LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow and Some of his Favorite Books
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By now, you've probably heard about actor LeVar Burton's campaign to bring Reading Rainbow—the television show that taught a generation to love books—back to life through Kickstarter. Burton will revive the show in tablet form rather than on television, but that doesn't mean that an entire generation's love for the show that reminded us that reading was actually pretty fun has diminished at all.
Burton has been providing periodic updates on the campaign, but we decided to catch up with him to talk about what happened after the show ended in 2006, as well as some of his favorite books.
The Reading Rainbow campaign has been running for a few weeks now. How has it been feeling?
It’s been amazing and exhilarating and overwhelming and exhausting. It’s been all of that. A maelstrom of emotions. Everything you could possibly think of.
Were you expecting the amount of support you've already received?
No. No no no. You know, most Kickstarters are 30 days, and we wanted to give ourselves an extra five days just in case we needed a little extra time to push it over the top at the end. We never anticipated making our goal on the first day. The outpouring of overwhelming love and support for Reading Rainbow has been amazing. Surprising and wonderful and humbling—it’s been crazy. In a good way.
When Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2006, you set out pretty quickly to secure the rights for the show yourself. When did that happen?
It was actually the announcement that Reading Rainbow was being taken off the air. It was that day when that announcement was made, that my business partner and I looked at each other and we said, "Now is the time. Let’s go for it." It took awhile to get the rights in order. The decision was quick and easy; the actual securing of the rights took another 18 months.
Did you already know what you wanted to do with the rights?
No clue at that time! We knew that we wanted it to be part of this new and emerging digital realm. We knew that television was always something that we could go back to, but we wanted to try and join the new media revolution and extend the brand beyond what it had been before and explore the potential for what the brand could be in the now and in the future. Even though we didn’t know what that was. We were thinking about a virtual world—it was really when the iPad was released that things began to crystallize for us. We recognized that the future of storytelling was changing.
When I saw The Elements app on the iPad, I got so excited because it meant that books in this digital medium could take on an interactive quality that was only previously possible in your imagination. Now you could have an interaction on two levels: a physical visual as well as imaginative. The potential for children’s storytelling and children’s picture books was tremendous.
In addition to that, Reading Rainbow was always famous for the visual field trip, as well as the books that we featured. So to be able—in short bites, two and three minute segments, Reading Rainbow was a very segmented television experience—in two or three minute segments we could have that same feeling, we could deliver that same kind of quality video field trip content. Then it was just a matter of figuring out what it looked like and what the UI was, and how do we deliver the books and make relationships with publishers, and get them to trust us with their books...
In a previous interview, you talked about how part of the reason Reading Rainbow went off the air was the No Child Left Behind initiative. The way you described it was: “government policy made a choice between teaching the rudiments of reading and fostering a love of reading." That seems like a very important distinction.
Yes. That was totally through my lens. My point of view, my assessment of what happened. I don’t think I’m necessarily wrong, but I want you to know that was through my lens. It very much seemed like that was what we were asking ourselves to do: to make a choice between teaching kids how to read and fostering a love of reading, that there was no room for both under No Child Left Behind.
In that same interview you talked about how, when you did Roots, part of that was about using television as an educational medium. There are people now worried about their kids spending too much time with iPads. Is this new iteration of Reading Rainbow about using children's technological interactions for educational purposes?
Yes. That’s correct. Absolutely right. It’s funny that 31 years later we’re still having the same conversation, only about different technology. The conversation 31 years ago when Reading Rainbow first came out, was Are children watching too much television? Is television going to be the death of our children's learning process? Reading Rainbow was revolutionary, and we decided to go in the opposite direction and use the medium of television because of its engagement properties to spread our message: that books are amazing. That books are great fun. I believe we are doing the same thing [now]. Our mission has not changed, but certainly the technology has. Now we’re using the engagement properties of the tablet computer to spread the same message.
How did you develop this love of reading that you’ve carried through life?
This is all my mother’s fault. My mother was an english teacher, and it was expected in her house that you read. She insisted upon it. Not only that, but my mother did something that I think is really, really important, and something I think we need to focus on in our current cultural climate. As an avid reader, my mother always read in front of me when I was a child. I just absorbed that example that reading is part of being human. She always had several books going for her own enjoyment and entertainment, and I really believe that that is, in a large measure, responsible. I grew up understanding the value of a relationship with the written word. It certainly has played itself out in my lifetime, you know?
How did it feel—loving reading—to be part of a show that was about loving books?
Well, the show was created by a teacher who wanted to address the summer loss phenomenon, which is when a child is learning how to read and they’re in the process of cracking the code, and then they take that three month summer vacation. When they come back to school in September, their reading and comprehension skills have plummeted. They’re rusty. It’s a muscle—especially at the beginning. You gotta use it. The idea at the beginning was pretty revolutionary, but it wasn’t rocket science, it was just observation. Where are our kids spending most of their time? That was the ’80s. It was in front of the TV. The television—the medium itself—gave us the opportunity to do storytelling in a really effective way. The book adaptation with moving the camera over the original art and then having a celebrity voice over it—sweetening that adaptation with music and sound effects. In a culture that has become increasingly frantic and frenetic, the pace of Reading Rainbow was always very easy. It was an opportunity to take a deep breath.
Growing up, did you have a favorite book?
I had a lot of different tastes. I think my methodology was to expose myself to as much as I possibly could. That’s how I found science fiction literature, which has become pretty much my favorite genre. The book that I recognize was very pivotal to becoming a reader for me was Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, and then in high school it was just an explosion. I remember reading The Red Badge of Courage. It’s of course when I read the Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, for the first time—those were all books that I was introduced to in high school. Siddhartha I was introduced to in high school, [and] of course Beowulf, which I never really enjoyed. I don’t think anybody really enjoys reading Beowulf. And then growing up in Sacramento, I had an emergent political consciousness, and I discovered writers like [Tom] Wolfe and [Norman] Mailer—of course the beat poets: [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, [Allen] Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac...and then there’s [James] Joyce—I was educated by predominantly Irish Catholic nuns, so…
Did your literary interests translate into your television work? It seems like they did.
I’m always amazed when I get asked this question or a question like this because it presupposes that I had any real sense of choice in this at all. I say about my career: "I have taken that which has come my way and made the best of it."
You have a unique ability—for someone that takes what comes his way—to play a lot of universally beloved characters.
Yeah. It’s crazy huh. I do see this. I honestly see that there is a through line that begins with Kunta [Kinte, the protagonist of Roots] and ends with Geordi [La Forge, Burton's character on Star Trek: The Next Generation] and LeVar is right in the middle.
Is there any aspect of your literary background that helped you recognize something important in these roles?
If you look at it through that literary lens: Roots was based in a novel. Gene Roddenberry was a writer of science fiction, those teleplays were morality plays, really. And Reading Rainbow is nothing if not literature-centric. So yeah, when you put it that way, I’d have to agree that books and the written word have played a pivotal, crucial role in the unfolding of my career.
Did you grow to love any book through doing Reading Rainbow?
There are two that I always like to mention when given this opportunity. One is a book that boys tend to love called Enemy Pie by Derek Munson, and the other is a book for everybody, but I love recommending it for girls, and it’s called Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman.
What do you like about those books?
Both of them are books that really remind me of the essential nature of being human. Enemy Pie in a very funny way: it deals with a young boy who has an enemy in his life and his father helps him come to terms with it in a way that is very surprising. He makes an "enemy pie" for the kid, and the kid of course expects that the enemy pie is something they will eat. He wonders, is it going to poison him…how is this enemy pie? Because his dad has told him, "I know how to fix your problem with an enemy pie." How is this going to happen? When, in fact, the father sends the boy on a journey that ends up transforming his son’s relationship with this kid from being enemies to being friends.
Amazing Grace is a story about a young black girl who wants to be Peter Pan in the school play. There are kids in the class who say that she is not qualified because she is A) black and B) a girl. But Grace triumphs through the power of her imagination—and she was, because of the power of her imagination, the perfect choice for Peter Pan. They’re both books that really talk about the human experience in an age-appropriate manner for kids that informs us that there are always bumps in the road of life and it’s not what happens to you that determines who you are, it’s how you deal with what happens to you.
Is there any book you are reading, or read recently, that stands out?
Right now, I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and it is excruciatingly good. [I love] that it is excruciating to read, and I can’t put it down. I can’t not turn the next page, but I don’t want to see the next bad thing. I don’t want to experience the next bad thing that happens to this guy. It’s a train wreck, but you can’t avert your eyes.