My Favorites: 40 Years of Page-Turners 


Lynne Ganek

SOE professor Lynne Ganek went to the library in search of children’s books. She left with a catchphrase. 
In 1983—amid growing concern about the “summer learning slide”—Ganek was working as an associate producer with Lancit Media Productions on a new educational series that met kids where they were: in front of the TV. Ganek, who had taught elementary and middle school, was tasked with finding books that would resonate with kids in kindergarten through third grade. When she asked for recommendations, the librarian handed Ganek a list of favorites curated by the youngsters themselves.
“You don’t have to take my word for it,” the librarian said.  
Later that year, on June 13, Reading Rainbow debuted to rave reviews from kids and critics alike. What was supposed to be a short summer sprint turned into a 155-episode run spanning 26 seasons—marking the third-longest running children’s show in PBS history. The program, which marks its 40th anniversary this year, also garnered more than 250 awards, including 26 Emmys.
“We weren’t teaching reading,” Ganek says. “We were teaching a love of reading.” 
Ganek was working in the education department at WNET, New York City’s PBS station, when her colleague Cecily Lancit approached her about a show she and her husband, Larry, had been hired to create. “They didn’t have a format, they didn’t have a host,” Ganek says with a laugh. “And yet, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe they were going to pay me to work on the show.”
Ganek had heard LeVar Burton speak at a conference hosted by Action for Children’s Television and recommended the Roots actor for the Reading Rainbow gig. “We wanted a strong male in the role. At the conference I saw LeVar hanging around and talking with students, and that stuck in my head.”
A Pittsburgh native, Ganek grew up watching Fred Rogers on her local channel before his Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood became a nationally syndicated phenomenon. As she and the Lancits were shaping their own children’s program, the cardigan-wearing icon offered them advice: speak to children directly and respectfully. “And we did. It made them attend to what LeVar was saying to the books we offered.”
Each episode centered on a theme from a featured book and included on-location segments and a trio of book reviews from children. It was a simple but groundbreaking formula, Ganek says—and one that was produced, at first, on a shoestring. 
“They had to use me [then nine months pregnant] to play a librarian in the pilot episode, because all of our money—$5,000—went to LeVar,” she says. The episode featured Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport, which, 43 years after its publication, still features a seal on the cover proclaiming it to be a “Reading Rainbow book.”
“At first, we were paying a couple hundred dollars for the rights to the books. But by the end of the season, there were so many books being sent to our office, we couldn’t get through the door,” recalls Ganek, who still works with Lancit Digital Media as an executive producer. At its peak, two million viewers a week tuned in to the show, episodes of which can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.
“We were very passionate about and devoted to the series, and I think children realized Reading Rainbow was made with love,” Ganek says. “Working on the show was the most unbelievable experience—a gift that keeps giving.” 
Ganek brings that same passion to her work with AU’s School of Education, where she’s worked for more than 15 years with undergraduate and graduate Eagles in their final semester of student teaching. She and her husband, Jeffrey, established the Ganek Family Grant for Innovation and Education, which offers $500 grants to AU student teachers to “think outside the box and do something exceptional.” Awardees have used the funds to work with their students to create a butterfly garden, a global market, and more.
“I’m amazed by the student teachers’ creativity,” says Ganek, who serves on SOE’s advisory board. “They were able to do so much for so little and create a sense of community.” 
It’s a page out of her own Reading Rainbow book.

Take a Look, It’s in a Book—Here are Ganek’s 10 Favorites from Reading Rainbow: 

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport: Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s book was the first one we selected for the show. The story, which teaches the importance of respecting other cultures, explores how frightening it can be to move to a strange place—but it’s told with a sense of humor that tickled us all. 
Tight Times: Barbara Shook Hazen’s book tackles tough issues like unemployment and poverty, making serious real-life concerns understandable to young readers.
Louis the Fish: This fanciful odyssey by Arthur Yorinks is about an unhappy man who knows what will make him happy—to become a fish. The book allows for discussion about finding one’s true self.
Digging Up Dinosaurs: Aliki Brandenberg had me at the title. I had a student in my sixth-grade class who found a dinosaur bone in his backyard. At first, I didn’t believe him, but it’s on display in a New Jersey museum. 
Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe: Told from the perspective of a young girl who goes on a canoe ride with her mother, aunt, and brother, Vera B. Williams’s book is about adventures—a great theme for capturing kids’ imaginations—and the importance of spending time with family. 
Gregory, the Terrible Eater: Inspired by generations of children and their picky palates, this book is about a goat named Gregory, who prefers people food (fruits and vegetables) over the typical goat fare his parents want him to eat (old tires and a broken violin). Mitchell Sharmat’s sweet story about the importance of healthy eating is told with a sense of humor.  
Germs Make Me Sick: Melvin Berger’s book teaches children about germs: how they spread and how to stay healthy. Featuring lots of fun illustrations [by Marylin Hafner], this basic microbiology primer eases anxiety and fear about germs by explaining bacteria, viruses, immunity, and the importance of personal hygiene. 
A Chair for My Mother: The themes in Vera B. Williams’s book—loss, community, hard work, and family—are as pertinent today as they were 40 years ago. An emotional read about recovering after losing everything in a house fire, the book explores empathy and compassion, both of which we need more of today.
The Gift of the Sacred Dog: Paul Goble introduces readers to the beliefs and traditions of Native American tribes, whose stories are underrepresented in children’s literature. The courage of a determined boy is rewarded by the Great Spirit when he is given the gift of horses, or sacred dogs. 
The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth: Eccentric teacher Ms. Frizzle takes her students on a science field trip—to the center of the earth. Joanna Cole explores geology and scientific terms with ease.