had all this graph paper. I glued it onto cardboard and I started painting on that. Then I thought, maybe the clouds could look like symbols, so I made them infinity symbols. There are always equations in the background which look like they’ve been erased away from another time. It’s not teaching kids but adds to the look and feel of math.
There are only so many pre-k math problems, How do you work around that limitation?
BA: The basic premise of the show is Peg’s life is word problem. A word problem can be anywhere. Math is all over the place. Math is in music. It’s in history. Math can help George Washington cross the Delaware. It can help Romeo and Juliet get together. Math can help Beethoven compose a symphony.
JO: We’re allowed to go anywhere with the show. It’s not like Peg is in school or in a library or in a real world situation, like other kid’s shows. She can be on a purple planet one day and be with Emily Dickenson another day.
What were your struggles in creating a female lead?
BA: We knew we wanted Peg to be a girl for various reasons: It’s empowering and it’s about time, but for me, as a writer, it’s more original.
Because she’s always totally freaking out?
BA: [Laughs] For years I’ve had people say to me, we want a good girl character. So I would create something and then people will say, “Well, she can’t eat too much because kids will make fun of girls. She can’t be too brainy because kids will make fun of girls.” Whatever you try to do, they want to make her less interesting. Peg is spunky and feisty and good with math, but like everyone else with math, she totally freaks out. At first, we got a lot of questions about that and they said, “Well, maybe she shouldn’t do that.” They would ask, “Isn’t that a stereotype?” But we stuck to our guns.