As a kid one of my favorite shows growing up was “Reading Rainbow.” Whether I was watching the program at home or in school, “Reading Rainbow” got me excited about reading. One reason that I loved the show was because of the host LeVar Burton. He had such a passion and love for reading that was contagious. My classmates and I couldn’t wait to learn about a new book that he presented on the show.
Fast forward to the present LeVar still has that same passion to educate kids of all ages on the vast library of books out there. He and his team created the “Reading Rainbow” app. This program is just like the show. Now I get to introduce this fun and educational program to my children.
I had the great pleasure to chat with LeVar about “Reading Rainbow,” his role as Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and fatherhood.
Art Eddy: First off let’s talk about the “Reading Rainbow” app. Tell me about the process of creating this wonderful app and what inspired you to do it.
LeVar Burton: Wow. Well, actually the story goes back a little bit more than a year. That was when we released the “Reading Rainbow” app. A year ago in June. So we have been on the marketplace for a while, but we are beginning to get some traction and I am really pleased about that.
The idea was to take the television show, which was the technology we used in the 80s, to get kids hooked on books and reading literature in a way to improve their lives. We figured that the brand probably still has value and we wanted to test that premise. We wanted to see whether or not we could reinvent the brand for today’s kids. Television is only one screen that kids use throughout the day.
If you want to reach kids on any level with a message you pretty much have to be on a mobile device. So the idea was to translate the television show into an app experience for the kids. They could read and discover books. The whole point of the television show is still the same. Giving kids the opportunity to discover books that they want to read and watch videos that are related to the literature. Connecting the real world and literature has always been the mission of the show.
AE: My five year old loves to read. My wife and I love the fact that she can read to us. My three year old loves to be read to. So I enjoy the app and love the “Read to Me or Read on my Own” feature. What are some of the features you wanted to make sure that the app had?
LB: In order for it to be really “Reading Rainbow,” we had to figure out both books, which I think we have done with our library, a mobile library of books, and video. “Reading Rainbow” was always about the video. The video field trip. So we are continuing that tradition. We are shooting brand new content all the time. Video field trips with LeVar just like the original television series.
I am most proud of our ability to be able to deliver both of those elements in an experience for kids that does seem to be working in terms of getting them to read. Kids are reading about 72,000 books a week in the app. They are choosing reading on the app as the activity that they would like to do. We are pretty excited about the indications and what we feel like we have accomplished so far. We feel like there is so much more for us to take on.
AE: I was a big fan of the show growing up. So many great books were brought to my attention back in the day. I even sing the song to my kids now. For you what was it about that show that made it so popular?
LB: Actually it was an experiment in the beginning. Back in 1983 when we launched we didn’t know if it would work. It was an idea. Let’s see if we can’t use the medium of television, where we know our kids want to be, and let’s give them something that is healthy. That is the whole model at PBS. Let’s give them something that is entertaining and is healthy too. “Reading Rainbow” is classic PBS development. Fun and educational.
We didn’t know that it would work until we got the feedback from classrooms. Until we got the feedback from teachers, who were like wow, what a great tool that you guys have given us to stimulate a love of reading in the classroom. I can’t even begin to tell you, Art how many times in a week or a month that people would come up to me and tell me that they would watch “Reading Rainbow” on Friday afternoons in school. It was a highlight of their week. I know that it was used and that it worked. That is what we are trying to do. To continue the tradition of using that technology intelligently and making it the basis of how we get our kids excited about learning.
AE: I also have to talk about “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” How did the role of Geordi La Forge come about?
LB: It is one of those weird stories Art. I definitely believe that things happen for a reason. As it happens I was huge fan of “Star Trek” growing up. Loved the original series. A large part of the reason that I had hope for my future was because of “Star Trek.” Leading the way towards that future.
I did a TV movie many, many years ago. Awful movie. I mean really, really bad. Yet it introduced me to a man named Robert H. Justman. I knew Bob Justman just from the credits of the original series. He was an associate producer and worked really closely with Gene (Roddenberry) on developing and launching the original series. I was just so thrilled to be in this man’s presence. Over the course of shooting this movie it was really clear to him that I was really a genuine fan. Years later, fast forward he is working with Gene do develop “The Next Generation” at Paramount and I got a call. That’s how life happens. You never ever know where it is going to come from.
AE: What is your favorite memory from that show?
LB: Oh my God. As tomorrow is my wedding anniversary I will always remember the day that I got married. The entire family was at my house and all of the guys were my groomsmen.
AE: You also have been the executive producer and director on a few shows. Out of acting, directing, and producing do you prefer one role over the others?
LB: I just like working! (Both laugh.) Well the truth is that number one the way that the business has changed it is impossible to make your year just doing one thing. I can’t make my year by just doing one thing. It is just not going to work out that way. I need a lot of different income sources because my life isn’t hugely big, but there are certain things that I won’t skimp on. I got a kid in college. I got a kid in her sophomore year in college at the University of Michigan. That is like 50K a year man. That is no joke. So I got a family for whom I am the patriarch.
AE: Loved your cameos on “The Big Bang Theory.” What is it like to see the “geek culture” come alive on that show?
LB: Well between both “Big Bang” and “Community” it has really opened up a lot a whole new can of worms in terms of fandom for me. Both of these shows have their own independent fandoms. Once you cross those fandoms man it gets really wild. It is a lot of fun. It has been great to see 25 years later “The Next Generation,” that version of “Star Trek” become a part of popular culture is a beautiful thing.
That is not easy to do. The original “Star Trek” did that. It could have gone horribly wrong. I know what it feels like with the sense of responsibility in trying to take a beloved brand and trying to reinvent it or reboot it. Having done that with “Reading Rainbow” I was hugely informed by watching Paramount and “Star Trek” over the years. I saw what they did right and what they did wrong. It is hugely informative to me as the co-founder of this company and the steward of this brand.
AE: After the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” where you went to Sheldon’s apartment after responding to his Twitter invite how many invites do you get on Twitter to go to people’s parties?
LB: Every time that show airs I get invites. People say on Twitter, ‘Hey LeVar. We are having a party. You should come over.’ I can tell whether it is Canada or the UK when that show airs. There it is. “The Big Bang” is on. It starts showing up on the Twitter timeline.
AE: You are father. Can you tell me how fatherhood had changed you?
LB: Every stage changes you. I think every child changes you because we have children at different stages of our lives. Both of my children impacted me in different ways, but equally powerful. Now I find that being a grandfather is changing me again.
It is a gift that is the relationship as a father and as a grandfather with the next generation. It is deep for me. Look at “Roots” and what “Roots” represented. It is about a sense of family and the sense of continuity of the family and how important that is in order for people to feel whole. That is a value that I really embrace. Our family members are our children, our spouse and our parents.
We are here to learn and to teach one another. We all have lessons to learn from our family. I believe that we pick these people, these souls purposely. So these important relationships are not trivial. They are all meant to bring us a deeper understanding of ourselves and what our purpose is. There is nothing like hearing ‘Grandpa’ from the voice of a small child. You swell up with pride. There is nothing that you wouldn’t do to protect and ensure the health and safety of this being.
AE: What are some fun things you do with your kids?
LB: We laugh. I think this holds true for everything. You find that the things you laughed about when you were kids is the same thing that you laugh about now. It is the same way with my high school buddies. We laugh about the same stupid stuff today as we did back then. The jokes are old, but we have been telling them to each other all of these years. It makes them a part of who we are.
That is the feeling of family. When you are with people that know you. Sometimes it is not the length of time, but the depth of how we are known that really determines the quality of our relationships.
AE: What are some core values that you want to instill in them?
LB: This is a core value that has been passed on for a couple of generations now in my family. No matter what you do, you do it well. The pursuit of an education is still what is needed to level the playing field in a world that will often be hostile to your presence.