Reading Rainbow, the much-loved, long-running children's show that relaunched as an app in 2012, and set a Kickstarter record last year while raising funds to expand into a subscription website, is launching a new web platform today.
The new site, called Skybrary by Reading Rainbow, will feature at launch more than 500 interactive books and 150 video "field trips," as well as access to vintage Reading Rainbow content. New books and field trips will be added each week.
The website, intended for children ages 2 to 9, offers a 14-day free trial with unlimited access to the site's content. Subscriptions are $49.99 a year, or $9.99 a month. RRKidz, the company that was cofounded by original Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton and acquired exclusive rights to the brand, plans to introduce a Skybrary classroom version that will be offered free to up to 7,500 classrooms; that program will include lesson plans and tools for teachers.
The new site will resemble the top-ranked Reading Rainbow app, which lets children select areas of interest (via adorable flying hot-air balloons that travel to islands in the sky) and choose to read books themselves or have books read to them. Subtle animations and soothing music enhance each book, and children can stash their favorites in a virtual backpack. Video field trips include places like the White House, Broadway musicals, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The site is the result of a $5.4 million crowdfunding campaign sourced by nearly 106,000 people, a Kickstarter record for individual backers. The project eventually raised over $6.4 million, with a $1 million donation by Seth MacFarlane. The campaign, which had an original goal of $1 million, hit that mark in less than 24 hours, tapping into a rich vein of nostalgia from millennials who grew up with the show and can sing the theme song by heart. Once it hit the $1 million goal, Reading Rainbow set stretch goals to help it distribute the website for free to Title 1 schools serving low-income students, and to build out mobile products for families (both domestic and internationally) who don't have access to desktops or tablets, to truly achieve the campaign's goal of "Every Child, Everywhere."
Burton, who for 25 years was the host of Reading Rainbow, said the response to the Kickstarter campaign—which was initially suggested by his daughter when RRKidz began to burn through its initial funding—took even him by surprise.
"I was overwhelmed; I did not expect that sort of outpouring," Burton told Fast Company. "In retrospect, people have said, 'Are you kidding? There are so many adults who grew up with the show.' But I never tried to quantify the size or the generosity of that generation. I underestimated the power, the strength of the brand. My takeaway has been, I'm grateful, absolutely, beyond measure, and really proud."
Burton stresses that the app and the website (and the TV show, for that matter), were not about straight-up literacy but instead were meant to foster a generation of book lovers.
"Reading Rainbow has never been about teaching kids how to read," he says. "Our mission is to reach a child who is in a decision-making process as to whether they're going to be a reader for life, and tip the scales."
The tech-first nature of Reading Rainbow's new tools to create book lovers may strike parents wary of too much screen time as a quandary, but Burton says he's always been medium agnostic.
"When people say, 'So, LeVar, bound books or digital books for kids?,' my answer is always an emphatic yes," he says. "The primary value that we have applied, across all media, is the importance and the quality of the storytelling. Period. I believe that all media is educational. The question is, what are we teaching? What are your children learning? I take a very serious sense of personal responsibility for content which I produce in any realm, and especially for children. You've seen that thread through my career over the last 40 years. I don't do just anything."
—An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the company that owns the rights to Reading Rainbow. It is RRKidz, not RRKids.