PBS series features summer reading
PBS is planning to launch a new TV miniseries aimed at getting children aged 6 to 9 interested in reading books this summer. The series, ''Reading Rainbow,'' scheduled to start July 11, is unlike anything yet seen on national television, and it comes at a time when the US Office of Education has just raised its estimate of the number of functional illiterates in this country from 23 million five years ago to 26 million today.
The programs are vastly different from most children's programming, in that they employ, among other things, an innovative, on-location format and several well-known stars.
The series may prove to be a boon for librarians or organizations looking for ways to offer summer activities for children in communities where budget cuts have all but wiped out financial support.
The 15 half-hour episodes will be hosted by LeVar Burton of ''Roots'' fame, and each will focus on one book read by people like Ruth Buzzi, Stephanie Mills, Jerry Stiller, Lily Tomlin, and Lou Rawls. Ben Vereen will dance in one segment.
The books themselves are among the best in literature for young children (authors include Harry Allard, Trinka Hakes Noble, Noelle Sterne, Mitchell Sharmatt, and Mildred Pitts Walter), and the illustrators are outstanding in their own right (Ezra Jack Keats, Steven Kellogg, Tomie De Paola, Peter Stier, and Trina Schart Hyman, among them).
Each episode is introduced in a location chosen especially for the book. Then , as the text is read, the illustrations are imaginatively reproduced with a sense of life and movement. In an on-location follow-up, LeVar Burton returns to discuss the themes of the story with children or adults who explain or demonstrate important aspects of the book. Children also comment on additional books about similar subjects. And the last portion of each episode demonstrates how children can find items of special interest to them in a library and how they can have fun there.
The series, cosponsored by the Kellogg Company and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, will be aired nationally by satellite via PBS New York. Its producers are Great Plains National, a Nebraska-based distributor of educational television shows, and WNED, the Buffalo, N.Y., public broadcasting station.
The programs will be aired during a period when commercial stations aren't offering new children's shows, and old ones are being scheduled at the least valuable viewing times; PBS itself has ceased production of ''3-2-1 Contact'' for lack of funds.
The idea for the series grew partly out of well-received local programs with similar aims in Buffalo; Evansville, Ind.; and Miami. Public libraries have also used such programs as the basis for summer reading clubs, and schools have used similar video techniques to promote interest in leisure reading, using Instructional Television Viewing (ITV) shows such as ''Cover to Cover,'' ''Readit,'' and ''Magic Pages.''
Investigators at the Stanford Research Institute have documented substantial loss of reading skills for beginning readers over the summer months. Their findings suggest that boys and children from low-income families might be specially benefited by watching the series. The producers have taken these things into account but have tried to make the subject matter of intrinsic interest to all children.
The appeal of the series is enhanced by spontaneity, variety in content and pacing, and the direct involvement of children on the screen. For example, in the episode featuring ''Tight Times,'' by Barbara Shook Hazen, children demonstrate some of the ways to have fun with no money. A coffee-can lid becomes a Frisbee; a birdhouse is created from a plastic gallon jug; double Dutch jump rope and tug of war are among games shown which use materials readily at hand.
The three-week series will be aired twice daily in most locations, with the second showing in the early evening to invite viewing with parents. The series will be repeated beginning Aug. 1.
Schools and libraries will be permitted to record the series from the air or send blank tapes to state ITV offices for copying for later use.
Reading Rainbow Gazette, a reading activity magazine, will be available at some bookstores and through some state public television stations. An insert for parents gives hints on sharing books and television with children, as well as program synopses and a list of the titles used in the series. It's designed to be used independently or as a supplement to the programs.
A guide and show segments are available for state ITV coordinators and local public broadcasters to aid parents and institutions in organizing ''Reading Rainbow'' activity programs. Some communities have lined up businesses or organizations to underwrite the costs of bookmarks, brochures, posters, or the Gazette. Station KRMA in Denver has persuaded the Village Pancake House firm to provide such materials for the 22 school districts and the public libraries within its broadcasting range.
All the books presented in the series are in print and available. Waldenbooks has stated a willingness to order the books for customers who request them, and B. Dalton plans to stock the titles used in the series, as well as the Gazette, in many of its 750 outlets.