LaVar Burton is famous for his roles on the hit TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and Roots, but as he lifts up his hand and calmly wipes away a tear from his eye, he is not acting for the camera. Perhaps best recognized as the face of Reading Rainbow, Burton just witnessed a Kickstarter campaign to bring the children’s educational series to classrooms in digital platforms surpass its goal of US$1 million in a mere 11 hours. (The pledges have since surpassed US$3.6 million with about three weeks left in the campaign.)
“This is going to enable us to really, really, really do a lot of good,” Burton says in a candid moment uploaded on the fundraising page. “We are literally changing the world, one children’s book at a time.”
When Reading Rainbow launched as an iPad app two years ago, it soon became the top educational app in America with almost 15 million books read and videos watched to date. But the brand’s everlasting popularity has not necessarily translated into a world of avid readers.
Thirty years ago, not long after Reading Rainbow first aired on PBS, 8% of 13-year-olds in the US said they never or hardly read for fun, according to a recent report from Common Sense Media. Fast forward to today, and that number has nearly tripled to 22%.
“Reading attitudes are positive in early elementary and they steadily decline as kids move through school,” says David Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the upcoming book Raising Kids Who Read. “By the time kids are in late elementary or middle school, the percentage of kids who routinely engage in reading during leisure time is pretty small.”
Indeed, 53% of nine-year-olds in the US read almost every day for pleasure, according to 2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, and that number has stayed consistent since 1984. For 13-year-olds reading almost daily, however, the percentage has fallen from 35% in 1984 to 27% in 2012.
Nostalgia for Reading Rainbow aside, the fundraising campaign’s success shows there is a vested interest from parents and businesses to get young children into reading again.
Epic! is a subscription-based children’s e-book service that launched earlier this year for US$9.99 a month, offering kids an à la carte selection of books to stream at their leisure. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of two- to 10-year-olds in the US have an e-reader or a tablet device at home, according to a 2014 Cooney Center study. There are currently more than 4,000 titles available on Epic! and it has a reward system built in to encourage kids to keep reading. Readers get a first badge after they finish their very first novel, and other badges are earned by completing activities, such as reading a book on the weekend. They can read as much as they want without needing mom or dad’s permission (or wallet) to start up a new e-book. A full 95% of kids ages six to eight say they are more likely to finish a book they picked up for themselves, according to a 2013 Scholastic Media report.
“We’re developing a system where you level up from a novice bookworm to a grandmaster bookworm,” says Epic! co-founder Kevin Donahue. The California-based company recently signed on HarperCollins as its 25th publishing partner to offer eBooks that target at kids ages five to 12. “We cut it off at 12-year-olds, because if you go higher than that, you get into young adult titles,” Donahue adds. “The themes of those titles can be too mature or complex for younger kids. We didn’t want to have books that would inappropriate for younger children mixed in.”
McDonald’s restaurants in the UK, meanwhile, began offering vouchers last month for free children’s eBook downloads with the purchase of a Happy Meal. As long as the promotion lasts, the fast food chain will be the UK’s largest book distributor.
“I think e-reading does have terrific potential in terms of access,” says Willingham. “When kids get excited based on recommendations of friends, what you want is for that book to be in the child’s hands as quickly as possible.”
The next hurdle is making sure kids stay engaged with an eNovel, especially when Facebook and Instagram are a few clicks away. On average, kids spend only five minutes a day with eBooks compared to almost a half-hour for those in print, according to the Cooney Center report.
With Epic! and Reading Rainbow‘s endless supply of books, however, children will be able to seamlessly jump into a brand-new book when what they’re currently reading starts to feel stale. Digital extras can also enhance the storytelling with audio or video components. “The content should be compelling enough to keep their attention for significant periods of time,” Epic!’s Donahue says. “If you give them free reign as if they’re in their own personal library, how much reading would they actually do?”