Reading Rainbow Might Stop the iPad From Ruining the Brains of All Children

For a generation now creating advanced things and placed in corridors of power, LeVar Burton was a god-king: both Star Trek's Geordi La Forge, and the guy who taught us to like books on Reading Rainbow. Now, the two Burtons are fused—and it's pretty incredible.


LeVar Burton has an app—it's available starting today. Sure. Lots of people have apps. But it's doubtful anyone cares as much about their app as LeVar Burton. I step into an expensive hotel room in Midtown Manhattan, and Burton springs up, greeting me by name, shaking my hand, talking almost immediately about reading. There's an iPad in front of him.

But this isn't just any product pitch—which is good, because Burton lacks all the unctuousness of a salesman or marketing player. He just... cares. His enthusiasm for an app designed to encourage little kids to read is almost overwhelming. How many people care about anything this much? And how much can I possibly properly appreciate an app designed for tiny kiddo brains? I can't—so we brought our own: two boys, 3 and 5-years-old, stuck in that valley of super-hyperactivity spanning the end of school and the beginning of summer camp. As Burton lays out the app's basics—a free download, a $10 per month subscription for unlimited kid-friendly titles, a vibrant cartoonish interface with hot air balloons and floating islands that capture the original series' acid trip charm—the kids fidget. The older immediately covers himself in pretzel crumbs, the young starts chirping for mom's attention. The kids are kids. It's summer and they'd rather not be in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room on a beautiful day. Nobody would.

But then something incredible happens. We hand the older boy the iPad and fire up the Reading Rainbow app. He's transfixed. The only word is transfixed. The fussing and pretzel-crunching stops, and his little brother curls next to him. They don't fight over who gets to hold it. They both know intuitively how to use it—complete naturals. He picks pirates, animals, and space as his three preferred topics to generate recommended books. He starts reading along with Burton's pre-recorded narration. The Wi-Fi sucks and the download stalls. He doesn't care. The kids are—patient? Attentive? About a book.

I ask Burton if he thinks this is ultimately good, this sticking of LCDs under the eyes of children. Having seen lots of absentee parenting by way of iOS—kids handed a stray iPhone as they might be handed a pacifier, to shut them up in public—could the ubiquitous computer hurt little heads? Can the touchscreen warp fingers that've been flipping (and smearing chocolate on) paper for hundreds of years? "We can try to sequester ourselves from technology," Burton shakes his head. But this is pointless, he explains. Kids like those two mesmerized by an app are an inevitability—and if we can make them mesmerized by a book instead of a game, we have to take the chance. We must. Burton is emphatic. "Ed[ucational] tech!" Burton grunts, pounding his palm with his fist. It's imperative to him that we get kids using these everywhere-screens to become readers, writers, and thinkers, before they become something else. "We've already lost an entire generation of children. Maybe two," he laments. This one, for whom touch screens are a given, should be different. It must be different, and you can see in LeVar Burton's almost crazed eyes that the dude really, really, really wants kids to read more. And it seems like they will—if there's one young charm you can count on, it's that a little boy will tell you something is stupid and is bad and smells like poop if he thinks so. They're a brutally honest lot. But our kindergarten demo team gave shy smiles and thumbs up.

Burton doesn't act surprised in the slightest. And why should he? He lived this world 30 years ago: "I mean, come on—Geordi was carrying an iPad around the Enterprise!" [iTunes]


The Diversionist

With advent of the written novel, people thought such frivolous entertainment was going to ruin society, much like people feel about video games and TV today. Something that was attributed no value and guaranteed to turn kids' brains into mush is precisely what we clamber for kids to do today. In this early stage, it is hard for us to know the beneficial effects of video games and TV, and perhaps the glowing of the screens may be bad for the eyes, but to dismiss their potential value is making the same mistake as those crotchety people condemning the novel way back when.