Take a Look, It's in an eBook: An Interview with LeVar Burton
From Roots to Star Trek and well beyond, LeVar Burton says that his time on Reading Rainbow was "the most important thing I've ever done." With a new app to encourage reading, he tells us how its legacy will extend to a whole new generation.
I met with LeVar Burton behind a temporary table situated to facilitate the flow of adoring fans seeking his signature at Creation Entertainment's Seattle Star Trek Convention. Burton sat comfortably between co-stars Marina Sirtis, Star Trek: The Next Generation's Counselor Deeana Troi, and Denise Crosby, TNG's first security officer, and now mistress Deb to Elliot Gould's Ezra Goodman in Showtime's Ray Donovan.
Each time Burton arrived for a signing, he was greeted by a line of fans that had formed in his absence, fans who eagerly awaited that special moment of celebrity connection that only comes from a personal encounter -- when the abstract bond between fan and character transforms into a human connection.
For many fans, meeting LeVar Burton isn't just a Star Trek experience: it is a life-long experience. For those in their 50s, Burton entered their lives through junior high school or high school history class, where many teachers followed each airing of Roots with an exploration of American slavery and its implications. In his earliest role, Burton had already created an icon as Alex Haley's Kunta Kinte. And of course, at a Star Trek convention, Burton's sight impaired, barrette-optical-sensor-device-wearing chief engineer of the Enterprise D was the main draw. Interestingly, just as many people, perhaps more, mentioned Burton's other iconic role when they finally reached the front of the queue, that of LeVar Burton story teller, from the popular PBS television show, Reading Rainbow.
When I talked with Burton it was about this aspect of his career that we focused, a conversation punctuated by appreciative repartee with fans, scrawls of marker on 8x10 glossies, jackets, and occasionally a United Federation of Planets flag.
Reading Rainbow aired on PBS from June 1983 until 2009. 23 years of work produced 155 episodes, each hosted by Burton. His Star Trek tenure, by contrast, started in 1987 and ran for only seven seasons.
Burton's ten person company was founded after he, business partner, Mark Wolfe and CEO Asra Rasheed, acquired the license for the show in 2011. They launched their iPad app in June of 2012 and have steadily watched engagement and the content grow.
"We're going," he tells us, "and we are looking to grow. Looking to bring people into engineering. We've proved the model out. The brand has relevance. We can get kids to read. A new record in July: 72,000 books were read per week, over 310,000 books in the month of July. Now its time to grow, to get to more kids, more devices, to families, to schools and ... we know that kids will read voraciously on these devices as we would have done when we were kids had they existed."
"To not take advantage of this incredible by-product of technology," he continues, "just the engagement factor goes through the roof if you apply the technology appropriately. When dealing with literature, books, we at Reading Rainbow believe a book is a book. We provide kids interactions, but we provide them in concert with the narrative always. We are absolutely conscious of how we animate these books. The through line as far as I'm concerned in every single one is the unparalleled story telling by the storyteller readers. And every book gets that treatment.
"We care about how we create, how we produce a new visual for a book. We care about the original art ...we are painstaking about it. We know it all matters. It matters to the authors. It matters to the illustrators and it matters to me," he laughs.
And we pause for a mother, who is asking for a picture to be signed, and as she looks down she says, "My kids grew up with Reading Rainbow. They will be here tomorrow." Burton informs here that Reading Rainbow is now an app, it isn't a television series any longer.
I then ask about standardized testing, adding, "You've never been asked that at a Star Trek Convention before have you ...?"
"No man, he tells us, "you know ... I meet a lot of teachers at Star Trek conversions. Yes, there must be some measure to determine student's readiness for the world. My answer to all questions about education is yes, and we need to look at everything."
And with staccato annunciation he adds:
"We -- need -- to -- reinvent -- the way we educate our nation's kids. We can't afford not to. [...] Look, this app is simply our first product. And, as a platform, a market place, which is what we are building here. We can produce all the content we want, and convert all the books we want into apps. Part of the point of starting this business, is to giving visibility to hundreds of thousands of books, apps, games that are appropriate for our brand.
"No one can find these in the app store," he informs us. "My job at the company is Curator-in-Chief. I mean that's my title. I spent a lot of years building up the credibility that lead to that title and I take it seriously."
Up comes Dee. Burton asks her if she has ever considered adding another e. He is informed that her brother's name is Lee. "Your mother," says Burton, "is not without a sense of humor. Think about that e. You can tell people it is silent. If anytime, during the weekend, if you want to add that third "e" you just bring back the picture. Burton and I simultaneously come to the conclusion that Deee would be a great name for a character in a children's book.
After signing a United Federation of Planets flag, Burton then meets Sarah who informs him, "I just finished a library science program at the University of Washington and you are the poster of the program." (Burton laughs: "No!") "You are the picture in my program. Thank you for getting kids to read." To which Burton responds, "Thank you for having books ready for them when they want them."
Then Alex approaches, "Thank you for Reading Rainbow. I love Star Trek," he says, "but this overshadows everything, right?" pointing to Burton's image on a Reading Rainbow 8x10 glossy. "Absolutely," he says.
He goes on, saying that "the vision for the company is to really create an enrichment brand for children, their families and their teachers. I mean we really want to close the parent-teacher-child gaps and give them a conversation in common, right? A place to hold that that conversation is around other children while reading."
Are you planning to add social features to Reading Rainbow?
"Inevitably. You know, and what that looks like ... and you know, it's been interesting to see the development of technological literacy in America."
Is Star Trek, which he called on stage after the interview, "the best and highest vision of humanity that has sustained us for nearly 50 years," also proving a good launching pad for Reading Rainbow?
"Yeah," he says, "Absolutely. A lot of women have Star Trek as a bonding relationship between them and their fathers."
As the interview time winds down, I ask about where the learning community is asking him to take Reading Rainbow.
"I love hearing from teachers, he says. "This summer I got a lot of tweets from teachers who had discovered the app during their off time, during their vacations. Wondering when is a product for schools going to come, when can I get this content for like 35 kids in my class. Obviously for us is get to the web. Get to the web."
An older man walks up to Burton, complements him on his acting and says he enjoyed his work on Star Trek. He asks about the stack of Reading Rainbow prints depicting the show's star. Burton's eyes alight, and a deep passion wells up from within when he talks about Reading Rainbow, be it with an individual fan, in front of an audience, or to a journalist during an interview.
"The most important thing I've ever done is Reading Rainbow," he says. "There is nothing more important than an informed populace. I want to change the world one children's book at a time."