CAZENOVIA — In 2020, Cazenovia resident and town councilor Kelli Johnson helped create an educational children’s television show that was recently a contender for a New York Emmy award.
Designed for PreK-3rd grade learners, “The Reading League’s Reading Buddies” is an engaging foundational reading television series that teaches underlying components of skillful word reading, such as phonological awareness, letter names/sounds, and blending sounds to decode words.
The show features a talking dog named Dusty (Brendan Malafronte), who, with the help of his best human friend, Dott (Andrea Dotto), learns a new trick — how to read.
Malafronte, who is also credited as the show’s head writer/creative producer, and Dotto, who is the showrunner/creative producer, are both Broadway actors who relocated from New York City to Manlius during the COVID pandemic. Now that Broadway has reopened, the pair has returned to NYC.
Johnson is currently the director of community education and engagement at The Reading League (TRL), a national education nonprofit led by educators and reading experts dedicated to promoting knowledge to improve literacy education and accelerate the global movement toward reading instruction rooted in science.
During the first season of Reading Buddies, Johnson was the TRL reading coach director and served as the show’s educational consultant.
In that role, she provided the actors with background knowledge on how the brain learns to read and curricular resources grounded in scientific evidence. As the scripts were being written, she provided feedback on word choices for different segments and coached the actors on the articulation of phonemes or the delivery of content.
The 20-episode first season of Reading Buddies began airing on WCNY-PBS on Sept. 13, 2021 and ran through March 2022.
According to a TRL press release announcing the show’s second season, the first season of Reading Buddies was released to rave reviews, and it quickly beat ratings in Syracuse for PBS’s top shows, “Sesame Street” and “Donkey Hodie.”
Since then, several PBS affiliates have picked up the show, including WSKG in Binghamton, WPBS (online) in Watertown, APTV in Alabama, and WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania. The show is free to PBS affiliates.
The New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced the 2022 New York Emmy Award nominees in June 2022.
Reading Buddies was one of five shows nominated in the category of “Children/Youth (12 and under) – Long Form Content (Longer than 10 Minutes).”
Johnson said the nomination felt surreal.
“Given that our organization has no experience with creating a television show and had no plans in the works to do so, it really is one of those silver linings [of] COVID,” Johnson said. “It was truly a labor of love, and I am so thankful we had such wonderful partners in WCNY, our creatives — Andrea Dotto and Brendan Malafronte — and generous funders.”
On Oct. 8, 2022, Johnson attended the 65th Annual New York Emmy Awards gala at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. She was accompanied by Dotto, Malafronte, and WCNY President Mitch Gelman, who is also a resident of Cazenovia.
The Emmy went to “MUScienceTM – Explore and Discover Science While Singing and Dancing.”
“MUScience was the winner, but considering we have no TV experience whatsoever, we were happy just to be nominated,” said Johnson.
The 20-episode second season of Reading Buddies began airing on WCNY-PBS on Sept. 12, 2022. Full episodes are available Monday-Friday at 12:30 p.m. and on the show’s YouTube channel at no cost.
Johnson said that with the reduced COVID restrictions, the show was able to add six children to the second season cast who are known collectively as “The Alphabotteers.”
The young actors are Landon Nicholas (“Cosmo”), Inri Stitt (“Kitt”), Jampa Mastriano (“Jampa”), Greyson Merrick (“Reggie”), Emma Mollapour (“Maya”), and Maxwell Elmer (“Ziggy”).
Garden gnomes Mary and Marty also joined the cast.
“Their segment adds vocabulary instruction to the curricular content,” said Johnson.
The second season also introduces an outdoor set to accompany “The Reading Room” set.
According to Johnson, Fayetteville-Manlius High School graduate Chad Healy serves as the show’s art director and scenic designer, and Dotto’s father, Marty Doto, and Peter Daley oversaw carpentry. Dotto’s mother, Mary Doto, wrote poetry for season one.
Dr. Maria Murray, TRL’s president and chief executive officer, took on the role of curriculum supervisor for season two and the upcoming third season.
Johnson explained that her role on the show has changed from the first season to the second and third seasons.
“My role as director of community education and engagement has shifted to working with early childhood professionals, parents, caregivers, libraries, and educational professionals at PBS stations to share the intentional design of the show as it relates to what we know about how the brain learns to read from decades of research in fields such as neuroscience, linguistics, and cognitive psychology,” she said.
According to Johnson, the season three scripts have already been drafted and edits will begin soon.
For more information on The Reading League’s Reading Buddies, visit thereadingleague.org/reading-buddies/.