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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Take a Look, It's in a Book, a Reading Rainbow!

My earliest childhood memories were heavily influenced by books.

Here’s a true story for all of you reading this right now.  I actually learned how to read before I learned how to talk.  Sounds impossible, right?  Well, it happens to be true. 

My parents have told me that when I was just two years old, I was able to read some things.  Being a toddler at the time, and having my sisters in public school, there were many mornings where my mother would take me to the supermarket to pick up the weekly groceries (usually at Mr. Grocer downtown, or Steinberg’s at the mall...both of which have since closed up shop).  At each checkout lane, there was a rack of magazines present.  At that time, there was People Magazine, National Enquirer, Family Circle, Reader’s Digest, Archie Comics Digests, Soap Opera Digest (at that time there were more than four on the air), and various recipe magazines. 

According to the story my mother told me, when we were waiting in line, she would ask me to point out a magazine on the rack.  She’d say “Matthew, can you show me where TV Guide is kept?”, and sure enough, I would point my little finger to the TV Guide display, and exclaim “Unh! Unh!”.  Then she would ask me where “Woman’s World” magazine was kept, and I’d point towards it and make that caveman grunt that I was only able to muster up for language back in 1983.  The cashiers were beyond impressed.

(Of course, that’s according to what my mother told me anyway...for all she knew, I could have been wanting a chocolate bar instead, and just pointed at the magazines to get her attention.)

By the time I was able to talk (which wasn’t until I reached the age of three), I was able to read some articles in the newspaper.  I didn’t necessarily know exactly what the words in the newspaper meant that I had read, but nevertheless, I did read it.  By that time, my mother felt that it was a good idea to get me my very own library card from the public library.  Every Thursday afternoon, we would walk up to the library, and I would literally spend hours in the children’s book section.  At some point, I think I asked the head librarian if I could check out every book in the library at once.  Unfortunately, at that time, people were limited to ten books per check out, so ten was all I could borrow.  But to me, the idea of a library was the best thing in the world.  You could check out books on subjects that you were interested in, bring them home, and as long as you returned them within a couple of weeks, you weren’t charged any money at all!  It was my idea of heaven.

So, every other Thursday from the ages of three to about nine, I would go to the library to check out ten books at a time, read them over a two-week period, bring them back, and check out ten more books.  I loved it, and I’m sure my parents loved it as well, as the books kept me very quiet and well-behaved.

Oh, I loved books so much.  I still love books to this very day.  These days I don’t have a whole lot of spare time to dedicate to reading books, but I definitely try to squeeze some time in, even if it’s only for a few minutes.  Those trips to the library really helped enrich my word power, and made me appreciate the concept of literacy even more.

Oh, and there was also a television show that aired right around the time that I ended up getting my first library card that celebrated books and reading.  It was a television show that managed to run for twenty-one seasons, and thanks to new technology, the program is now getting a second wind!

Check out the original theme song for the program, which first began airing on PBS June 6, 1983.

Yes, today’s blog topic is about the television show “Reading Rainbow”.  I initially intended to talk about this subject on Saturday, but due to recent events, I put it on the backburner.  But since I occasionally talk about books on Wednesdays, I figured that it fit.

“Reading Rainbow” was created under the leadership of Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit at Lancit Media Productions, based out of New York City.  Hosted by actor LeVar Burton for the show’s entire run, the program was a mainstay on PBS for twenty-three years before going off the air in November 2006. 

TRIVIA:  “Reading Rainbow” is currently the third longest running PBS television show ever.  Only “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street” have run longer.

Every episode of “Reading Rainbow” was structured nearly the same way.  LeVar Burton would take the viewers on some sort of adventure.  Whether he would go on a trip to the zoo, learn all about how sports were played, or taking part in a musical performance, it was definitely something that made the show more fun.

I enjoyed the LeVar Burton segments because it allowed us to learn a lot about different subjects, different cultures, and different worlds...almost exactly the same way that books allow a person to learn about anything and everything.  Check out this segment from a “Reading Rainbow” episode from the 1980s where we learn about Chinese cuisine.

Wasn’t that something?  And, with 155 episodes of the series made between 1983 and 2006, there was never a shortage of activity for LeVar to take part in.  One memorable episode actually followed LeVar around the set of the other show he was working on at the time, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”! 

The live-action segments were a lot of fun, but of course, they weren’t the only thing to be focused on within the show.  After all, the show wouldn’t be called “Reading Rainbow” if there were no books present at all, would it?

The one unique thing about the program was that each episode was focused on a specific book (usually in relation to the live-action segments that LeVar Burton filmed for each episode), and that book was more often than not presented by a celebrity guest.  Some of the celebrities that have read books on “Reading Rainbow” have included Bill Cosby, Jason Robards, Charles Kimbrough, Josie de Guzman, and Eartha Kitt.  Even Kermit the Frog made an appearance!

Also making an appearance on the program were hundreds of school aged children making recommendations about books that they themselves have read in a segment known as “Book Reviews”.  You always knew when the segment would start because LeVar would kick off the segment by saying “you don’t have to take my word for it”.  Here are a couple of examples of these book reviews.

MINI-CONFESSION:  I listened to a few of these reviews from some of these kids, and made it a mission to find these books so I could read them too.  In any of the ones I did read, I must say that the recommendations were quite helpful, and I enjoyed the books a lot!

“Reading Rainbow” was one of PBS’s most successful programs.  Would you believe that in its twenty-three years on the air, the program received a boatload of awards?  It ended up winning a total of twenty-six Emmy Awards (twenty-five more than Susan Lucci), and even won a Peabody Award in 1992.  I can’t even tell you the number of times the program was nominated, as that number well exceeds over two hundred nominations!

And, that’s the story of “Reading Rainbow”, and its many years of entertaining children on television.  But if you think that the concept of “Reading Rainbow” is dead, think again.  In 2010, LeVar Burton announced through social media that he was working on a new version of “Reading Rainbow”, and in June 2012, he appeared at a special presentation for Apple Inc.’s annual World Wide Developers Conference where he announced that “Reading Rainbow” would become available as an app for the company’s iPad device.

The app was released on June 20, 2012 at Apple’s iTunes store, and it took only a day and a half for the app to become popular.  By June 22, it was already the #1 Educational App! 

I guess it goes to show you that people still have much love for “Reading Rainbow”.  Whether you read your books online, on a Kindle, or the good old-fashioned way, it doesn’t matter.  For me, there is nothing better than curling up on the sofa with a good book.  And, I’m sure that many others would agree.

Besides, “Reading Rainbow” always taught fantastic life lessons.  With that, I’ll close this blog entry off with a musical number that was featured on one episode of the series.  See you next time!

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