LeVar Burton: A Revolution Through Reading

Actor LeVar Burton, 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, was also a big-hearted visionary with a huge idea: get kids interested in reading more to accomplish their dreams and be great. So he started the show called Reading Rainbow, which was a hit amongst children and adults. It ran on air from June 6, 1983, to November 10, 2006, with a total of 155 half-hour episodes spanning over 21 seasons, making it the longest running show on the network. The show encouraged children to read.

The public television series garnered over 200 broadcast awards, including a Peabody Award and 26 Emmy Awards, 11 of which were in the “Outstanding Children’s Series” category.

“It was a simple idea: use TV to introduce the wonders to be found in a book,” says Burton. “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.”

The theme song of the show was sung by non other than Chaka Khan. Take a look at the video below:

To actually tell children–Black and brown children that they can be “anything”–anything that they want to be and go anywhere just by reading a book is a powerful message by any measurement. Burton was trying to start a revolution of changing minds through reading.

Three years after the show went off air, in 2009–a time when 66 percent of American fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading (source: 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP))–the need for literacy-building programs was undeniable. And Burton had the idea of bringing the show back, but updated for the digital generation. Lacking in funds and with the encouragement of his 19-year-old daughter, Burton started a online fundraiser on Kickstarter.com.

On the fundraising page, it said, 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. 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.

And hit that mark they did. The Reading Rainbow kickstarter raked in $5,408,916 from 105,857 backers. So, in 2012, an iPad and Kindle Fire educational interactive book reading and video field trip application was launched bearing the name of the program.