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Behind the app: Reading Rainbow a new frontier for LeVar Burton

July 05, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • The actor who portrayed Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is setting his sights on helping our kids to read.
The actor who portrayed Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in "Star Trek:… (CBS Photo Archive )

Books may not exactly be the final frontier, but how we read is certainly in transition.

So when "Reading Rainbow" host and "Star Trek" actor LeVar Burton saw a need and opportunity for reconnecting today's youth with a love of reading, he decided to make it so.

"It is no longer appropriate for me as an American to sit by and expect my government to get it done," Burton said in a casual conversation with The Times.

Reading Rainbow is starting a new chapter as an iPad app, bringing with it the engaging storytelling that was the essence of the TV show that encouraged generations of children to love reading.

Many of us parents raising tech-savvy tots today grew up with "Reading Rainbow." It was the third-longest running series on PBS, behind "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street." But funding dried up in 2006, and the award-winning series Burton hosted and executive produced for 23 years was canceled.

"The unvarnished truth is that we have spent the last decade funding the machinery of war, and our children have been sacrificed," he said. "And that's not OK."

So, in June, Burton and business partner Mark Wolfe launched the multimedia-infused "reading adventure" app.

"Educational technology is what we need to get it done," he said, noting that paper's days as a storytelling medium are likely numbered. "And if we marry educational technology with quality, enriching content, that's a circle of win."

In a moment that made the Trek geek in me downright giddy, Burton recalled that TNG's Captain Picard kept a bound complete collection of William Shakespeare's works encased in glass. Someday in the near future, he said, books may, indeed, be elevated from active duty to cherished cultural treasures.

The Reading Rainbow app is a free download with limited free access. With two subscription options ($9.99 monthly and $29.99 for six months), kids get unlimited access to the vibrant user-interface combined with engaging storytelling and earn rewards for their reading progress. The subscription is tied to your iTunes account, so you can access the books on your iPads.

The app currently offers 150 books, curated to appeal to children ages 3 to 9 -- kids who are "on the cusp of cracking the code and [who] just cracked the code, setting the lifelong pattern for whether they will be a reader or not," Burton said.

As a nostalgic nod to those of us who still harbor an emotional connection to the show, Burton said they spent months producing 16 video field trips, with more to come soon.

Connecting with kids who have no cultural reference with the show and their credit-card wielding parents who do is no simple task.

"Reading Rainbow" also has a companion Web service made for parents whose kids are using the iPad app to learn to read. It offers updates on what their kids are reading, how they're progressing and blog posts by Burton and education experts. Plus, they can watch clips from the original show.

For the actor-turned-entrepreneur, 2012 was a year of looking back to move forward.

January marked the 35th anniversary of the culturally indelible and groundbreaking miniseries "Roots," which featured a 19-year-old Burton as Kunta Kinte. This year was also the 25th anniversary of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," where we met the actor as Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge.

(Honestly, in speaking with Burton, I personally wasn't sure which of these iconic roles I was geeking out about most. These highlights in his career have touched many of us -- myself included -- in culturally significant ways.)

All of this reflection, he said, "has caused me to recognize, from Kunta there is a throughline that ends at Geordi. And in the middle of that continuum stands LeVar."

It's clear in talking with the 55-year-old father of two and grandfather of one that the revived "Reading Rainbow" is more than a business venture for him.

"I genuinely believe we have an opportunity to revolutionize how we educate our children," he said. "We just have to marshal the will to get it done."

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