There’s no shortage of places where you can hear celebrities expound on their glamorous, perfect lives. Thing is, I like to talk to celebrities about real life, about obstacles, about things you and I can relate to, like getting let go.
That’s why it was such a delight to talk the other day with LeVar Burton. Depending on how old you are, you will remember him starring as Kunta Kinte in the “Roots” miniseries, as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or maybe you’re a youngin’ who learned to read by watching LeVar on “Reading Rainbow.”
Of all his career accomplishments, it’s clear, that “Reading Rainbow,” getting kids hooked on books, is where his true passion soared. He told me it was his mother who started him on his lifelong love affair with reading.
“In Erma Jean’s house you either read a book or you got hit in the head with one,” he laughed. “She was pretty insistent that you have a personal experience with the written word. Education has always been incredibly important in my family. And I got my love of literature and of reading directly from her.”
That’s why 23 years of hosting and producing hosting “Reading Rainbow” on PBS was such joy for him. And why he was crushed when he found out the series was getting canceled. Turns out he wasn’t the only one. “PBS took it off the air in 2009,” he shared. “I heard from that first generation of ‘Reading Rainbow’ watchers, you know, there was sort of an outcry that I was amazed by.”
LeVar felt their frustration. “It really did feel like the brand hadn’t finished what it wanted to contribute.”
When it looks like your employer has snuffed out your dream, there’s always the choice to get bitter. Instead LeVar Burton got busy and creative. “My business partner and I looked at each other and asked, ‘So how can we bring it back?’ ”
The obvious answer was meeting kids where they are today, which happens to be more and more not in front of the television set. They needed to go digital.
This summer, “Reading Rainbow” has debuted as an app for iPad. It’s still about reading, but now allow kids to drive the bus rather than sit passively and watch a TV screen.
“If you want to find books about animals, you go to the animal island. If you want to find books about action, adventure stories or magical tales, you go to that island. We have a genius academy island full of books about science and music and history.”
Listening to LeVar talk about the reinvention of “Reading Rainbow,” he sounds like a kid, himself.
The disappointment of getting canceled by PBS? Now it seems more like a gift. It’s allowed him to continue to keep teaching kids to read and remain in what he says is the family business. “My older sister is a teacher. My son is in education. Both of my nieces, another cousin. I was sort of genetically predisposed to do what I do. It’s in my blood.”