Return Of The Friendly Ghost

Here's a children's TV program any parent could love. "Ghostwriter," a new PBS series for preteens, turns the seductive spray of MTV-style graphics into a pitch for literacy, aimed particularly at low-income and minority kids. And here's the best part: kids actually seem to like it. Launched last fall, "Ghostwriter" is the most ambitious project from the Children's Television Workshop since "SesameStreet."

Few video lessons playit so smart. Stylish and funky, "Ghostwriter" goes out of its way to make literacy not just salutary but cool. The bait: each week a multicultural team of six preteens tries to unravel some neighborhood mystery- a rash of backpack thefts, say, or arson at the video store. The hook: the sleuths can't crack the cases without help from a friendly ghost who delivers clues to them (and viewers) only through the written word. The young detectives are streetwise and irresistibly upbeat, while the ghost (an animated vaporous streak) conveys its messages in neat, holographic ways (and on everything from T shirts to manhole covers to computer screens). Guests have included Spike Lee, doing the write thing as a secret agent who passed on tips via comic-strip-style balloons.

Like it? Enough real kids do to make the series a multimedia rage. Schools, libraries and youth groups have handed out 14 million copies of a "Ghostwriter" monthly magazine containing word puzzles, quizzes and profiles of the cast. Nearly 150 newspapers are running a syndicated "Ghostwriter" feature offering more word games. Bantam Doubleday Dell has published a series of six "Ghostwriter" paperbacks that expand on the show's plot lines. More than half a million copies are in print.

Though it's too early to tell whether "Ghostwriter" has actually improved literacy rates, Children's Television Workshop surveys of the program's inner-city viewers are yielding highly encouraging results. "Most kids tell us that the really exciting moments are when the characters figure things out by using literacy," reports CTW executive Eve Hall. "They're starting to sense the payoff of literacy activity in daily life." The show has also received no fewer than 150,000 letters since its debut, many from grateful parents of once reluctant readers. One father, for instance, reported that his 7-year-old son enthusiastically reads the ghost's on-screen messages to his younger sister. Then there's the mash note from 10-year-old Lisa Donovan of Erie, Pa., which concluded with this assurance for the "Ghostwriter" team: "You are real no matter what anyone says."

Frankly, Lisa, we're not so sure. But thanks for writing.