INTERVIEW: PBS KIDS' Lyla in the Loop creator/EP and head writer/EP discuss series premiere

Lyla in the Loop on PBS KIDS. Image courtesy of PBS KIDS
Lyla in the Loop on PBS KIDS. Image courtesy of PBS KIDS /

Get ready for a brand new series coming to PBS KIDS! The premiere season of the animated series Lyla in the Loop is launching on Feb. 5. We sat down with Lyla in the Loop's creator, showrunner Dave Peth (Scribbles and Ink, Design Squad) and head writer/executive producer Fracaswell “Cas” Hyman (Gullah Gullah Island, Little Bill, Creator of The Famous Jett Jackson) to discuss the series' inception, the themes of computational thinking skills, executive function, and social emotional skills in the upcoming storylines, and what to expect from the titular character’s boisterous blue sidekick, Stu! Lyla in the Loop is produced by Mighty Picnic and Pipeline Studios,  and supported by the Ready to Learn Initiative. If you want to know more about what to expect in Lyla in the Loop’s debut season, read on to find out!

The Parent Watch: Please introduce yourselves!

Dave Peth: I'm Dave Peth. I'm the creator and showrunner for Lyla in the Loop.

Fracaswell Hyman: I'm Fracaswell Hyman. I'm the head writer and executive producer for Lyla in the Loop.

TPW: I know that you really pull inspiration from your hometown and your experiences to craft this show. I wanted to learn a little bit more about how it was growing up in Philly for you.

Peth: Well, you know what? I actually didn't grow up in Philly. I'm a more recent transplant, but it's made a big impression on me. Philly is a pretty dense city; [There’s] a lot of people living in close knit neighborhoods. And—

Hyman: Small streets.

Peth: Small, very skinny streets. You go out on your front stoop, especially in neighborhoods like mine, where there are row homes side by side, and you're right there next to people, and you see a lot of family-run restaurants and businesses. It's that close knit, diverse atmosphere that we wanted to bring to the show as well.

TPW: Cas, you wrote for a ton of children's programming. I saw Gullah Gullah Island, Taina, and Little Bill. I grew up watching Little Bill, so this is really cool to talk to someone who wrote on the show. I wanted to know how those experiences informed your work on Lyla and in the Loop.

Hyman: Well, I think as you go along in your life and your career, everything that you experience informs your work. I learned how to write for television on a show called Ghostwriter. I had never written a script before I worked on Ghostwriter. And as you go along understanding writing for children's television, realizing that it takes a lot because people may think, “Oh, it's easy to write for kids,” but you have a small check box, and you have to dance in that box. It's smaller than when you're writing for the general public. So, over the years, you learn what you can do, what you can't do, where you can push the boundaries and where you cannot. Over my long [career on the] tons of shows that I've done, I've seen things change over the years in good ways. That's why I'm excited that I could bring what I know and what I've learned to Lyla [in the Loop].

TPW: Writers tend to sometimes be introverted or very quiet about where they get inspiration from or just their own past experiences so thank you for being so open about that. The series comes out at the perfect time during Black History Month, and it centers on a black family, but it also involves a character who comes from a different ethnic background, Everett Phan, who is Asian American. How important was it to show those relationships between diverse backgrounds in the series?

Peth: It was sort of central to the series’ creative. We have the Loops family as a black family with different cultural identities within that. We have Everett Phan as a part of a Vietnamese American family and many other different family structures and cultural backgrounds throughout the series. Good stories are in the details of people's lives and the specifics of their experiences.– Also behind the scenes, we have folks who can speak from their own personal backgrounds and they bring those details to life in this show. It just makes for a better story and an experience people can look at and say, “Yeah, I get that. That looks like my family,” or “That sounds like what my friend would say” or “My parents have that same decoration, or something similar. All those details make it a warm and inviting story, one that you want to be a part of and spend time with the characters. I think also core to the learning goals of this series is the invitation for all kids, but especially young women of color, to find a spark, maybe hear an invitation to explore science, technology, engineering, and math skills. Women of color in particular have been underrepresented in those fields, and especially perhaps in technology and engineering.

Peth (CONT’D): We wanted to make sure that we were portraying a family and a lead character of color who would be someone to identify with and to get kids excited to explore their own natural talents.

Hyman: Well, representation really does matter and it's important for us to see ourselves and for our children to see themselves on screen. I mean, when I was coming along back in the covered wagon days, I never saw a kid who looked like me on television until Diahann Carroll's show Julia and she had a little boy named Corey. So that was something that made me really excited to have Everett Phan, to have Lyla’s friend Ali, who is of Latino descent, and to have all these different characters – not only different ethnicities, but different physical abilities, and ages. We wanted a world like the real world so that kids and everybody could see a representation of themselves and feel proud and empowered.

TPW:  I resonate with that. As a young woman of color, I love seeing that there's shows that are coming out, even in 2024, that are rooted in that belief. I got to watch two of the episodes, the pilot and also the second episode, ‘The Mystery Puzzle; Stu Express’. Cas, you are the head writer. When you're in the room coming up with storylines, what's the process like with the other writers to come up with these really interesting stories? [The show] talks about inclusion and being independent, but also working with teams. 

Lyla and her family at the Diner
Lyla in the Loop on PBS KIDS. Image courtesy of PBS KIDS /

Hyman: Well, I don't come up with all the ideas. We bring in our writers and we ask them to pitch story ideas to us. We look at the story ideas. I like to think, “Okay, that story has legs. That's going to be fun. That's going to be something that's interesting.” Then, we try to connect it with a learning goal, “How is it going to give the information that we want kids to get?” Then, they [the writers] run off, well not run off [laughs], but they go off and they write the stories. Dave, the network, our advisors, all of these people have input into how the stories are going to turn out along the way. So they're honed, honed, honed. Normally, in the end, I put my fingerprints all over them. That's just the job because we weren’t in the same room or in the same office. We meet on Zoom like this all the time. A part of my job is to kind of make things sound the same, make sure that the tone is the tone that is set for the series, but that's the process. We all collaborate and throw in ideas. We pick what we consider the best at the time and run with it.

TPW: Dave, do you have any insight?

Peth: Cas said it best. I think one other thing to add is with the learning goals around computational thinking, maybe sort of a new term, sort of an academic-sounding term to most folks, but it really is key. These are skills, problem solving skills, strategic skills that we use every day, really, to break down anything into a series of steps, even as simple as a recipe, or kids getting ready for school in the morning. When we think about stories, we always have to make sure – and Cas is very good at this, by the way – we don't get too abstract, and that we find ways where it feels very natural to have the characters engage with some kind of everyday problem and apply the learning goals within that. We don’t want it to feel like all of a sudden we're in an academic world. No, we keep it grounded.

Hyman: When you first approached me with computational thinking, and I downloaded this app that's supposed to teach me how to code, thank goodness this has nothing to do with coding, because I am too old to learn how to code. We ought to stop saying computational thinking, first of all. Just say problem solving [laughs].

Peth: I don't know, Cas, after writing the series, you're going to knock out your first piece of code. I just know one of these days it's going to happen. Now you've been indoctrinated with computational thinking.

TPW: You spoke about having advisors on this show, and I found out that there's going to be some interactive episodes in the works. Are you able to speak on that regarding AI technology?

Peth: Sure, I can give you a little bit, but this is a parallel research project that PBS KIDS has been working on for a number of years. The idea is to find ways to use technology, in this case, responsive tech, to help keep kids engaged, to meet kids where they're at as they're learning new ideas. It’s just an exploration of what we might be able to do along those lines. It’s something that's happening in parallel to the series. The series writing and production was not something that used AI within it. 

TPW: Of course, using AI responsibly. I advocate for that. I love that Lyla's sidekick is an anthropomorphic cat, I want to say? You can explain in more detail what Stu, or [even] who Stu is. What specifically were you thinking of when you were crafting that character?

Peth: [laughs] Stu is not a cat, not a hamster or a groundhog. We leave it a little bit of a mystery there as to what exactly Stu is, but Stu is “something truly unique,” which [leads to] the acronym where we get “Stu.” His characteristics are meant to sort of mirror something like what a computer might do. Though Stu is a flesh and blood creature, not a robot, that characteristic, the primary one, wants to be helpful, loyal, loving, and responsive to what you're doing and work together, but [he’s] also very literal-minded. So if you ask Stu to do something, he's going to do it because he really wants to help. It may not be what you meant exactly if you weren't specific enough or left out a key detail of when to stop doing something. That's the genesis, the heart of what Stu does. We see that expressed in a lot of different ways throughout the series.

TPW: I just thought the character was so fun, getting a little bit more insight makes it even more fun to watch and continue to watch. What I also love about this show is that children's programming in general, it's not just for kids. Grownups, babysitters, parents, anyone can enjoy this show. When you were putting the show together, did you learn anything new while creating, [the character of] Lyla, creating the series, and working with Cas? 

Peth: It's a continual learning process. Every day you learn, at least I do. This is the first show that I've created and show-run, and so everything is new and is to be learned. As you mentioned, Cas has an amazing number of programs in his career and, on the way, his mentorship as a writer and certainly as an EP (executive producer) as well, has been very helpful to me and appreciated. If I can brag on you for a minute, Cas, you write families really well. The dynamics, the emotional connections between them, and you often speak about this, but the family is warm without being saccharine. I think that it's a thin line to walk. You've done it throughout these episodes to bring that to life. 

Peth: Cas, you got anything to add? What did you learn in this besides how to code?

Hyman: -Which I did not learn. You want to put in stuff that the parents are going to enjoy. A parent won't mind having it played in their house ten times a day. When the kids really like it, you want to have some space for them to chuckle and for them to go, “Oh, I know that attitude.” It’s a good thing to try to not lock off the people who are also going to be in the room, and hopefully they'll enjoy the show as a family, which is very important, and I appreciate that.

TPW: That's awesome. What was one takeaway that you think audiences will get from watching Lyla in the Loop?

Peth: I'd say one takeaway, we hope, is that kids will feel energized [and] empowered to express themselves, [and] express their creativity in the way that Lyla and her family do by making things, building things, dancing, singing, whatever it is. To know that if you just keep trying it, then you [can] make a change and if you do it again, and then you do it again, you'll get there. Going through that process, really going through that loop, is whatever one does [one] never gets it right on the first try. That almost never happens. We want people to feel encouraged by that, identify with that, and then go do it in their everyday life.

Hyman: I think we want kids, when they're in the midst of something that might be a little bit challenging, to maybe stop and think, “What would Lyla do?” We'd like parents who are watching it to [say], “You know, go ahead, you can figure this out. You got this.” Or they can just join in the fun. To have a parent who wants to join in and have fun and play and do things with you, I think that's something that hopefully all adults who watch the show can take away from it and kids can learn to expect it. It’s like “Lyla's dad played with her. Play with me, too!”

Lyla in the Loop premieres on Feb. 5 on PBS KIDS! Keep up with The Parent Watch for more family-friendly news, coverage, and more.