It all began with a butterfly. When the award-winning children’s television program “Reading Rainbow” first premiered in 1983, the first “character” that children saw was an animated butterfly. Trailing a rainbow behind it, the magical insect transformed kids and their surroundings into such things as a king with a castle and astronauts flying through outer space, symbolically showing the impact of books on the imagination and development of young minds.
Today, roughly three decades since it concluded its 155 episode run, “Reading Rainbow” has been updated for a new generation of children who will be trading in a butterfly for a digital hot air balloon.
Created for children ages two – nine, the new Skybrary® is a web-based digital library of hand curated children’s books and story-driving educational video field trips. Available both online and through digital devices, young readers and prereaders pilot their own personal hot air balloons among Skybrary’s seven uniquely themed islands: animals, music, adventure, science, heroes, friends and family. These engaging worlds feature over 500 books from esteemed authors and acclaimed publishers and are made available to children as “read by myself” or “read to me” and contain interactive elements that enhance enjoyment while preserving the reading experience.
Returning to this latest version of “Reading Rainbow” is the show’s original host and Executive Producer LeVar Burton who hosts over 150 newly produced and classic video field trips to places like the White House, the Los Angeles Ballet, the Grand Canyon and Cirque du Soleil.
“Our brand of storytelling, our way of reaching out to kids, our way of showing them that the world is of infinite experience and that you can literally go anywhere in the world in your imagination, go anywhere be anything, that’s a valuable message,” Burton said in an online video.
Making the transition from television to digital media, however, created a challenge that took the 12-time Emmy award-winning actor out of his comfort zone.
“We had done television. The brand had been incredibly successful on TV. And yet there was this new world developing of digital entertainment, and we knew that there was an opportunity to do something different,” Burton said. Taking advantage of this opportunity, nonetheless, would not be an inexpensive investment, so Burton turned to the popular crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, to try to raise the funds for Skybrary.
“I had huge fear about the crowd funding move,” Burton recalled. “I was just not sure it was the right thing to do, however, at the time, it seemed like the only thing to do.”
Despite his reservations, the “Reading Rainbow” Kickstarter campaign was a huge success with donations hitting the $1 million mark within the first 11 hours. Live video taken of Burton at the time shows him becoming choked up by the support.
“I don’t know what to say. We’ve just crossed the million dollar threshold. It is our first day,” he said before his voice began to crack with emotion. “I am overwhelmed.”
According to the rules of Kickstarter, campaigns must set a minimum monetary goal. With contributions from a loyal fan base (including “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane who pledged to match dollar for dollar every donation made up to $1 million) “Reading Rainbow” not only met their Kickstarter goal but actually exceeded it by over 600 percent. This positive showing of support has opened the door to expanding the Skybrary concept to classrooms as well as internationally.
“We are actually looking at contemplating moving to Latin America. We’ve got our eye on China. We’re really serious about ‘Every child, everywhere,’” Burton said, referencing “Reading Rainbow’s” mission of “bringing a passion for reading to Every Child, Everywhere.”
One of the things that Burton said he was most proud of about the Skybrary app is that kids coming to the app are reading on average 194 thousand books a week. In addition, he has said that he is incredibly excited that Skybrary is also available on the web since anyone with an Internet connection can access the service’s library of books, regardless if they own a tablet computer. For Burton, using modern technology to allow more children to have greater exposure to books goes beyond its educational impact and touches on something both historical and personal.
“I come from a people for whom reading was punishable by whipping or death just three generations ago,” he said. “And I am able to travel every week with any book I choose at my disposal. And I live in a world where that’s possible. That’s a miracle as far as I’m concerned.” Burton went on to explain that he considers his work with Reading Rainbow and reading in general a luxury, which is something he would like to see change.
“I guess why this work is so important to me is because I don’t want it to need to be a luxury,” he said. “I believe that if you can read in at least one language, then you are my definition of free. I want to make sure that there is a choice out there for children and for their parents that is good for kids. And that’s why I do what I do.”
For further information about Skybrary, including Skybrary options for classrooms, visit www.readingrainbow.com