This past spring, actor and activist LeVar Burton asked Reading Rainbow fans to help him relaunch the classic children’s show—and raised $1 million in less than 12 hours. In this week’s Parade cover story, he reveals how he’s inspiring a new generation of book lovers—and shares his summer book picks for families.
As the host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow for 26 years, LeVar Burton introduced millions of American kids to the magic of a good story. So when a group of young people spotted him tugging a wagon full of books down a New York City sidewalk for Parade’s photo shoot—and began shrieking as though he were, say, Bieber, or a Beatle—the pied piper of reading was tickled, but not exactly surprised. Reading Rainbow fans are a passionate bunch. “The show helped kids learn to love reading,” says Burton. “That’s a powerful thing!”
Today, Reading Rainbow is as beloved and popular as ever. Since copurchasing the rights to the franchise after the show’s cancellation in 2009, Burton, 57, has been on a mission to make it bigger and better in the digital space. Two years ago, he and his business partner Mark Wolfe rebooted the program as a tablet app, which has since been downloaded more than a million times. Now they’re creating a Web version. In May, to raise capital to build it and to get children and their families excited about books again, the pair turned to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. Burton knew fans’ nostalgia for the show ran deep, but the response was explosive: In a mere 11 hours they met their $1 million goal, and at press time were only about a million short of their new $5 million target. “Every day of the first three days of the Kickstarter,” marvels Burton, “we raised a million dollars.”
The actor, who made his name as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 miniseries Roots and, later, as Geordi La Forge in the long-running TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, credits his 19-year-old daughter, Michaela, with the crowd-funding idea. “Michaela is of this generation, a digital native. She said, ‘Why don’t you guys just do a Kickstarter?’ As a 30-year-old brand, if we were to very publicly ask for money, then fail, it would’ve probably been game over.” Now Burton and his supporters are “hugging ourselves silly.”
At a time when 66 percent of American fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading*, the need for literacy-building programs is undeniable. Burton’s Kickstarter funds will be used to develop two subscription-based versions of a Reading Rainbow website: a home edition for kids and families, and a classroom version for teachers with accompanying lesson plans. (Though Burton and Wolfe have yet to set a launch date or prices: “Until we build it, we won’t know.”) Using the money they’ve raised, they’ll also donate free subscriptions to at least 1,500 classrooms with students from disadvantaged backgrounds; if they hit the $5 million mark, they’ll give away 6,000 more. And that’s just the beginning. Says Burton: “We [eventually] want to have universal access.”
Recently the actor and advocate sat down with Parade to talk about his Kickstarter’s smash success and his passion for the written word.
PARADE: You’ve devoted your life to promoting childhood literacy. What’s your first memory of reading as a kid?
LEVAR BURTON: I was 4 or 5, sitting next to my aunt, reading, and I got stuck on the word pretty. I wouldn’t say it; I didn’t want to be wrong. So I sat there. My aunt was very patient, but finally, she said, “The word is pretty.” I knew I was right in my mind and my heart. I just didn’t have the courage to say it.
What are your favorite children’s books?
One is Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman, which was featured on the original show. It’s the story of a girl who wants to play Peter Pan in her school play, but is told by her classmates that she can’t because she’s a girl and she’s black. It’s Grace’s story of believing in herself and learning that she can be anything she wants using the power of her imagination.
When teaching your own kids to read, was it easy to pass on your love of books?
Both Michaela and [her half-brother] Ward, 34, watched the show. To watch them crack the code was remarkable. There was a point in Michaela’s life where she called me “Daddy Rainbow.”
Do you think it’s harder, now, to get kids interested in books? There are so many distractions.
I would say yes. The evidence points to the fact that Americans read far less for pleasure than they did in 1983 [when the show began]. It’s a different world. Kids seem to be scheduled from sun up to bedtime.
Why did Reading Rainbow take off in the first place?
It was a simple idea: use TV to introduce the wonders to be found in a book. The pace was slow by today’s standards. As the host, I tried to talk to my audience, not at them, and to share my enthusiasm for life and the written word. And we had a catchy theme song! “Take a look, it’s in a book”; “Go anywhere, be anything”—that’s a valuable message.
What do you make of the response to your Kickstarter?
It’s been phenomenal. Recently we went to their offices in Brooklyn. All the employees at Kickstarter seem like kids—they all grew up watching Reading Rainbow. I met one of them, the very first backer for our campaign, and just hugged him.
You’ve fielded criticism, though, for turning to crowd-funding when your company is for-profit. How do you -respond to that?
We pay to license books from authors and publishers. It’s not free. And we have to pay the people who make this possible. There’s a lot of coding, engineering, and product design involved in translating the app for the Web. The money will also allow us to donate free subscriptions to more classrooms. And, if we’re able to raise enough to create a permanent endowment to give the product away someday, I could live with that.
Kids are out of school. But studies show that if they don’t read during the break, they go back to class behind. What can parents do?
There’s a critical window where a child either becomes a reader or not—for life. Between the ages of 7 and 9 is when that decision is made. Parents ask me, “How can I get my kid to read?” I say, “How much time do you spend reading in front of your kid? How many books do you have in your house? How often do you have an evening where you don’t watch TV and it’s family reading night?” Insist by example so your child gets that reading is an important aspect of life.
You recently made a Funny or Die video in which you played a superhero who derived dark powers from books. Was the idea that reading gives you superpowers?
I was poking a little fun at myself, [but] yeah!
What’s your ultimate goal for Reading Rainbow?
[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry once said that the world of the future is a place where there’s no hunger or greed, and all the children will know how to read. That would be wonderful.
*Source: 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
Go behind the scenes of Parade‘s photos shoot with LeVar Burton in the video below!