Q&A: Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton

Reading Rainbow
Reading Rainbow / Reading Rainbow

If you're a person at all familiar with pop culture, chances are you love something LeVar Burton has been involved in. After all, Burton starred in the award-winning miniseries Roots; played the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise, Geordi La Forge, in Star Trek: The Next Generation; and was the host of Reading Rainbow for its entire 26 year run. For the past few years, Burton has been hard at work developing and promoting a Reading Rainbow app. But you don't have to take our word for it: We sat down with Burton to talk about adapting the show for tablet devices, the coolest place he's taken Reading Rainbow's cameras, and the worst look he rocked as host.

Why did you think an app was the next appropriate medium for [Reading Rainbow]?
Excellent question. When PBS took Reading Rainbow out of the Ready to Learn lineup in 2009, my business partner [Mark Wolfe] and I saw it as a real opportunity. I’d wanted to be more at the center of the decision-making of the brand for a long time. I mean, I was a producer, but I wanted more. [Laughs] I have a thirst for power! So Mark and I spent about 18 months [gathering] up the rights—they were scattered to the four winds—and we made a deal with WNED, the public television station in Buffalo, New York, that owns the brand. And when Mark and I looked at what we wanted to do with the brand once we’d secured it, we knew immediately that, sure, it was 26 years on television, but what’s next? Television’s only one of the screens that kids today use. Even though television was the main technology we used in the '80s to steer kids back in the direction of literature, clearly if you want to reach kids today, you need to be on a tablet device. Now, having said that, when we started this journey, the iPad had not come out yet. So, we have found ourselves full of good intentions in the right place, at the right time, with, I believe, the right idea.

What are some of the differences in making a book appealing for a television show versus making it appealing for an app? What’s the process of adapting books for the app?
That’s really a great question, because the translation of literature for this medium was a large conversation and a long conversation. And obviously, it was a long and large conversation when the creation of the television series was underway; how do we treat literature? And I know that the style that Reading Rainbow adapted—even pioneered—of visual storytelling, using sound effects and voiceover, a storytelling experience to go with the words—that’s what we were after with Reading Rainbow, and I’m proud of what we’re doing. Did you read any books [in the app]?

I did! I looked at the Houdini book.
And I hoped you noticed that, if you were in the “Read to Me” mode, where you have the narrator read the story, that you were locked out of the interactions until the narrator finished with the page. In the “I Can Read Myself” mode, you have more freedom of access to what we call the affordances of the interactions, the bells and whistles. And no matter which mode you’re in, the interactions are always in service of the narrative. For us at Reading Rainbow, it always goes back to the storytelling experience.

The app itself is really fun. I particularly like the “choose your own backpack” feature.
Did you pretend that you were an 8 year old?

Well, I picked the “age 9 or above” option. I didn’t want to lie. I am 9 or above!
So you liked the “pick your own backpack”…

And I thought that the concept of having different islands was really interesting; why did you decide to incorporate that?
Because the whole idea behind Reading Rainbow is to get kids to love to read. It translated the television series into a Netflix-style app for kids. It was really important to nail two things: one, books, and two, videos, ‘cause that’s what Reading Rainbow was all about. And I think we’ve done that. The reason for the island concept is that the whole idea is to have kids find books that they’re going to be interested in reading, all designed to fuel the passion for literature.

Let's talk about the videos. Are you going out and filming all new videos? Are you incorporating old ones from the TV show?
Yes! On both counts. There are what we call “classic” Reading Rainbow segments—videos with LeVar with long hair, short hair, square hair, no mustache, LeVar bearded, LeVar no-bearded … In 26 years, you get a lot of looks, a lot of opportunities for blackmail video. It’s frightening. It’s scary.

What’s the worst look of yours that made it on to the app?
Well, during my Cameo period, when I was hanging out with Cameo—you know the video "Word Up"? I’m in that video, and my hair in that video is like an anvil on my head. That LeVar is represented in the app, too. I have a very creepy mustache during that period as well. It’s bad.

How often are you out there making videos?
We’re shooting all the time. We’ve been to the White House twice since we launched the app. They let us take the Reading Rainbow cameras into the building where they make America’s money, the old fashioned way—they print it. And that’s the thing about Reading Rainbow—part of what we do in terms of collecting literature to the real world is provide these video field trips, these backstage, all-access-pass experiences to life. That’s an incredibly important part of what Reading Rainbow is. It’s the books and the videos.

What’s the coolest place that you’ve gone for these segments?
In 30 years, I’ve learned how to fly an airplane; I’ve learned how to dive for Reading Rainbow. Being at the summit of Kilauea during a full eruption? Not bad. That was a day that didn’t suck. Standing at the summit of Kilauea with the volcano erupting over my shoulder while I’m addressing the camera and trying to pretend like my heart isn’t exploding out of my chest? [Laughs] It’s awesome. Being the host of Reading Rainbow is probably the best job in the universe, and that’s coming from a guy who was the chief engineer of the starship Enterprise.

You’ve been involved in a lot of projects that are meaningful to a lot of people: Star TrekReading Rainbow, Captain Planet

Roots, which they’re now remaking—why do that?
Well, because there’s a whole generation of Americans who haven’t seen it, and who have a bias against moving pictures and sound that feel dated in any way. My kid is 19, and she doesn’t like black and white movies. She’s in college now, and she’s beginning to get over it, but it was a thing with her growing up; she did not want to see anything in black and white. And I’m like, “You are cutting yourself off from so much richness.”

However, having said that, look: human beings, we can be despicable creatures. We are capable of horrible cruelty to one another. The story of America’s founding is one where slavery—the enslavement of a people—plays critically prominent. And to deny that, to try and forget it, to try and go around it doesn’t make sense. So yeah, if remaking Roots is going to make it accessible to another generation and inculcate them in the language of compassion and humanity, so be it.

Would you say, then, that Roots is the most personally meaningful thing that you’ve worked on? Or is there another project—
That I’m incredibly proud of in a long career that’s spanned decades? [Laughs]

Yes. Exactly.
Out of everything that I’ve done, I believe that Reading Rainbow is the most important. I grew up in a house where reading was expected, and I know fully well the value of a relationship with the written word; I believe that the most powerful creature on the planet is a human being literate in at least one language with a thirst for knowledge. And this is the most powerful tool ever created, technology-wise, in terms of its engagement. Television is incredibly powerful, but this tablet stuff? This is like crack for human beings—the engagement factor. And if we don’t use this engagement in these wonderful tools in the service of educating children, then we’re just dense to the nth degree. We have to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, the intersection of education and entertainment and technology. We have to, ‘cause we’re failing now. We’re failing to get it done. So how can we do it differently, how can we do it better? Use the screens.

What was the process of picking books for the show, and what's the process for the app?
For the show, because we only featured one book per episode, the selection of the featured book was a very complex and arcane process that involved a lot of criteria and consideration. As a sort of Netflix model of books for kids, we rely on our publishing partners to provide us with the books [for the app]. And I have gone out into the publishing industry and to the writers and illustrators community and told them, “You know me. You know how I feel about children’s literature. Share with us your gems and we will treat them as the treasures that they are.”

The thing that I’m most pleased about is that all of the books in the service are real literature. And for me, at the beginning of this journey, we went to the publishers and said, “Give us your back lists. Give us the stuff that you’re not monetizing anymore because there’s no shelf space in bookstores because there aren’t any bookstores anymore.” And they were happy to. And now that they see that, just like the television show, being on the app really does expose their literature to an audience that might not otherwise have found them. It’s a win-win.

The app is a subscription mode. It’s important to me, because I think with the $10 for all you can eat, I think we’re offering value to families as well. And if you pay six months at a time, $29.99—that’s $5 a month. It’s per tablet, because you can have as many as five profiles in the app for the kids.

We were saying in the office yesterday that Reading Rainbow was sort of like the Oprah’s Book Club for kids.
I suppose that’s true. When we were children, our parents would put us in front of the television set and turn on PBS, and walk out of the room and know that whatever was on—even though they didn’t know what the name of the show was—they knew it was good for you and we were going to enjoy it. And they could get 20 minutes or a half an hour to change their clothes or start a meal or whatever. I know that parents today are stressed to the max, and are inundated with choices that they have to make on behalf of their children every day, and one of the scariest is, “What do I let my kids interact with on these tablet computers?” So I want the Reading Rainbow brand to be there so that parents and kids know that there’s something there that they can trust.

So we’re about a year or year and a half out since the release of the app. How has it been performing?
Ready? Seventeen thousand books a week are being read by kids. It’s insane. You have to remember, kids will come to the tablet to read. To read! To read.

It’s amazing. I’m old school; I like my books. But I think it’s so cool that you can carry a Kindle around and have a bunch of books in there.
I have a library on my iPad. A library.

I guess that’s part of the reason kids are reading so much; it’s all just right there.
It is. I grew up in an age where I took the telephone for granted. For my grandparents, it was not normal. You want to talk to somebody, you get together face-to-face or holler over the fence, you know? Every generation has the technology of the day, and that generation has the responsibility both to adapt to the technology and shape how the technology shapes us. I’m convinced that we can literally revolutionize the way to educate kids if we just put a tablet in the hands of every child on this planet, and make sure that those tablets are filled with age-appropriate content that causes them to want to become lifelong learners.

What are you next steps for the app?
We’re going to the web next, with the product, so that we can be more ubiquitously available. Not everybody can afford a tablet right now, and that web product will definitely serve as the basis for our product offering for schools. Teachers love the Reading Rainbow brand, and boy, do they need help in the classroom. We’ve heard from so many of them since we launched last summer, “When can I get this for the classroom?” Common core requires so much more reading on a broad level. We need these in the classroom, so we’re going to get them there as soon as we can.

A model for schools will first of all be able to handle 30 kids in a classroom, as opposed to five kids as a consumer product, and there will be other changes, but it won’t be a freemium to premium model at all, because the school districts will be paying for the licenses and we’ll be able to make that license accessible to large classrooms, large groups of kids.

Stepping away from the app: What's one book you think every kid should read?
Hmm. Wow. I think everyone should read a book called Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. [Because] at a point in any human being’s life, we come across someone who tends to rub us the wrong way; someone we tend to be at odds with. A nemesis, if you will. An enemy. The hero in this story has an enemy, and his father has a remedy. It’s to make enemy pie. I won’t reveal the ending, but there is a twist that you don’t see coming. It’s pretty cool.

Is there anything you’ve read lately that you really enjoyed or loved or recommend to our readers?
It’s been very rare for me to read a book that I didn’t enjoy. You know what I mean? I think I only ever not finished one or two books in my life, and I think both of them were written by Norman Mailer. [Laughs] But let’s see…what am I reading now? I’ve always got science fiction going, so right now I’m reading a compilation of the best science fiction literature.

I’m old. My memory fails. [Hums Jeopardy theme] I want to be the host of Jeopardy. I really, really do. I really, really, really, really, really, really do.

I’ve never read it, but I have it on my iPad: I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray. That’s next up on my list. I’ve never read that. But I should, right? Isn’t that one of those classics that you should’ve read? Well, now I will.

Everybody needs a good fact or piece of trivia to get a conversation started at parties. Mental Floss sort of prides itself on its collection of trivia, so I’m curious if you have a piece of trivia that you like to use to break the ice or get people talking at parties.
Wow. Um…No. I don’t really have a problem talking to people at parties. But if I did—you know what? Here’s a piece of trivia about me that was revealed earlier this afternoon. I mean, I knew it, but it came as a surprise to the person I was in conversation with when it was revealed. They were asking me about my experience having done Fantasy Island. I did an episode of Fantasy Island, and in that episode, Sammy Davis Jr. played my father. How cool was that? 

We get a lot of weird mail. I’m curious, what’s the weirdest piece of mail you’ve ever gotten?
It was weird to me—it wasn’t weird content-wise—but many years ago, I got a piece of mail addressed “LeVar Burton, USA” from overseas, a piece of fanmail. And I thought, “That’s just amazing. How did this find me?” I was truly astounded. It was literally, like, “Are you kidding me? This was 30 years ago, 35 years ago. 

I'm sure you get recognized all the time. Is there one thing in particular you get recognized for the most?
It depends on the age of the people, really. Generally for older people, it’s Roots or Star Trek. A lot of Star Trek fans out there. You’d be surprised, though, how many Reading Rainbow fans there are. Thirty years of the brand and there’s a whole generation of adults now who grew up watching the show. They’re beginning to have their own kids. And they recognize that in the landscape of television and media, it’s not like when they were growing up. They’re really looking for enrichment materials for their kids that they can trust. And again, it’s another reason I’m really happy to doing what I’m doing right now.