The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Rainbow: A Tribute

The original program logo courtesy of RR Kidz

The reading world has changed a good deal since I was a kid. The Dewey Decimal System is a relic of the past, books have gone from paper to screen, and public libraries are closing. So what remains of our literary childhood? If you are an '80s kid, like me, you cannot think of reading without thinking of a little show called, Reading Rainbow.

Earlier this month, PBS took a nostalgic look back at Reading Rainbow with a video remix. While the show disappeared from the airwaves in 2009, interest in the show, its mission, and its host lives on. So here at the NEA Big Read blog, we decided to give you all an early holiday present: an interview with LeVar Burton, former host and executive producer of Reading Rainbow.

We spoke to the bookish hero about the early days of the program and the resounding impact Reading Rainbow still has today. Over the summer, Burton and his team launched a new Reading Rainbow app  that they hope will bring the love of reading to a new generation of children. The interest it has generated is worth noting as America’s literacy rates and reading habits continue to fluctuate.

Reading Rainbow brought books alive for today’s millennials and encouraged my generation to take a look in a book. So what is stopping us now? Programs like The Big Read are reminding Americans about the joys of reading in the same way Reading Rainbow did when it originally aired in the summer of 1983. And if you are looking for a nice journey down memory lane, be sure to watch the full version of Reading Rainbow’s first episode. It will transport you back to your elementary days but also carries some significant messages worth repeating in today’s disconnected world. But, then again, you don’t have to take our word for it. (No, but seriously, take our word for it---check it out.)

NEA: Tell me about your first day on the set of Reading Rainbow?

LEVAR BURTON: The first day on the set, we shot in Central Park in New York at the Hans Christian Andersen statue. Some of the first books were Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport, although I think Tight Times was actually our first episode, a book about a young boy whose dad lost his job. That was also the episode where we did the music video Check it Out [starts at 18:25] at the Weehawken Public Library in New Jersey. And I recall, I am not sure if we actually had a permit to shoot [in Central Park] or not. So there was an air of excitement but also tension.

NEA: How long did it take to realize the show was a success?

BURTON: In the early days, we begged for everything. The budget was really, really meager and we used to joke in-house and say all members of the staff were required to wear knee pads at all times because we had to do so much begging. Begging for access, begging for books, begging for funding. It was really a knee pad operation. It took about three years into the effort before we hit critical mass.

NEA: What do you remember about children’s response to your show?

BURTON: When the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Awards contest came into the picture, we began to get submissions, through the local PBS stations, of books the children had written. It really became an integrated part of people’s lives. If you were watching the show, you were watching PBS, so you certainly had an awareness of your local PBS station. So here was an opportunity for kids to be a part of Reading Rainbow in their own community. The opportunity to be on Reading Rainbow and to be a “Book Review” kid didn’t exist for everyone across the country because we shot the show primarily on the East Coast. So here was an opportunity, even if you couldn’t be on Reading Rainbow, you could be a part of Reading Rainbow by writing your own book and submitting it to your local PBS station. It became a real program. It was a program in the larger sense, not just a television program, but a program that involved local community involvement in the show.

Back in the day, when we were still on the air, we got tons of mail from kids and from classrooms writing letters and the way that Reading Rainbow was embraced by the education community, by the teachers, the men and women with their boots on the ground in the classrooms, and incorporating Reading Rainbow into their in-class curriculums. That was responsible for a whole flood of mail and outreach from kids. It was really amazing to see in the days before email, when kids really sent letters and drew pictures for us to see. It was just amazing and will be one of the things I will remember most.

NEA: You were executive producer on Reading Rainbow and the program ran for 20-some-odd years, garnering dozens of Emmy and Peabody Awards. What was it about the show, in your opinion, that made it so successful?

BURTON: I like to think it was the format of the show, really. Using literature, books, as a springboard for real world adventures; connecting the real world to literature for kids is the thing of which I am the most proud. Those video field trips were what the show was all about. It really expanded and expounded on the theme of the books in very concrete, fascinating ways. It helped kids discover the incredible nature of life. Those process pieces…how you make a bowling ball, how fireworks are made, how mail gets delivered…those are timeless pieces of content that I am so excited about now being able to repurpose in the Reading Rainbow app. The hairstyles and the facial hair and the fashion, if you’re going to be [on-air] for 26 years you are going to have a lot of changes. A lot of the videos are dated in the way they look, but I think the messages hold up. LeVar with square hair, LeVar with mustache or no mustache, LeVar with beard or no beard, LeVar with earring or no earring---all of that is dated material but I believe we were always trying to convey a good message. Connecting real world experiences to literature for kids---that’s what it was all about for me.

NEA: This summer you launched the Reading Rainbow app---how did that concept come about?

BURTON: It’s one of those situations where I believe when one door closes, another one opens. In 2009 when Reading Rainbow was officially removed from PBS’s Ready to Learn line-up, which is pretty much the core curriculum for early childhood education on PBS, there was number one, a great sense of disappointment that I had. That was the end of an era after more than 25 years of service. And then there was the awareness that there was an awful lot of reaction from '80s kids who grew up with the show and were contemplating a future for their children that didn’t have Reading Rainbow. That was the dawning of awareness that the brand has not outlived its usefulness and so, if we could dream up what we could do with the brand, what would it be? We recognized immediately that it probably didn’t have to be a television show anymore. Given the changing nature of entertainment and information, there was an opportunity in this digital realm to fashion a Reading Rainbow that had much more relevance to today’s kids. There was an opportunity to move the brand in a different direction, even though we didn’t know exactly which direction that would be. And then the iPad came out about a year into that search for an answer. With the advent of the iPad, that was the game-changer that pointed immediately to what the future of storytelling was.

We want to continue to focus on the love of literature. And in that sense, the mission is still the same. Television was the technology we used in the '80s and today’s technology requires a different treatment of the information, a different way to tell the stories. However, the mission is still the same: let’s get them hooked, let’s get them to be readers.

NEA: How has the app been received?

BURTON: We launched in June and we know so far that over 700,000 books have been read by kids on our service. That boils down to about 30,000 books a week. Now, 30,000 books a week are being read by kids in the Reading Rainbow app. Can you imagine a bricks and mortar library being able to move 30,000 books from a singular location in a week? You would need a stream of people around the clock. So this app as a delivery service to an experience for kids that encourages them to read, we know its working. It’s working. It’s working… it’s my pledge to continue this effort, so stay tuned. The Reading Rainbow app is only the start of these efforts.




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