February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

LeVar Burton Launches Skybrary School

Reading Rainbow has evolved along with its readers. LeVar Burton, longtime host and executive producer of the beloved children’s brand, officially launched Skybrary School, a web-based library and supplemental reading service, at the Title 1 Conference in Houston last week.

LeVar Burton - Headshot 1“We are releasing this robust tool that was inspired by teachers who were using our consumer product and saying to us ‘I love this,’ so I said, let’s design a product that’s for them,” says Burton.

Skybrary School is comprised of Reading Rainbow’s 800 interactive books, teacher-created lesson plans, and 200 video field trips. Available by subscription, Skybrary School’s library “balances fiction and informational books,” according to the site, and includes a read-along audio feature. It was the next step for Burton and the RRKidz team to extend the Reading Rainbow app content to a broader audience beyond tablet users.

“And it was funded by the people,” says Burton, referring to a record-shattering Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $6.4 million from 105,000 backers in the summer of 2015.

School Library Journal spoke with Burton, who delivered the Title I keynote “Storytelling in the Digital Age.”

SLJ: With your experience spanning Reading Rainbow, a television show that promoted print titles, the app, and now, the website, how do you reconcile print versus digital?

LB: I don’t care if you’re reading a bound book or on a tablet device. I simply want kids to read. Back in the 80s, television was the technology that we used as the point of access to reach children where they were and take them where we wanted them to go. And we did it pretty successfully for 26 years. Television is not the first screen of choice for kids today.

But we will still continue to print books because of that essential lap experience that is so much a part of early childhood bonding, self-selecting as a reader for life [is an] experience that is so important to the culture.

Books in any form.

Absolutely! I think that everyone needs to untwist their panties, or their boxers, and recognize that things change, and that evolution is a natural state of being.

Well, speaking of panties in a twist, I’m sure you’re aware of the movement, the call for diverse books…

More diverse books, yeah.

And yet there’s this latest incident of the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington that was pulled by the publisher after outcry over its depiction of slaves. This is happening at the same time as the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign. What’s your take on changing our books, films, an television to better reflect the actual makeup of our society?

It’s a slow process. It’s going to take the current generation of old white men gatekeepers to start retiring. It was great to watch Cheryl Boone Isaacs in action, the president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, in a matter of 72 hours, she revolutionized the membership practices and voting procedures for Oscars. And that’s what it takes. Cheryl Boone Isaacs: black woman, gatekeeper. Right?

She’s a rarity, though, to be in the position to make change.

Yes, she is, but here is empirical evidence. We need more diverse people in these gatekeeper positions.

The good news is that in the digital age, the gatekeepers tend to have less and less sway over content creation. We are in an age where we are truly experiencing the democratization of content creation and distribution.

The Birth of a Nation, a passion project of a young black filmmaker, was the darling of Sundance and sold for $17 million. And this is a movie he put together himself. If you have the drive, the passion, the chutzpah to tell stories, to create art, to write to make music, to make films, the tools are available. You can do it and you can find an audience.

Your thoughts on Marley Dias, the 11-year-old who was tired of reading books about white boys and dogs and launched #1000BlackGirlBooks?

I just love this child. She’s done exactly what I’m talking about. She’s passionate about something, she believes with her whole soul in what she’s trying to do, and she’s using the tools at her disposal. And she’s struck a nerve. Because she’s telling the truth. And her story is circulating. And she’s getting books.

So there is hope. And I think where the human spirit is concerned, there’s always hope.

Kathy Ishizuka About Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka (kishizuka@mediasourceinc.com@kishizuka on Twitter) is the Executive Editor of  School Library Journal.

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  1. I’m excited to read this article. I’m a nice white child of the hippie generation who thought that the civil rights victories of the 1960s had largely fixed racism in the United States,. Two and a half years ago, I became aware that, while the nation’s legal climate improved through the civil rights acts, the racism problem had not gone away. In fact, I think the problem recurs in waves, and must continually be fought in every generation. Keep up the good fight!

  2. So, when will Skybrary be available for public libraries?– I would love a partnership with Skybrary and my library!

  3. When does this become available? I’d love to add my debut novel for the young adult generation, Crystal Dreams, to your reading list!