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LeVar Burton asks what if, expands Reading Rainbow for a new generation

Actor LeVar Burton is bringing Reading Rainbow back for the digital age thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.
Actor LeVar Burton is bringing Reading Rainbow back for the digital age thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.

To say actor LeVar Burton likes libraries would be an understatement. And it’s not just because he was the host of “Reading Rainbow” for 26 years.

“I love libraries. I think libraries are really underutilized national resources,” Burton told “St. Louis on the Air” producer Katie Cook on Tuesday. “Libraries ensure that all citizens in this country have access to the knowledge, the information. Libraries are sanctuaries. They’re like churches for me.”

Burton will be in St. Louis to talk about the power of storytelling on Thursday.

“I believe everybody has a story, and everybody has a powerful story,” he said. “Storytelling, at least for me, is pretty much one of the most powerful modalities of communication that we possess as human beings. Every culture in every country has a tradition of storytelling.”

Burton is still using those storytelling skills to with “Reading Rainbow.” The PBS television show that encouraged kids to read was canceled in 2009. Since then, Burton and Mark Wolfe worked to secure the rights to “Reading Rainbow.” Last year they launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the series back for the digital age.

“We have to get to kids at the right time in their lives, when they’re deciding whether or not they’re going to be a reader,” Burton said.

The Kickstarter campaign raised more than $5 million. That money already has been put to use producing a Reading Rainbow tablet and smartphone app.

“We are a library. We consider ourselves not just an app, but a service,” Burton said. The app includes digital versions of books, but it’s more than words on a page. Similar to the “Reading Rainbow” television show, video field trips are created every week.

But not every child has access to a tablet computer.

“As of April, we’ll be on the web and that means we’ll be able to reach many, many more kids,” Burton said. The site is expected to be live  by late April. “And then in September we release our product for schools, which was also made possible by Kickstarter. That’s a product that will have lesson plans and the kinds of bells and whistles that teachers really require in order to use the Reading Rainbow content, our books and our videos in the classroom at what is the point of purchase every day — every day in the trenches with kids.”

Burton credits books with shaping his life and his career.

“I don’t think there’s a book that I’ve ever read that hasn’t had an impact on me in some way. Mostly positive, but sometimes negative. For the most part, my world view is hugely informed by the books that I have read throughout the course of my life.”

His first acting job was on the 1977 miniseries “Roots,” adapted from a book by the same name by Alex Haley.

“It was the ‘Roots’ experience where I discovered just how powerful this medium of television can be,” Burton said.

Given his acting background, it is, perhaps, not surprising that Burton is a fan of science fiction. He played Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a handful of “Star Trek” films.

“Fiction literature, for me, probably is the most inspirational,” Burton said. “I believe that two of the most important words in combination in language are what if. That invitation, the what if, comes from the world of science fiction literature. It is science fiction literature that really invites us to contemplate the what if. And out of that question has come so many advances, technology and socially, that we enjoy today.”

Related event

LeVar Burton

  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 2, 2015
  • Where: Graham Chapel, Washington University, St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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