Hands-on with Reading Rainbow for iPad

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The old Reading Rainbow TV series filled thousands of children with a love of books and stories during its two-decade run on PBS and made host LeVar Burton a hero to budding bibliophiles everywhere. But the new Reading Rainbow for iPad app isn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia: It wants to create a new generation of readers.

LeVar Burton hosts videos on the Reading Rainbow app.

The free app debuted Tuesday, offering more than 150 multimedia books for kids—the target audience is age 3 to 9—along with Burton-hosted videos depicting trips to submarines, museums, and other interesting locations.

When you open the app, it asks you to enter a name, age, and gender, then to select three favorite topics from a list of 9. My 3-year-old son, Tobias, assisted me in this task, choosing “Things That Go,” “Space & Beyond,” and “Pirates” as his favorites.

Readers can pick their favorite story topics.

Once that data is entered, the app offers a series of subscription options—becoming a sort of Netflix for kids’ books in the process. You can choose not to pay anything for the app, but that will limit you to just one book from the app library, along with access to the videos. The other options? A $10-a-month subscription, paid through iTunes, that automatically renews each month—or a $30 subscription good for six months. (Note that the app isn't produced by non-profit PBS; rather, it was created by RRKidz, a private company co-owned by Burton.)

If you do subscribe, you have access to the entirety of the Reading Rainbow library. You can find books on a series of floating islands: One is focused on “action adventures,” another is named the “Genius Academy,” a third is focused on animals, and the last on friends and family.

Users can choose from recommended books and videos.

Touch one of the islands, and you’ll see a series of book covers—the first few of which are recommended based on the interests indicated when you first open the app. Touch the book and you’re given the option of downloading it to the app.

Here’s where the Netflix comparison becomes a little more apparent: You have access to the entire library of Reading Rainbow books, but you can only download five of them at a time—each stored in a customized “backpack” of the user’s choosing. If your backpack is full, you have to “return” one of the books before downloading a replacement.

You can download up to five books at a time.

Once your first book is downloaded, you touch it to open. For the first book, an animated figure—Austin, “your book buddy”—appears to explain how to use the book: The app can read it to you, or you can read it to yourself. You can push on-screen buttons to proceed through the book, or merely swipe pages. And some pages feature icons that, if pushed, animate the action on the page. Some books feature narration by Burton himself; as the narrator proceeds, blocks of text are highlighted to help young readers follow along.

A couple of other features worth mentioning: The app includes a bare-bones dashboard for parents that lets them track which books their children are reading, and how long they’ve spent with each book. Finish the book, and you’re given a “sticker” signifying the achievement, stickers can be used to decorate the animated topic islands. If a reader tires of a book, he or she can swipe out to play a memory-match card game.

As narration proceeds, text is highlighted to guide young readers.

And a final intriguing note: The app should continue to evolve, with new books, videos, and topic-oriented islands to guide young readers, making sure Reading Rainbow doesn’t get old. “You never know what surprises will be waiting for you,” Burton says in the introductory video.

Reading Rainbow for iPad is compatible with devices running iOS 5.0 or later.

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