LeVar Burton on 'Reading Rainbow' and the Next Generation of Literacy

Reading Rainbow

As ‘Reading Rainbow’ turns 35, LeVar Burton talks about the role of technology in promoting our love of reading — then and now.

Reading Rainbow first aired on June 6, 1983. Each episode featured a different children’s book, often narrated by a celebrity, as well as book reviews by kids and other related segments called “video field trips,” not to mention one of the catchiest theme songs of all time.

Reading Rainbow succeeded in large part due to the show’s Emmy-winning host and executive producer LeVar Burton, whose lifelong goal has been to promote literacy and help children learn to love reading. LeVar Burton was the voice of my childhood, starring in three of my all-time favorite shows: Reading Rainbow, Captain Planet and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

On the 35th anniversary of Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton spoke with Crixeo about the history of the show, as well as his current exciting projects: the app Skybrary and the podcast LeVar Burton Reads.

How did the idea for Reading Rainbow come about?

Dr. Twila Liggett was an educator and a television producer, and her desire was to address through the medium of television the “summer loss” phenomenon — simply put, when a child is learning how to read, they take that three-month summer vacation, and their reading comprehension skills invariably suffer. So it was becoming more and more evident, especially in education circles in the late ’70s and early ’80s, that our national preoccupation with television had really caught hold among children, and that it could potentially be of value to use the engagement factor TV offers to promote literature.

Do you have any personal favorite segments or episodes of Reading Rainbow?

[Laughs.] Imagine having 179 children and being asked to choose which one is your favorite. ’Cause it’s hard, you know? So many great adventures, so many wonderful people that we met. But there are some standout moments. Standing at the summit of Kilauea — which is back in the news right now — with a fountain of lava erupting over my shoulder on the show “Hill of Fire.” That was pretty cool. I learned how to fly an airplane for “Ruth Law Thrills a Nation.” I landed that plane, by the way! That was me landing the plane. “Hot Air Henry” took us to the Palmetto Balloon Classic in Camden, South Carolina, where all of the Delta pilots fly their hot air balloons. That was a really awesome experience and a wonderful show. I learned to scuba dive for “Dive to the Coral Reefs.” So, over 30 years of adventures and experiences, it’s hard to pin down just one.

Reading Rainbow

LeVar Burton enjoys a little reading before scuba diving in the ‘Reading Rainbow’ episode ‘Dive to the Coral Reefs.’ PBS

Did anyone read to you when you were a child?

Absolutely. My mother did, and my older sister did. And in terms of my mother’s influence, she not only read to me; she read in front of me. My mother was a voracious reader, so I grew up in a family where reading was part of the normal activities of daily life.

As a parent, what have you done to help foster a love of reading in your own children, and do you have any advice for parents today?

My primary piece of advice is always the same: find out what your child is passionate about and then get reading materials in that subject matter. I’ve always said, if your kid loves superheroes, then, damn it, buy your kid comic books. Because it doesn’t matter what the gateway experience is. The important thing is that they have a gateway experience.

“I’ve always said, if your kid loves superheroes, then, damn it, buy your kid comic books.”

—LeVar Burton

How does that extend into Skybrary and the concept of using electronic devices to help foster reading?

For me, it’s about using the popular technology that provides the engagement opportunity. You can’t take them where you want them to go unless you’re willing to go where they’re gathered. I knew that if we could capture the engagement factor of tablet computers and the internet and put it to service in our mission, it would result in a successful outcome. And I’m really proud of having done exactly that: taken reading and then translating it pretty successfully into a complete other medium. Not easy to do. We got real lucky, and we had a lot of really talented people helping us along the way.

Reading Rainbow

LeVar Burton Kids via Facebook

I’m really proud of Skybrary, and I’m proud of the entire generation that grew up on Reading Rainbow for making the Kickstarter what it was, which is really a large part of the story of the success of Skybrary. That was huge because all of you guys went into your pockets and said, “I want this to be available for children I will never meet, just because I believe in it. I believe in LeVar. I believe in the mission. I believe in it. It helped me. It’ll help others. Let’s do this, y’all.”

And it was done. It was done. We raised a million dollars on day one. It was phenomenal. The energy swept the country. It was a real moment for the brand. And I’m really, really proud of everything that the brand has accomplished and everything that I’ve helped the brand accomplish and accomplished through the brand. And I wish WNED, which owns the Reading Rainbow brand, well as they continue their journey with Reading Rainbow. I’ve stepped out of the Reading Rainbow business now. My current company is called LeVar Burton Kids (LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary and LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary School), and I’m doing the same thing that I’ve always done, just with a brand that I own.

To me, you are — or were — a huge part of Reading Rainbow, beyond the name or the logo or whatever. So it’s wonderful to see that you’re still working toward that goal.

I still believe that every child everywhere deserves to be literate in at least one language. That is my core belief, and that’s the work we’re trying to achieve with Skybrary.

On your podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, you feature a wide variety of short stories. What type of books do you like to read? Do you have any current favorites to recommend?

Read The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. Fantastic books. In fact — and I say this on every episode of the podcast both when I introduce an author and when I talk about the story, I always talk about the anthology that the story has appeared in. So buy those anthologies! Support these writers that you’ve never heard of before! Go buy their books! Support the work of Ken Liu. Support the work of Nalo Hopkinson and all of these writers. Most of us have heard of Haruki Murakami or Neil Gaiman, but part of the joy for me is — as it always was — introducing y’all to good books, good literature, quality content. So I would love it if you guys go out and buy the books that these stories appear in, because I’m trying to help my brothers and sisters make a living.

You published a children’s book in 2014, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm. If you were able to produce an episode of Reading Rainbow about your book, what kind of video field trips or segments would you include, and who might you choose to narrate it?

The last fertile male white rhino died about two or three months ago. They had been trying to create more white rhinos while he was still alive. They were marginally successful. But the last fertile male white rhino would have been an awesome field trip to go on and a great way to talk about environmental stewardship and where we need to do better in terms of taking care of the planet and her creatures. And I would have asked Laurence Fishburne to do the reading.

Reading Rainbow

LeVar Burton and Michelle Obama read ‘The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm’ during the Joining Forces Event at Thayer Elementary School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, May 3, 2016. Photo by Jane Wolfe / RRKidz, Inc.

Speaking of stewardship, do you think the time may be right for a Captain Planet reboot? And would you take part in that?

Absolutely. If they get that cast together again, I’m in. Love Captain Planet. [In the voice of Kwame, his character on the show] “Let our powers combine!” [Laughs.] Kwame was awesome.

Reading Rainbow featured stories and segments that were racially and culturally diverse. What does representation mean to you, and why is it important in children’s literature and pop culture in general?

It means everything to me. It means everything. Having grown up with very few people who look like me on television and in the books and stories that I enjoyed, and then becoming one of those faces, I can’t express enough how vitally important it is for all children to see themselves represented in the images that they consume in popular culture and in literature. It really goes a long way toward normalizing this very chaotic thing called life. It normalizes who you are and lets you know that you’re OK in a very fundamental way. It’s so very important.

“I can’t express enough how vitally important it is for all children to see themselves represented in the images that they consume in popular culture and in literature.”

—LeVar Burton

On a related note, you recorded an audiobook of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Do you have any takeaways from reading and performing Dr. King’s incredible words?

Because he was such a brilliant orator and speaker, we forget what an absolutely stunning writer’s voice he had. That man could write his ass off. He really could. The way he used language, his sentence structure and syntax, his imagery, his prose — I mean, it’s stunning. You read it and you can’t help but be inspired because he’s putting together thoughts in such an honest, authentic way. He’s telling the truth. And when you speak the truth, it can land in a place inside the human heart that no amount of yelling or protesting or raging against the machine or the status quo — no amount of closed-minded and closed-heartedness and anger and hate can prevent the truth when it’s being spoken in an eloquent manner like that. It just penetrates.

Is there anything else you want to mention about Skybrary?

Levarburtonkids.com [laughs]. That’s where you’ll find the product!

Keep track of LeVar Burton and his current projects on Instagram @levar.burton, Twitter @levarburton and Facebook @levarburtonend


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