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Word Domination

Dorothea Lisa Gillim ’86 inspires eloquence and laughter with WordGirl.

By Katie Becker ’10


“I felt like such a loser in my Swarthmore days,” Dorothea Lisa Gillim ’86 says. “It was a real struggle for me personally that I wasn’t as successful as my peers were. I’m all about the late bloomers.” Gillim is the creator of the Emmy-award winning program, WordGirl, that is shown on PBS stations.

Becky Botsford seems to live the average life of a 10-year-old girl. She has moderately clueless parents, an annoying younger brother, a pet monkey, and a secret. When trouble arises, Becky becomes WordGirl, a superhero with super strength, super speed, and a super vocabulary. Whether she’s out saving the city from a rat-brained villain’s nefarious plot to steal the cheese supply or at home helping her father complete a crossword puzzle, Becky is the star of WordGirl, an educational children’s show on PBS, and the brainchild of Dorothea Lisa Gillim ’86.

As a student at Swarthmore, Gillim didn’t expect to be creating and producing cartoons for a living, but now she is trying to develop “work that redeems the medium.” And people are taking notice. Only in its second season, WordGirl has won an Emmy award for Outstanding Writing in Animation, a Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming, and a Parents Choice award. This fall, Scholastic, owner of Soup2Nuts, the production company where Gillim works, released a series of WordGirl books—and WordGirl merchandise debuts this spring. Gillim has high hopes for future seasons, including a movie in season three. Despite her success, her path to television, cartoons, and WordGirl has been anything but straight.

Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Gillim’s family placed a high value on reading. “[My father] would recite poetry at the dinner table,” she recalls, “which now seems completely absurd to me but at the time seemed normal.” Gillim’s favorite childhood cartoons were shows such as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Electric Company, and Looney Tunes, which she now credits for her own desire to create programming that is “first and foremost” funny but also includes educational content. She developed a love of words in this environment, and, in ninth grade, Gillim even asked her parents for a dictionary for Christmas.

Gillim’s love of words did not translate easily into a clear career choice once she started college. “Before I entered Swarthmore,” Gillim says, “I wanted to be—in no particular order—a genetic scientist, a news anchor, a violinist, and a linguist.” Being in school did not help her make a decision about her future, and the lack of a career path became a source of great discomfort for Gillim. An Honors Program dropout, she transferred to UC–Berkeley in the fall semester of her junior year but returned to Swarthmore when she realized she wasn’t learning there. She recalls that she had “a really tough time” at Swarthmore because of the pressure she felt to go into academia.

Gillim faced similar confusion about her plans after graduation. She was hired as a fifth-grade teacher in Philadelphia but, after three years, was unsatisfied with the impact she was having and unsure of where to go from there. “So I did what any self-respecting Swarthmore graduate would do—I went to graduate school,” she says.

Gillim earned a master’s degree from Harvard in what she calls “a very expensive career-exploration program.” Still, she didn’t think of television as a career path and spent the next three years as a freelance writer in the field of educational media.

With rent due and a desire to expand her culinary options beyond macaroni and cheese, Gillim called Tom Snyder ’72 to ask for a job. He is the founder of Tom Snyder Productions, an educational software company whose programs Gillim had used when she taught fifth grade. “I remember reading the [software] box and Tom’s bio and thinking we have all this in common because we both went to Swarthmore and the little private schools where we taught were like sister schools. I called him up, and it just so happened that the project manager was going on maternity leave, so he hired me practically on the spot,” Gillim says.

Gillim disliked developing software and “was really bad at it,” but she learned to edit audio around the time when the animation division of the company, which would become Soup2Nuts, was producing the popular Comedy Central series Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Once she became involved with that show, her career “basically paralleled the growth of the company,” she says.

Gillim has been with Soup2Nuts for 14 years. After working on Dr. Katz, she produced the company’s second show, Science Court, and created and produced a show called Hey Monie! “I’m all about the late bloomers,” Gillim says of the time it took her to find the best fit in a career. Challenged in recent years to do a show about literacy, Gillim returned to her love of words for inspiration. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if eloquence were a superpower just like superspeed or superstrength? Because to me, eloquence is kind of a superpower,” she says.

With the premise of an eloquent superhero, Gillim also wanted “to create a character that had never been on television before.” She created a superhero named WordGirl, a.k.a. Becky Botsford, to counteract the relative lack of female superheroes in the media, and their “sexed-up” image when they do appear—and because of her desire to create a character that would be “empowering for girls.” Gillim also wanted WordGirl to be a character to whom all kids could relate, so, “We made her what I call ethnically ambiguous, she looks like she could belong to many cultures, even though she’s from the planet Lexicon.”

The show centers on the adventures of WordGirl and her monkey sidekick, Captain Huggy Face, as they combat the various villains in their town and hide WordGirl’s secret identity. WordGirl first appeared on PBS in November 2006 as a series of two-minute shorts; the series premiered as a 30-minute program in fall 2007. Each episode highlights two words, which are cued by a friendly voice at the beginning telling viewers to listen for words such as “stampede” and “accelerate.” The writers and voice actors on the show are “A-caliber comedy,” according to Gillim, including Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development, Chris Parnell of Saturday Night Live, and Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.

People of all ages find WordGirl funny, and that’s exactly what Gillim intended.

“I wanted to do the SpongeBob SquarePants of PBS, I wanted to do a show that would appeal to 3-year-olds and 83-year-olds. And it’s happening,” Gillim says. She has been receiving letters from people of all ages who are enjoying the show. One 15-year-old girl wrote Gillim to thank her “for creating a kid’s show that she doesn’t hate to watch with her younger sister.” She hopes that college students will discover the show as well. “When I was in college, we used to watch Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on Saturday morning, and we would call it the hangover hour,” Gillim says.

The success of the show can be attributed to Gillim’s funny-comes-first approach. “I didn’t want the learning to be heavy-handed,” Gillim says. “I have a motto: Vocabulary is not a plot point.” The creation of each episode reflects this motto, because the words come “almost last,” according to Gillim, when the writers put together an outline for the show. They focus first on thinking of a situation that will be really funny, then they start to think about the words that would be well suited to repeated use in the storyline, “ideally in a really funny way,” she says. Gillim hopes that the show will inspire kids to learn more about language while helping them to “feel cool learning new words and feel smart for using them,” she says.

Finding her path may have taken a while, but now that she has, Gillim views work as a “joy.” When asked about where she sees WordGirl going in the future, Gillim replies with a deadpan, “World domination, really.” With the bevy of WordGirl products on the way, world domination may not be far off. Most importantly, Gillim looks forward to many more seasons because “We have a lot more stories to tell.”

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, Dorothea Gillim has moved to Boston to join the WBGH children’s programming team as an executive producer.


Katie Becker ’10

Katie Becker ’10, an honors psychology major with a minor in French, is an intern in the Publications Office. She spent the fall 2008 semester studying in Grenoble, France, and intends to return there after graduation to teach English for a year. The Delaware native plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology with the goal of becoming a cognitive therapist. “Word Domination” is Becker’s first article for the Bulletin.

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