It was June 6, 1983. School was out and kids were plonked in front of the TV for the summer. A new show premiered, extolling the virtues of shutting off the television and reading a book.
That was 30 years ago. The episode “Tight Times” debuted as the first episode of public television’s “Reading Rainbow.” And though the program’s 26-year run ended in 2009, its host LeVar Burton continues to champion the joys of reading and the importance of literacy.
“I spent the last 36 years of my life really trying to change the world,” said Burton.
And he found that the medium best suited to doing that was television, whether hosting “Reading Rainbow;” as Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation;” or as the young Kunta Kinte on the groundbreaking miniseries “Roots.”
Though “Reading Rainbow” started out with “meager budgets” and little support, Burton said after a few years, teachers started noticing that kids were coming back in the Fall with improved reading and comprehension skills, and publishers were seeing their featured books flying off the shelves. It became a summer staple for a generation of children growing up in the ‘80s, ‘90s and the early 2000s.
Of the show’s more than 150 episodes, Burton noted some of his favorites were scuba diving to a coral reef and landing an airplane for the first time. But he did put his foot down at one point.
“I’m a pretty ‘I’ll try anything’ kind of guy,” said Burton. “But we were at one of the local county fairs, and they wanted me to do a pig scramble. And I will do a lot of things, but my dignity would not allow me to run around and chase a greased pig. It just wasn’t going down like that.”
A new generation of children continues to experience “Reading Rainbow” through an app for iPads and Kindles. And it has become something of a pop culture phenomenon. Burton recently did a skit on “The Colbert Show,” schooling its host and actress Carey Mulligan about “The Great Gatsby.” And Jimmy Fallon’s rendition of the “Reading Rainbow” theme song, sung as Jim Morrison from The Doors, remains Burton’s favorite cover effort.
“We wanted to create a show that took a child who knew how to read, and turn them into a reader for life,” explained Burton. “And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.”
So here are Burton’s picks for kids’ summer reading:
--- “Enemy Pie,” by Derek Munson
--- “Amazing Grace” by Mary Hoffman
--- “Tar Beach” by Faith Ringgold
During some of the time he was hosting a children’s program, Burton also starred in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” playing the blind Geordi La Forge who wears a VISOR, a prosthetic attached to his temples.
“It is not easy to cover one’s eyes as an actor and still communicate as if that thing isn’t there,” said Burton. “I guess I can say I’m proud of the way I was able to overcome the obstacle of having my eyes covered, but it is not something that I would wish on any other actor.”
Burton’s first role was challenging in a different way. He played the young slave Kunta Kinte in the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s bestselling book “Roots.” It was Burton’s first audition.
“I was 19,” recalled Burton. “It changed everything about who I am and what I am able to do with my life now. And I can look back on my life and see that ‘Roots’ and ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Reading Rainbow,’ these are milestones on the journey of my life.
“I encourage people to find those milestones in your life, because you know they are there,” he said. “They may not be as huge as a ‘Roots’ or being a member of the ‘Star Trek’ cast, but the milestones are there for all of us.”