‘I want them to feel seen’: ‘Jelly, Ben & Pogo’ director on how Fil-Am representation validates children

PBS Kids “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” stars a Filipino American cast

Director Jalysa Leva talked with NextShark about the inspiration behind the animated series “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” and what Filipino American representation on PBS Kids means for future generations.

About the shorts: “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” (JBP) is an animated, short-form series directed by Leva. It follows Filipino American characters and is infused with Filipino culture, from the Tagalog language to Filipino food and music. 

  • With each short running three minutes long, the series follows the adventures of Jelly, her little brother Ben and a young sea monster named Pogo as they help each other and their families in solving problems while often using STEAM concepts. 
  • According to Leva, JBP teaches young children the concept of design thinking and social emotional learning. “The trio models kind and empathetic behavior whenever they’re finding creative solutions to their problems. They always start by asking what their friend needs before they come up with solutions. It’s a very human way of approaching problems,” she told NextShark. 
  • When PBS Kids was finding new voices to honor its commitment to authentic representation, former Head of PBS Kids Content Linda Simensky believed that JBP would be a great fit.
  • Leva explained that some producers refer to PBS Kids as the “golden child” of the industry due to its “wholesome values and educational content.” Leva stated that it is “just known for being good, and I love that our series is freely available to every child. It’s the way educational media should be!”

PBS Kids “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” stars a Filipino American cast

The inspiration: The animated shorts were inspired by the director’s family and childhood. Through this series, Leva hopes to cultivate a sense of pride for future generations of Filipino Americans when it comes to their own heritage.

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  • “Mom, Dad and Lola are all spitting images of my own parents and lola (grandmother),” Leva shared. “A lot of the stories and mannerisms are just things I remember from my own childhood … It definitely has a lot of myself in it. I really relate to Jelly, my little brother was very much like Ben and my older brother has the same party energy as Pogo.”  
  • The PBJ stories also include those of her production team: “But through development, it really grew beyond my own experiences, and started including those of our writers, voice actors, and even artists. I feel like that’s what made it more rich!” Leva added. 
  • “Personally, my hope is that future generations of Filipino Americans and even other children of immigrant families can see themselves in JBP and cultivate a sense of pride for their heritage instead of shame,” she told NextShark. “I want them to feel seen in their country’s media and have others be more understanding of our differences.”

PBS Kids “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” stars a Filipino American cast

The production: The creation of PBJ was tweaked in ways the production team seemed fit for a dynamic more representative of several Filipino American families.

  • “For example, I didn’t live with my lola, but so many Filipinos do,” Leva explained. “My mom was in an intergenerational household, and the bond she had with her own lola was really special. I wanted to make sure we captured that specific type of relationship and represented it on screen.”
  • According to Leva, the animation features voice actors of Filipino or Filipino American heritage: “That was very important to us because we wanted the language and accents to be authentic. Even though voice actors aren’t showing their faces, so much of how they read their lines or contribute off-script is dependent on who they are as people.” 
  • The voice actors were also able to share their own experiences and ideas for the short stories of JBP. “Visiting Lolo,” an episode in which the family eats sticky food during a visit to their grandfather’s grave for All Souls’ Day, was inspired by Diadem Faith, the voice actress of Lola. 
  • “This was also Primal Screen’s first project where we had so much creative freedom and trust to execute our vision,” Leva added. “On top of all of this, I was trying to create a show that would authentically represent Filipino Americans. I felt so much pressure to be a good leader, get everything done on time, but also do it perfectly so I could pave the way for future Filipino creators.”   

PBS Kids “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” stars a Filipino American cast

Filipino representation on PBS Kids: Leva aims to break the cycle of ignorance and shame that Filipino American children may feel about their culture by providing more representation to young children of different ethnicities.

  • “It took me a long time to realize that the Filipino aspect of this series was a big part of what was giving it power,” Leva said. “I really couldn’t believe that anyone would care to watch Filipino-Americans on screen, would accept their way of life, or be curious about the culture. Which is sad because that’s the cycle we’re aiming to break.”
  • “I felt this way for so long about my heritage and had buried it underneath my effort to assimilate,” she added. “Now, I don’t want more generations of immigrant children to feel the same. I want them to feel seen and know that their existence is valid. So when given the opportunity to dive deeper into themselves and their roots, they do so without shame and instead with a sense of pride. That is what true representation does for people. It’s a feeling you never know you’re missing until you finally experience it.”
  • Leva felt a huge sense of responsibility toward Filipino representation in a children’s program. She shared her fear of choosing a look that would represent an entire community and also struggled with deciding on the characters’ skin color and their accents since they can be a pain point for many immigrants. “I always heard people both in and outside the Filipino community complimenting someone when their English was good, and teasing others for having an accent,” she shared. “But if we were going to embrace and empower, then we needed to take pride in our accents! They’re a sign of adaptability and a connection to our heritage.” 
  • “I decided that Lola would have a thick one, and the accent would fade more and more down the generations to the point where Ben has none and probably sounds the most American,” she explained. “It’s a direct reflection of my own family and what we all sound like.”

The roadblocks: While PBS Kids provided an encouraging work environment to JBP’s production team, the parents in kid testing were the ones who challenged the series. 

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  • “Things like a Filipino mother asking why their noses were so ‘stereotypical’ because so many of us are taught growing up that our round noses are ugly. And a non-Filipino parent asking why there even needed to be a second language present because she didn’t understand the value of just showing a bilingual household for the sake of representation.” Leva recalled. 

PBS Kids “Jelly, Ben & Pogo” stars a Filipino American cast

  • However, criticism only added more value to the series. “These little speed bumps actually just made us dig our heels in deeper and add in moments like when Jelly and Ben acknowledge the shape of their noses and say they’re beautiful,” Leva shared. “I’ve heard from so many Filipinos, including our voice actor for Jelly, that that scene was so impactful to them. So the negative feedback we got was just more proof of the type of hurt we needed to heal within our community.”

JBP debuted nationwide on Oct. 4 as the interstitial for the animated series “Alma’s Way.” It is available to watch on PBS stations, the PBS KIDS 24/7 channel, PBS digital platforms, LearningMedia and the official PBS YouTube channel

All Images via Jalysa Leva

 

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