Toward the back of LeVar Burton’s L.A. office there’s a room filled with people testing software, including some, in teeny chairs, who are about 6 years old. Welcome to Reading Rainbow, the former PBS television show turned iPad app that’s poised to roll out its next iteration on the Web.
None of that would have happened without Burton, who served as host of the show during its more than two-decade-long run, exploiting television’s tools to engage early readers and earning 26 Emmys in the process. When the program was canceled, Burton and his business partner, Mark Wolfe, spent years fighting to acquire the brand so they could continue it for a new, digital generation. Their interactive app launched in 2012.
“This method of storytelling, linking literature to real-world experience, can give kids an idea that the world is a vast place of infinite variety, where you can go anywhere, be anything,” says Burton, who will receive the Los Angeles Times Innovators Award at the Book Prizes on April 18.
Although he laughs readily when talking to his enthusiastic, multicultural staff, Burton gets serious when talking about education. “I think No Child Left Behind was horribly misguided. I get its intention, but its execution caused more harm than good,” he says. “We started teaching children material to pass a test. We taught to the test, not to enrich the minds of kids. That’s a huge mistake. We forgot that we were impacting lives.”
For Reading Rainbow to reach a broader audience — including children most in need of a friendly reading guide — a Web version was envisioned that could be shared at home, in schools and in libraries. When they took the case to Silicon Valley, the response was tepid. In 2014, as a last recourse, Burton launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. The initiative had 30 days to meet its ambitious goal, $1 million. If fundraising fell a dollar short, Reading Rainbow would get nothing.
“The move to do the Kickstarter was really born out of need and necessity, and I felt the responsibility very acutely,” Burton explains. “If this was to fail this could really be the end of the brand.”
On the first day, the million-dollar goal was met. The record-setting campaign eventually raised $5.4 million — plus an additional $1-million matching gift from Seth MacFarlane. While Hollywood brought the big bucks, 105,857 people contributed to bring about the new Reading Rainbow, and 75,555 of them — more than the total number who sponsored the year’s next-most popular project on Kickstarter — gave $50 or less.
“People had been touched in such a way as part of their childhood by ‘Reading Rainbow’ that they took it upon themselves to ensure that this thing survived,” Burton says. “They just lifted it up.”
Burton came from humble beginnings. He was born to a military dad and a mother who taught English. His parents split up when he was young, leaving his mother to raise three kids on her own. At age 8, inspired by the idea of service and sacrifice — and the biographies of the saints he loved to read — Burton decided he wanted to be a priest.
By college, however, he’d changed his mind and won a full scholarship to USC. To cover room and board his mother, who’d studied to become a social worker, took a second job as a cocktail waitress. She was able to quit soon, though, because her son left during his sophomore year.
That’s when he was cast in “Roots” as its African hero, Kunta Kinte. The 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s bestselling novel shattered television records, raked in awards and jump-started a new conversation about race in America. Kunte Kinte, the young African warrior who is brought to America and enslaved, was Burton’s first role.
“It was my recognition of the power of the medium of television through ‘Roots’ that made me give an immediate ‘yes’ to ‘Reading Rainbow,’” Burton recalls. “I had just gone through an experience where this country was transformed — changed! I thought, well, if ‘Roots’ can do that, then this medium is enormously powerful and influential, what good might we be able to do by using television to draw kids into the world of literature and the written word.”
“Reading Rainbow” broadcast its first episode in June 1983, and four years later, without giving up his public television gig, Burton took on another iconic yet entirely different role: Geordi La Forge, the blind navigator in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The futuristic science fiction franchise was revived, spun off, big-screened; Burton was a regular and became a director too.
As ground zero for fandom, “Star Trek” roles are indelible. Burton, however, is known to two other generations of television watchers — people who remember him from “Roots” and those who watched him on “Reading Rainbow.”
“To have that trifecta as the three major jewels in my career is extraordinary,” he says. “And I do see that there is an absolute connection that runs through all of them. I believe that there is this continuum that begins with Kunta and ends with Geordi, and LeVar is in the middle.” He mimes an arc with his hands.
“That continuum represents the trajectory of African Americans in this country in this present time frame, going back 200 years and projecting another couple of hundred into our future,” he continues. “There is a reality that my life as an actor sort of represents the trajectory of black people.”
I can’t help but ask if that isn’t a huge responsibility. “When your first job is as Kunta Kinte, then you either get on with it or you crumble,” Burton says.
He didn’t crumble. He did “Reading Rainbow,” then brought it back from cancellation to help more and more kids learn to read, with interest now coming from Latin America and China. “This move to the Web is huge for us,” he says, with the goal “to really reach every child, everywhere.”
Burton will appear at the Festival of Books on April 18.