First lady Laura Bush has long admired "Sesame Street," she said, having watched many hours of the PBS series with her twin daughters when they were young.
"We watched for a number of years," she said, "from as soon as they could sit up from the floor in our bedroom, which is where the TV set was. I'd be working at my desk in the same room. . . . Watching as an adult with my children gave me an appreciation of 'Sesame Street.' "
So with fond recollections--and a chance to put the focus on reading, a favorite cause--she accepted "Sesame Street's" invitation to read a specially produced book on the show.
The reading will air on Tuesday at 10 a.m. on MPT and at 10:30 a.m. on WETA; and on Wednesday at 4 p.m. on WHUT. The series launches its 34th season this week.
In her "Sesame Street" debut, the former teacher and librarian sits at a table and reads "Wubba Wubba Woo" to Big Bird, Elmo and several children. The two-minute segment was taped in New York in September and was a lot of fun, she said.
"No matter what you look like, no matter what you do," she reads, "Everybody likes to say, 'Wubba, wubba, woo!'
"It's a funny book that teaches phonics and sound," the first lady said. "It teaches the 'w' sound."
Her husband, President George W. Bush, often is called "Dubya" for his middle initial. "I don't know whether they thought of that" when they created the book, she said.
"No, we did not" think of the "dubya" angle, Lewis Bernstein, "Sesame Street" executive producer, said with a laugh. "The idea of the book was to have fun with sounds, to get children interested in hearing sounds, to see that sounds form words that form stories."
The book, by one of the show's writers and graphic designers, has not been published but may be, Bernstein said.
The first lady is one of several special "Sesame Street" guests this season. Others include singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, TV host Diane Sawyer, actress Natalie Portman and entertainer Wayne Brady.
Guest stars are important to "Sesame Street," Bernstein said, because they appeal to parents.
"When we started way back, we wanted adults to watch with children to heighten the learning. We wanted to make it engaging for parents. So besides guests, we added humor that would appeal to adults as well as children," he said.
"If parents watch television with their children and try to reinforce what the children saw on TV, there is a larger benefit for the children," Bush said. "That's not just true of children's television, but for any television."
Parents who are aware of what their children are watching "can turn it off if it's not appropriate," she said. "Or it can serve as a great starting point on a lot of issues . . . that children and parents talk about."
The show's adult guests and human characters also provide models for parents, Bernstein said. "If parents are watching Laura Bush read to children, they can see how she did it."
The first lady "was a real natural," Bernstein said. "And by taking time out of her incredibly busy schedule, she showed how important it is to read to children."
One of the reasons she loves to read, Bush said, is that her mother read to her. And reading to her own children, who now are adults, was one of her favorite parenting experiences, she said.
"My husband read to the children as well. Their favorite was Dr. Seuss's 'Hop on Pop,' which they would take literally and jump on him.
"I think it's very important for parents to read to children," she said. "Just spend 10 or 15 minutes a day. It shows the children that reading is important and that they are important to their parents.
"Especially now, in terms of uncertainty, with a lot of stress in our country, moments spent reading to a child are reassuring."
The first lady is concerned about aliteracy--involving those who know how to read but seldom do--and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization goal of worldwide literacy, especially for women and girls. She is serving as honorary ambassador for UNESCO's Decade of Literacy.
"Sesame Street," television's longest-running children's series, is adding global elements this season with two new segments.
In "Global Grover," the blue Muppet goes around the world and brings something back. Grover introduces a live-action film that shows a child from a different culture trying to learn and master a task, such as making bricks in Central America or fishing in Angola.
Each of Grover's segments is followed by a one-minute animation called "Global Thingy," which uses humor to teach children how to resolve conflicts over such things as sharing or taking turns, Bernstein said.
The mission of "Sesame Street" continues to be to prepare children for school, said Rosemarie T. Truglio, vice president of research and education. "That includes basic academic skills but also social and emotional development.
"We never talk down to children," Truglio said, "but always accept them as thinkers ready to reach for a bigger and better world."