If you have young children, you may be familiar with the TVOkids show Tumbletown Reads, but you probably have no idea what it takes to put the show together.

Sometimes hamsters climb out of the cars they’re supposed to be driving, and feisty chinchillas dart into scenes when no one is ready for their close-up. Never mind what happens when you put two rodents together in a cage, and give them some alone time.

It’s all in a day’s work for lead producer Steve Diguer, who created most of the characters, and writes the scripts for the show ,which follows the escapades of Tumbleweed the Hamster as he explores words, reading, and writing.

“My only weapon is food,” Diguer says. “It’s the only thing I have to get them to sit still. I try not to give them too much to eat. That way they eat for a while and stay still and then are just finishing and start to look around. That’s your golden shot.”

Tumbleweed the Hamster was a character originally created by former TVOKids host Phil McCordic back in 2002 when the afternoon segment decided to bring in an on-air pet and sidekick. “The kids called in to vote on a name and he was named Tumbleweed,” says McCordic, who still comes back to TVO to record Tumbleweed’s voice. “It wasn't long before he developed a voice, a personality, and soon he became a very popular part of the show.”

His home, the castle, was also a part of a competition and was built by a child who submitted the home-made structure and won. “And it’s been his home ever since,” says Diguer.

For the first four years of filming, the show was called Tumbletown Tales and was built around the Ontario elementary school math curriculum. But two years ago it was brought back as Tumbletown Reads, built around the provincial reading and writing curriculum.

Literacy expert and Toronto District School Board elementary school teacher James Coulter is the show’s educational advisor. He guides the production team in each episode. “The producers already have the form and the characters and the treatment and they ask me for ideas on content,” he says. “They want to know what kind of literacy-related things we can teach the kids and that can be done in manageable little nuggets.”

“James gives us an idea of a lesson he wants to get across,” Diguer says. “Then I write down a synopsis of what could illustrate the lesson. He tells me whether he thinks it will work and if he does, I get writing.”

Once the shows have been put together in rough form, Coulter checks to make sure the show hits the reading and writing markers he hoped they’d hit. “I look at the show and let them know if they’ve gone off track,” he says. “They show me a review screening copy and I sign off on it.”

One episode of the show has Tumbleweed reporting on an electric car show for the Tumbletown Gazette. Tumbleweed gives the article to the editor, a guinea pig with an English accent, describing it as “the best story ever.” The editor reads the article, and explains that the story would be better if Tumbleweed didn’t repeat the word “cool” in every sentence. She explains that good writing includes lots of detail and description.

Tumbleweed goes back to his desk for a second draft. He thinks back to all he saw and thought at the show, and includes all of that in the story. Using a variety of words to tell a story, using details and descriptions, and doing second drafts are all a part of the elementary school literacy curriculum.

Featuring a writer, an editor, and a newspaper in the show also reinforce the value of reading and writing.

Coulter has also begun to enlist the aid of his Grade 8 students in reviewing the shows and looking for literacy content. It helps them in their media construction studies, he says.

The filming of the show is quite logistically complex, and is filmed in eight or nine-day shoots once a year, Diguer says.

“We do a breakdown of props and then the actors come last,” he says. “It’s a bit of a puzzle to put together. You have to do a pretty serious breakdown.”

Some of the most challenging scenes to film on the show are the highway scenes where Tumbleweed is in his car, travelling from home to some other location.  “We have two people pulling on the mountains and two other people pulling on the trees,” Diguer says. “Meanwhile the car is bolted down on a treadmill. Then we need to get Tumbleweed inside the car. He can’t be trying to get out or hide. Then, once the mountains have moved across the set, they have to be reset at the beginning again. I yell action and if it’s not working, I say, reset. So when we get it right everyone cheers! It really is fun.”

A production assistant is responsible for finding a new group of rodents for each new season. “I give her direction on what I need and she tells me what she can get,” Diguer says.

“She works with one pet store in particular.”

Two hamsters actually play Tumbleweed. “And he has to be light brown or there’s no show,” says Diguer.

The animals live in the TVOKids offices for about two or three weeks during filming. Afterwards, the team tries to find homes for all the animals. Some get adopted by TVO employees, others get sent back to the pet store. So remember that if you decide to buy your child a pet hamster – he may once have been a major television star!

Extra resources from tvokids!

Tumbletown has an online game your kids might enjoy.
And there is a Tumbletown Reads Book Club.