"Reading Rainbow sort of inspired all these other ways of digital storytelling," said Jack Martin, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. "He was bringing books to the screen and teaching kids how to talk about books, and libraries how to talk about books, before other companies were doing it. It's actually pretty amazing."
Burton's idea doesn't include a nuts-and-bolts plan to get tablets into the hands of disadvantaged students, for example. But he is hoping that his high-profile lobbying will effect change — just as the original "Reading Rainbow" program did.
Part of that change, he says, is encouraging parents to embrace devices the way they embrace books. Burton has no nostalgia for a time when books were books and screens were screens. The intersection of the two, he said, is "a great thing."
"It's great on a number of levels," he said. "It's going to increase our responsibility quotient where our stewardship of our environmental resources is concerned; it's no longer sustainable to cut down trees to make books. And it's going to change the way we educate the children on our planet. Those are two good things."
And let's not forget, Wolfe said, that Burton is as much Lt. Commander La Forge as he is the guy behind "Reading Rainbow." "People see him as 'Star Trek,'" Wolfe said. "He's an engineer. He's always holding a technical device. I think, in a way, people expect him to be an early adopter. He's from the future."
"I understand the fear that by losing contact with books on the printed page, we're somehow surrendering some aspect of our humanity," said Burton. "But that's just not the case. The tools exist now, through technology and social media, for us to share our stories with one another. And if we're sharing our stories with one another, then that experience of 'the other' diminishes. Because if I know your story and you know my story, there is no 'other.' What we find in that exchange of narratives is that we're really pretty much the same — the same values, the same aspirations, the same wants, needs, desires for our families, for our loved ones. It collapses all of the illusions of separation."
"Stories were alive long before pages," Wolfe said. "Stories were theater. Stories were hieroglyphics. Stories were pictographs. It's the medium of the day that's the story, not the device."
Turn more of our education into stories, they argue, and marry them to devices, and voilà! Revolution.
"We have to care enough about the future of this country and the world to invest what's necessary," Burton said. "If we don't do it, then we're stupid. We are foolish."
Technology, he said, is the missing piece. "The medium is not the message," Burton said, echoing Wolfe. "The medium is the delivery system. The story is the message."
And Burton wants to remain the messenger.
Heidi Stevens is a Tribune lifestyle reporter.