A Television Classic Meets the Digital Age

A Conversation with Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton

"Butterfly in the sky...I can go twice as high. Take a look, it's in a book! A Reading Rainbow."

Millions of children over three decades grew up singing along to these catchy lyrics. For more than 20 years, the PBS series Reading Rainbow, and its popular host LeVar Burton, encouraged young viewers to explore the world through books.

Although the show went off the air in 2009, Reading Rainbow lives on -- in digital form. In June, Burton launched the Reading Rainbow app through Apple. The interactive app brings high-quality books, videos, and animation to children in a format that mimics the classic television show.

I recently had the chance to chat with Burton -- an actor, director, author, and entrepreneur -- about the app, his passion for reading, and his thoughts about digital literature. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.


Earl: First of all, congratulations on all of your successes over the years. You have been an icon to generations of children and truly helped them develop a love of reading and books! Tell me about your latest venture -- the Reading Rainbow app. How will it help bring the love of reading to children using the latest technology?

LeVar: Everything happens for a reason. We launched the Reading Rainbow app back in June -- and it's pretty exciting. Over 700,000 books have been read on the service in less than five months! That breaks down to about 30,000 books a week that are being read by kids in the Reading Rainbow app. Can you imagine a brick and mortar library being able to move 30,000 books to three-to-nine-year-olds in a week? It's working!

It was a huge risk to reinvent the brand for this new generation using digital technology because of the possibility of failing to meet the expectations of those that knew and loved the brand. There were land mines everywhere, we could easily have stepped on and blown ourselves up. So to have released this product and to actually know now that what we believed to be true is, in fact, being played out in real life is amazing. The mission is intact and it's working. Kids are reading books. The app is everything that we had hoped it would be. It's a place where kids can go and discover books and experience them in an environment that encourages them to continue to engage, and read and read and read some more.

Earl: You've said in the past that you are most proud of the show's ability to use the medium of TV to help create "human beings who are passionate about literature." Why do you think reading is so important? What does it bring to children, to parents? Why is it critical that we raise a generation of readers?

LeVar: It is storytelling that connects us to our humanity. Every culture around the world has a tradition of storytelling and there is a reason for that. It really helps us to know who we are, what our purpose in life is, and that's how it begins. It's just such an important part of our indoctrination as human beings. It's as important as family life and how we relate to one another. It just helps frame the whole notion of why we're here in this world.

There's a huge difference between a person who knows how to read and a person who is passionate about reading. And it's that passion that we're trying to ignite. I believe that everybody deserves to be literate in at least one language. And that's where it begins. But to really take that skill and turn it into an integral part of your life, that's when it takes on a whole new dimension.

Earl: With so much perspective, what changes have you seen in children as readers over the years? What about with parents as advocates as reading? Are there more or fewer challenges these days to getting children and their parents engaged with books?

LeVar: There are more challenges today than there were almost 30 years ago when we started Reading Rainbow, the TV show. The world today moves at a considerably faster pace. And there are so many distractions, many of them electronic in nature. And so, it is more challenging to engage both children and their parents with books. That's both the good news and the bad news because I am really a big proponent of consuming literature on a tablet computer, I love the digital, the electronic medium. I absolutely love it. I carry a library of books around with me everywhere I go now, on my tablet. This is amazing to me!

I'm a firm believer in the idea that we're soon coming to a decision-making point as to whether or not we continue to cut down trees to make books. I think that we will eventually decide that there are better uses for trees. I believe that going forward, we will consume most of our reading on tablet devices. It will cause us to feel much more proprietary about the books that we have. We will always print books. That's not going away. But the ones we print will be really, really special to us and we will print them for purpose not just because we can.

Earl: What are your best tips for parents to help them make reading fun AND meaningful for children?

LeVar: The number one tip: Read in front of your child. Read in front of your child for pleasure. That's it. Make sure that your child sees you reading, whether it's on a tablet or a bound book.

There isn't anything more powerful that you can do in terms of developing that habit in your child, let them see you do it.

No matter where you are or what you're doing, making sure that the time is balanced between electronica, (gaming) and reading. Children are going to play games. Make it quid pro quo if you must. Make sure you're that you're doing your best to create a balanced diet for your kids in terms of the gaming and the reading.

Earl: You have inspired millions of children to develop their imaginations through reading. How does it feel to know that your show had such a major influence over children of three decades, many of whom now have children of their own?

LeVar: That's pretty wacky, huh? It feels great to know I have inspired so many people to become readers. I mean, my mother was an English teacher and we all tend to be teachers in my family -- my older sister, my son, both nieces, my cousin. It's like the family business. Education is the family business.

Earl: Were you an avid reader growing up? What were your favorite books as a child?

LeVar: Absolutely. It was Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous, that was the book I was reading when I "got" reading. It was then that I recognized that when I finished the book there was a profound sadness that I was feeling. I was sad to leave these people, leave this world into which I had become so transported . That was about third grade. And that was all it took. I knew how to read before that. But that's when I became a reader.