LeVar Burton’s App at the End of the Rainbow

The host of the classic children's reading program tells us the story of its high-tech makeover.

Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

(The Root) — For a generation of children raised between 1983 and 2009, story time often meant a book brought to life by Reading Rainbow‘s LeVar Burton. The PBS program combined field trips to educational destinations with Burton’s read-aloud recommendations, selected to further the show’s primary goal: to instill in children positive attitudes toward reading.

It stopped production in 2006 and went off the air three years later, but, as of last month, today’s kids have had access to the same experience, in a format designed for their tech-savvy taste: a Reading Rainbow iPad app with the same host, the same video field trips and, yes, even the same memorable theme song about the “go anywhere,” “do anything” possibilities books represent for those who love them.

It’s a modern-day makeover that Burton says he hopes will be part of a revolution in education. “I want to live in an America where we are able to marshal all the resources we have at our disposal and that we … put a tablet computer in the hands of every single kid in America,” he told The Root.

Designed for 3-9 year olds — but, Burton says, also being downloaded by nostalgic adults — the Reading Rainbow app translates the show’s winning formula to a tablet-friendly format. Parents can purchase 150 books and 16 video “field trips” for $9.99 a month or $29.99 for a six-month subscription. No longer is a trip to the library required to pick up Burton’s recommendations. The selections he pitches can now be downloaded with just a couple of clicks.

There’s little question about whether technology that encourages literacy is still needed. A 2011 study showed that only 32 percent of fourth graders read at a proficient level. And, while reading aloud is considered by some experts to be the single most important activity for reading success, less than half (pdf) of families do so with their kindergarten-age children on a daily basis.

Burton sees the app as one tool to solve those problems. He spoke to The Root about his plans for the Reading Rainbow, the four books he’d most recommend for young kids and the one thing no technology can replace when it comes to raising readers.

The Root: When Reading Rainbow went off the air, many thought it was gone forever. What happened between now and then that led to the launch of the app?

LeVar Burton: When PBS pulled the show out of the lineup for Ready to Learn in 2009, it was sad. The sadness turned into a feeling of vindication because there were really two major responses. One was from the people who watched Reading Rainbow when they were kids and they’d moved on. And their response was, “I didn’t know Reading Rainbow went off the air. That’s terrible.” The other response was from those who said, “This is just plain wrong,” because they were concerned that Reading Rainbow would not be there for their kids.

So, my partner and I realized the brand really hadn’t outlived its usefulness. We were able to round up all the [legal] rights, and secure them on a worldwide basis, in perpetuity, exclusively … [that] gives us control of the destiny of the Reading Rainbow brand.