Reading Rainbow, turned millions of Gen Xers and Millennials into avid readers — or at least made them functionally literate. For at least a few of its 23 seasons, you were probably glued to LeVar Burton as he illuminated childhood stories on a show that combined animation, live action, and book reports. It was more fun than that sounds. You may have even queued up a Netflix episode of RR to indoctrinate your own kids. But since it 2016 and not 1983, and kids can’t be expected to sit still for TV, all of those lessons are in available in convenient app form.
Two years ago Burton went on a Kickstarter crusade to get this reading tutorial app into the hands of more kids for free — he even created a classroom edition of the digital library so children of all income levels have access to it. It’s a vital mission for him, because you may think the United States kicks all kind of book readin’ butt … but one out of 4 kids are functionally illiterate. Even worse, 14 million adults can’t read at all.
Somewhere inside you is still a nostalgic Reading Rainbow kid (and, to a lesser extent, a Mathnet detective), and Burton wants to make sure that you show your little butterfly they can fly twice as high. And since the man is a goddamn legend, you better listen up. After all, he got you to read.
Do The Voices
Read that bedtime book, but this time with feeling. If an Emmy Award-winning actor says that he tried to bring some juice to every evening role, the least you could do some solid community theater-level work. “It’s part of the enjoyment I get out of reading aloud is playing all the characters. Especially when you’re reading something like Harry Potter. Or when you’re reading Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman or Enemy Pie by Derek Munson, I try to get into it. I use different voices for all of the characters.” And don’t feel bad if your kid gives your part to your wife — she just wanted it more.
Get All The Seuss And Silverstein
If you’d read all the children’s books over 3 decades, you too would have strong opinions about the best. Burton says that Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are basically the Beatles and Stones of children’s literature.
“[Seuss and Silverstein] are eternal,” says Burton. I can hardly read Oh The Places You Will Go without crying. I relate to it as an adult. They made their livings as wordsmiths and it’s a delight that they’ve been able to communicate through generations.” The same cannot be said of every Ringo or Keith Richards side project.
Get Some Kids’ Books You Want To Read Too
Burton says that one of the best things about reading with his kids was discovering literature that wasn’t around when he was a kid. These are 800-page books that adults would stand in line for, dressed like prep school warlocks, hoping to hear about what happened to the boy who lived.
“Harry Potter was a game changer for the definition of children’s literature. These are physically imposing tomes being devoured by children everywhere. We read it until it got really scary, and then we picked it up again when [my daughter] was old enough to embrace it on her own.” But when she starts asking for a dramatic reading of Twilight, story time is over.
Don’t Worry About Paper Vs. Pixels
There’s a lot of e-reading going on these days, but the fate of children’s books made from real paper is probably safe. “I don’t believe that we’ll stop printing children’s books, because of the act of holding a child in your lap and reading to them,” says Burton. If you’ve tried it with an iPad, it doesn’t exactly look like a Norman Rockwell painting.
He also says that people will have to start getting over their emotional attachment to books. First, your kids (and certainly their kids) probably won’t have those feelings. Second, it’s unsustainable to keep cutting down trees to make James Patterson novels. And third, less printed books means more intrinsic value. Burton says he has hundreds of books in boxes all over his house, and “that’s not the best way to honor those books.”
And When You Don’t Feel Like It …
Some nights you’re going to half-ass it through One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. You may not inhabit the soul of If You Give A Moose A Muffin, but here’s a bit of wisdom from Burton: Parenting is not a contest. “It’s a process,” he says. “There are days when you don’t feel up to a certain standard, tomorrow you have a brand new opportunity. And perhaps make different choices. Don’t beat yourself up over a night when you don’t have the energy — it’s a marathon not a sprint, but it’s important we hold ourselves up to an ideal.”