Actor Jennifer Pena, talks about life as Miss Rosa, the value of a caterpillar, and, of course, that purple top.
MMM: On those occasions when we can actually sit and watch PBS with our children, what are some t.v. watching tips you can share with Mafia Mommies?
Jennifer Pena (JP): Well, the one thing I wanted to start with is commending your moms on sitting and watching with their kids. I think that is, first and foremost, one of the most important things. Using the television and programming, particularly PBS, I think is a great resource and it’s a great tool for so many different things and so being able to sit with your kids and engage them during the watching process is really, really important. But, it’s what you do after that. Watching it is one thing, it’s what you take from that episode and how you incorporate it into their world, into their everyday life, that is the real learning value of the programing.
So, for example, there was a Curious George episode, with a caterpillar. And in the episode, someone delivers flowers and there is this little caterpillar that is hanging out on one of the leaves, and the dog, Hundley, gets excited about the caterpillar. And George gets excited about the caterpillar. And they actually take him in and they make this little house for him, and the caterpillar winds up building a chrysalis and becoming a butterfly. So my son and I are watching this episode, and it just so happened that probably later that day or the next day, we were outside playing in the yard, and right as we are walking into our front door, there’s a little bush, and I happened to look over, and I noticed a caterpillar hanging out on a leaf. So I call my son back and I say,
“Come here, come here! Come take a look!” Now, he’s only two, so you really got to point it out.
So I squat down and I point and I get as close as we can without touching it, and I said,
“Look! It’s a caterpillar!” And you see him kinda registering it, and I said,
“Like Curious George!”
And as soon as I said it, *she snaps her fingers* the connection was made. It was something that he remembered seeing, but he couldn’t remember where he saw it from and he couldn’t remember what the context was. But when I said, “Curious George,” he remembered now what it was he had seen, and now he was seeing it for the first time for himself.
So those are the kind of teachable moments that I think are super important that you can really bring whatever you’re watching on PBS into their real life That’s one of the biggest tips I would give any mom, really any caretaker, your day care centers, or stay at home mom or a nanny that’s watching the kids. These are the type of things that help make it full circle for them.
MMM: Do you have a favorite PBS Kids character? Who is it?
JP: *laughs* Make me choose?? I don’t know, that’s like how many musicians do you hear say, ‘That’s like picking your favorite song or your favorite child!’ So it used to be that I had my own answer. But then I became a mom, and now it’s whatever character my kid loves at that time! *more laughing* Becomes my favorite character! That’s probably the easiest answer!
MMM: So what is (your son) watching these days?
JP: Oh my gosh! He’s really into (Curious) George. Everything is “George Monkey! George Monkey!”
MMM: And it will change…
JP: And it will change! It used to be Thomas, a few months ago, before that, he was obsessed with Princess Presto from Super Why! Maybe one day it will Mommy! (more giggles) I’m not sure! We’ll see!
MMM: What children’s character and/or show inspired you as a child?
JP: We were actually talking about that on the car ride over. I was racking my brain, and the reality is, when you and I were growing up, we didn’t have kid’s programming. I mean, really, stop and think about it.
MMM: Well, I remember Captain Kangaroo…Sesame Street…
JP: That was it. Captain Kangaroo. And one of the ones that even I really dug and remembered was the Bozo the Clown Show. That was a kid’s game show and it wasn’t even kid’s programming. So kids today are really fortunate to have the options that there are for them in kid’s programming. But really, more important than that, it’s the educational content that’s embedded in the kid’s programming. PBS does a really good job of making sure that it’s educational and fun at the same time. So the kids don’t realize that they’re learning. So the answer to that question, really is, there wasn’t very many options. Of course the go-to answer is Sesame (Street). Because really that was the one that was the most popular.
MMM: But obviously it didn’t make some huge indelible mark on you.
JP: No. Even Mr. Rodgers, I think, Mr. Rodgers was great, the overall show, but there wasn’t one thing, that I think caught my attention and said, “Jennifer, this is your calling.” It wasn’t until a little bit later, when I was able to go back and watch television with my younger sisters. I’m the oldest of three, so once they started watching kids programming, I think I started realizing, “Wow. Maria IS Hispanic– on Sesame Street, so maybe that IS something I can do.” So it wasn’t until I was like, nine, ten, eleven that I realized what that connection was.
MMM: And of course we have to talk about how few Latinas there were (in television) at that time.
JP: She was the only one. Well, that’s not true. There were others, that I don’t think we ever knew were Hispanic or Latina, or really what their background was. It was down played.They were just a woman. They were just whatever character that they were. Whereas Sesame embraced that. They defined it, they helped you understand it. They explained it. They educated you on it. I don’t want to say “exposed” but they did. They opened up that door. And allowed kids to realize, “What does that mean to be Hispanic? Why does she look different? Why does she speak with an accent? Well, this is why.”
MMM: Are there any current trends in children’s television programming that maybe didn’t exist twenty years ago that you find exciting now?
JP: Absolutely. It goes back to the first question. That full circle experience.
The biggest thing that I think is a huge trend are the opportunities to have all these apps. Bringing everything full circle. From the television into the world that the kids are living in. Giving you an opportunity to extend that lesson, or that “educational moment beyond the broadcast” is what PBS says. PBS has a plethora of apps for the iPad, the Droid series, that are really, really great. There’s a Dinosaur Train App, Curious George has an App. There’s a general PBS Kids video player, so that now you’re not limited to just watching it on your television. If there’s something that you wanted to go out and capture then you can do that in your car, the park, and whatever setting you’re in. I think Apps are the biggest “trend” going on right now that I’m really excited about. Kids are not just watching it, but now they’re a part of it and that really helps the learning process.
MMM: What is your favorite children’s book? And I don’t know if you’ve found new ones now that you’re a mom?
I have found a lot of new books. One is called “Someday” (By Alison McGhee)
It’s a book given to me by sister when I was pregnant with my son, and it makes me cry every single time I read it. It’s a beautiful and endearing book. It’s this story of a mother saying ‘One day you were my baby and I combed your hair, and you went on adventures. But SOMEDAY, you’ll explore on your own and you’ll be far away turning back looking at me, watching you walk away and then Someday, you’ll be watching YOUR child do it.” Oh it gives me chills! So that’s a new favorite.
But one of my classic favorites of all time is Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! I think it’s just an awesome, amazing story that’s relevant for all ages, it’s a great high school graduation gift, it’s a great graduation gift for any graduate to kinda inspire them. There’s a neo-natal version, (Oh, Baby, the Places You’ll Go!: A book to be read in Utero) that I’ve given to moms while they are pregnant and the intent is to read it while you’re pregnant.
MMM: When PBS Kids hired you to play Miss Rosa, you knew you were being hired as a children’s entertainment personality. Along the way, have you encountered things that maybe you weren’t prepared for or pleasantly surprised by?
JP: The answer to that is: Everyday.
And you’re going to say well that doesn’t make any sense. I am pleasantly surprised every, single, day. Every time that I get dressed, and I put this costume on. Yes, I am a personality, but the personality is me. So Jennifer Pena IS Miss Rosa. They’re one and the same. The only difference is that Miss Rosa wears this bright colored, almost irritatingly bright (color)- but the kids love it, and are drawn to that magnetic color. And it gives me a chance to be silly and to get on the floor and roll around with them and not looked at like I’m weird, because I’m Miss. Rosa and I can get away with it.
The reactions of kids was something that I did not expect. I didn’t anticipate. I was told about it, I was forewarned, in a way to try to prepare me, but there’s no preparation for that. It’s no different than the first time you get to see your kid see something for the first time. Even though you’ve done it a million times. But when they do it for the first time, you get excited but you get more excited because they’re so excited they clapped or because they just said a word and you knew what they meant, or because they saw a Curious George character and that was their world- you’ve seen costumed characters before, but to see it through their eyes that’s a completely different experience, that’s something I wasn’t prepared for, and I just am in awe every single time I get to see that. And now, having my own kids, and to see it through their eyes, it’s just now magnified that much more. So now I can appreciate the kids that I visit even more because I have that experience with my own kids. It’s been pretty awesome.
You can catch PBS Kids Miss Rosa weekdays locally on WPBT2’s KidVision, in-between episodes of PBS’s popular kids lineup including, Super Why!, Wild Kratts, Curious George, and The Cat in the Hat.