In a chat with KidScreen Editor Lana Castleman, Valerie Walsh – co-creator of Dora the Explorer with fellow ex-Nick exec Chris Gifford – dished on Dora’s origins, how she keeps the 10-year-old show fresh, and why kids are the ultimate arbiters of the character’s fate.
Where did you and Chris get the idea for Dora?
Chris and I were working at Nick Jr., developing projects with external creators. The VP of the department at the time asked us to develop an original idea. We came up with 100 ideas and eventually got to one by sifting through them for weeks and months. It was a great concept, but design-wise it didn’t feel new and fresh. Dora was supposed to be a very inexpensive live-action show, but we decided to take the animation route.
What preschool needs weren’t being served at the time?
I’d been looking at a lot of CD-ROMs for kids and we knew they loved the interactive pieces. And we’d been working with some child psychologists who said putting together a story with those interactive elements would be very powerful. So the idea of trying to imbed educational curriculum into a story that kids then felt they were going to push forward was the real driving force for the show’s conceit.
Are you still involved in writing Dora, day-to-day?
Yes. Chris and I oversee all the writing and go to every writer’s meeting. And we’ve made it a mission to find new writers. It is a challenge after this many episodes to come up with something to make it feel like we’re not retelling the same story, especially when there’s such a set format. We’ve got writers coming in here who’ve written for CSI and said this is one of the toughest things they’ve ever done.
Has Dora changed?
Each season we give ourselves a challenge so that it feels as if there’s something new added to her, but her core personality has stayed the same. She’s very earnest and loving and kind to her friends. Last season we had a lot of input from kids who said, ‘I’m friends with Dora.’ So we decided that we would introduce a new friend of Dora’s every episode. This season, we added a health and wellness goal.
Where do you look for inspiration at this point?
For me, I now have a two-year-old. I don’t have to look too far. But a lot of it comes from watching kids and being in tune with how they go about their day and the obstacles they face.
Do you use a lot of research on child development?
We go out with our stories and tell them in schools, so we get a lot of our own research. We also have a lot of advisors and have seminars at the start of every season where we discuss what the trends are in learning. But the ultimate producer who says yay or nay is the child.
You test the episode ideas in front of a live kids audience?
Yes. We make it into a storybook, take it to schools and daycare centers, and have someone read it to them in Dora’s voice before we go to script. We’re trying to prevent the need to reanimate sequences or do retakes. We want to know upfront if they like the story. Entire stories have been shelved because of a bad reaction.
What was your most memorable rejection?
I had this crazy idea for a story about a runaway plant. I ran across the plant on one of the research trips to Latin America that we do before the season starts. I found it interesting. Imagine a plant that runs away and is out of control and has to be returned to Isa’s garden. The kids, however, found it very disturbing, especially the fact that Dora lost control and the plant was on its own. It hit something primal in the kids and I didn’t get a lot of happy responses. They have the ultimate say and we shelved it.