Those friendly, fuzzy Muppets from "Sesame Street" have helped kids open up about all sorts of serious subjects, from hunger and divorce to military deployment.
But they're now tackling a much more unexpected issue: incarceration.
Meet Alex, the first Muppet to have a dad in jail. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, one in 28 children in the United States now has a parent behind bars -- more than the number of kids with a parent who is deployed -- so it's a real issue, but it's talked about far less because of the stigma.
That's why the Sesame Workshop says it created the "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" initiative, an online tool kit intended to help kids with a parent in prison find support and comfort, and provide families with strategies and tips to talk to their children about incarceration.
Alex is blue-haired and green-nosed and he wears a hoodie – you might think he's just another carefree inhabitant of Sesame Street. But there's sorrow in Alex's voice when he talks about his father.
"I just miss him so much," he tells a friend. "I usually don't want people to know about my Dad."
It's easier for kids to hear such things from a Muppet than an adult, creators of the initiative noted.
"Coming from a Muppet, it's almost another child telling their story to the children," said Jeanette Betancourt, vice president of outreach and educational practices at the Sesame Workshop.
Alex will not be part of the regular cast on "Sesame Street," but he's playing a central role in the online tool kit.
Children of parents behind bars often feel sadness, shame and guilt about the situation, so they need to know they are loved and that the incarceration is not their fault, said Carol Burton, executive director of Centerforce, a non-profit dedicated to supporting families impacted by incarceration.
"There are several million children impacted by incarceration in this country," Burton said. "No one is paying attention to them."
The project and its unusual subject matter have garnered a lot of attention, with some observers calling it a sign of the times.
"Congratulations, America, on making it almost normal to have a parent in prison or jail," wrote a columnist on Reason.com.