This article by Stephen Noonoo originally appeared on EdSurge on August 27, 2019.
It’s an age-old question pinched straight from the ‘90s: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? The answer today might be, well, everywhere.
Thanks to a reboot from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which owns the brand, the world’s slipperiest super thief has an animated series on Netflix, a clutch of Google Earth games and even a new series of paperbacks—all of which are finding their way into classrooms two decades after she fell off the map. Her return comes at a time when geography proficiency has flatlined among U.S. students, despite calls for schools to focus more on global citizenship. Perhaps the question isn’t where she is so much as where she can help the most.
First things first: This Carmen isn’t the same treasure-nabbing mastermind that first hit Apple computers back in 1985 and sold 4 million copies over the next decade. Her hard edges have been sanded down and she’s developed a moral conscience, albeit a flexible one. Along the way, she’s broken with her former criminal cronies at V.I.L.E. (that’s the Villains’ International League of Evil), though she’s still on the lam. Now when she steals, it’s for good—a trenchcoat-toting Robin Hood for our age.
But rehabbing Carmen’s image wasn’t just about turning her from villain to protagonist for the sake of good TV. After consulting with teachers in focus groups, HMH says it refashioned Carmen as a “global citizen” in response to requests for more material around social-emotional learning—which is to say the ambitious goal of teaching Americans geography has been somewhat scaled back in favor of lessons on community, world culture and responsibility. In short, New Carmen will still help you find Ecuador on a map, but she’ll also impart her thoughts on empathy, doing good and respecting cultural differences.
It’s a world away from the Carmen that many millennials like myself latched onto—the legendary, light-fingered larcenist who stole for personal profit and, frankly, because nobody could stop her. Our Carmen existed at the margins and was so elusive, she wasn’t even the central character in her own franchise. That thrust us, the players, into the hot seat: the last line of defense between justice and cultural depredation.
Maybe I took it more seriously than most kids, or just had a lot more time to kill. But I still have many treasured memories of collecting passport stamps and recovering stolen loot on an old IBM with a black and white monitor. In a time before Google, I filled notebooks with handwritten clues so I could finally beat the game. And I was devastated when the PBS game show, filmed near my childhood home in Queens, N.Y., was canceled a year before I was old enough to compete. (Of course, like any true ‘90s kid, I still know most of the Rockapella closing credits song by heart, complete with the dated reference to Czechoslovakia.)
“Carmen Sandiego was really omnipresent in the ‘90s—a megahit,” says Caroline Fraser, a senior vice president at HMH and an executive producer for the Netflix show. “What was really unique about the property was that it was equally popular at school and at home, and you can say that about very few brands.”
That makes it especially valuable to an education company like HMH, which is best known among teachers and students as a textbook publisher. In talking with Fraser, it becomes clear that the decision to relaunch Carmen was motivated in a big way by nostalgia. The company seems to be betting that it might not be such a hard sell to get her back into schools and homes given that so many Carmen fans now wield purchasing power and lead classrooms of their own.
With that in mind, I recently did some sleuthing of my own and tracked down a half dozen history and geography teachers around my age who remember time spent hunched over TVs and early PCs, discovering for the first time that the world was much bigger and more exciting than our backyards.
Use Carmen Sandiego to help inspire your students to love history, culture, geography, and more with all of HMH’s free classroom resources!