Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is reintroducing the world-traveling, red fedora-wearing thief, Carmen Sandiego with an animated Netflix TV series, debuted January 18. The relaunch will also encompass a publishing program, educational materials for schools, a live-action feature film in 2020, and licensed products including interactive games.
The new iteration of the property has many of the same attributes remembered from the classic. “Carmen is still the world’s best thief, she still wears her iconic red hat and trench coat, she’s still globe-trotting across the continents, and she’s still inspiring kids to learn about geography, history, and culture,” said Caroline Fraser, head of HMH Productions, who serves as executive producer of the TV series and director of all the brand’s activities.
“What’s different is that we’ve flipped the script to focus on Carmen for the first time,” Fraser continued. “In the past, the character was sort of an avatar. We knew very little about her, except that it was our goal to catch her. With the new series, we get to know who she is and why she became a thief. We see the world from her perspective.”
The property fits with today’s trends regarding diversity and acceptance. “There’s a real need for kids to learn about the world around them and about how people live in different cultures,” Fraser said, adding, “Not a lot of properties are led by a female action-adventure hero, with super skills, who happens to be and has always been a Latino woman.”
The first tie-in book, Who in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, goes on sale January 22, simultaneously in English and Spanish, with an audiobook available from Audible. The story is a novelization of the first two episodes of the TV series and presents the character’s backstory. The forward is by Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin, a fan of the original, who stars with Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things in the animated series. She will also star in and serve as a producer of the live-action film.
A graphic novel episode tie-in entitled The Sticky Rice Caper and an original interactive story, Clue by Clue will follow in June. The plan is for a robust ongoing publishing program consisting of both original stories and episode tie-ins across a variety of formats appealing to kids six to 12. “All the books organically weave educational content about geography, culture, and history into the storylines,” Fraser said. “We’ve created a new universe and a new creative mythology that will be the definitive mythology going forward. It’s a big world, with lots of characters and endless stories to tell.”
In addition to publishing, HMH has developed some educational programs, including in-school engagement opportunities, themed Google Expeditions, and interactive geography quizzes in Google Earth. A January 8 event with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, featuring a live game show hosted by Rodriguez, was streamed live to students across the country to emphasize the educational component. “Throughout its history, the property has been equally popular in schools and at home,” Fraser said. “Very few properties cross over into both. It’s very difficult to do. But we’re committed to doing that again.”
The original Carmen Sandiego computer game was released by Broderbund in 1985, with more than 20 interactive gaming titles across different platforms being released into the 2000s. The property hit its peak in the 1990s, spawning a live-action game show on PBS, an animated TV show, publishing, live events, and consumer products.