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LeVar Burton: Reading Rainbow Helped Build A Generation of Readers

The man who connected millions of American children with a love for reading will soon bring his message to a Milwaukee audience.

LeVar Burton hosted "Reading Rainbow" on PBS for twenty-three years.  The show was less about teaching reading skills, and more about instilling a love for reading.  It featured stories - picture books whose drawings were gently enhanced with animation, read by famous actors and other personalities.  It also featured segments in which Burton traveled on field trips, connecting the message of the stories with a real-life experience.  And shows closed with short book reviews and recommendations, recorded by young people.  

The show's production run ended in 2006, but enough interest and enthusiasm remained for the series that Burton announced a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign last year to refresh the series in the form of an app and a classroom curriculum.  The campaign raised $5 million in less than a week.

Burton, who will speak as part of UWM’s Distinguished Lecture Series and Geek Week activities this Thursday evening at the UWM Union, believes the TV show did nothing less than change the world for the people who watched it.  "I believe in some small way, we had a hand in creating a generation of adults - today - who are readers in part because of 'Reading Rainbow,'" Burton says.  "And for me, that's no small thing."

When the show began in 1983, Burton was already well-known for his lead role as Kunte Kinte in the landmark TV miniseries "Roots." And even as the PBS series was produced, he also held down a starring role - as Geordi LaForge - in the series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation."  But Burton thinks the role of host - and executive producer - of "Reading Rainbow" is the one that he was meant for.

Credit courtesy Reading Rainbow
Actor and Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton will speak as part of UWM’s Distinguished Lecture Series and Geek Week activities this Thursday evening at the UWM Union.

"As much as I love acting and directing and being a storyteller in a visual medium," he says, "there isn't anything that I do, or have done, that fills me with a deep sense of purpose that 'Reading Rainbow' has."

Burton says his own love for reading was sparked by Rudyard Kipling's "Captains Courageous." "When I came to the end of that book," he says, "I was profoundly sad, because I had become so attached to the characters, and I was so enthralled with the world that I had been spending so much time in, that when I came to the end, it was depressing."

Currently, Burton says he's been glued to his eReader, thanks to George RR Martin's "Game of Thrones" series.  At least, when he's not working on the updated version of "Reading Rainbow."

Today, Reading Rainbow - featuring new stories and field trips - is available as an iPad app, and Burton hopes it will soon be in thousands of classrooms nationwide.  He sees the classroom edition as augmenting the reading instruction that already goes on.  

"We can be huge support, in terms of supplemental reading, that is applicable now - because of Common Core [standards] in all subject matters," he says.  "It is important that we now recognize that [we should] teach the whole child."

And while he thinks that apps are an important way to reach kids today, Burton says a new version of the TV series is not out of the realm of possibility.   "We're sort of trying to figure that out," he says.  "I'm not opposed to it, so long as it brings something additional to the table, in terms of our ability to reach kids."