LeVar Burton’s Literacy Legacy Continues With PEN/Faulkner Honor

For 23 years, from 1983 to 2006, the television program Reading Rainbow fostered a love of reading in children everywhere. With 161 episodes, it’s one of the longest-running children’s shows on public television, behind only Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street. Any kid with access to a PBS station knew the immortal words to the theme song by heart: Butterfly in the sky/I can go twice as high/Take a look/It’s in a book/A reading rainbow! The series was hosted by an affable young man who loved to talk about books and the joy of reading. His name was LeVar Burton.

When the series premiered in 1983, Burton was mostly known for his role as Kunta Kinte from the 1977 miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. But in over two decades as the host of Reading Rainbow, Burton solidified himself as a lifelong advocate for literacy and reading in young people.

In early February, PEN/Faulkner announced that Burton will be named their first Literary Champion, solidifying his literacy legacy. The title is new, and it’s hard to think of someone more deserving of the title. The aim of the award is to “recognize devoted literary advocacy and a commitment to inspiring new generations of readers and writers.” 

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand just how revolutionary a show like Reading Rainbow was when it premiered in the early ’80s. Other children’s shows highlighted the importance of reading. But to dedicate an entire half-hour solely to books was a major risk, especially at a time when the rise of television was taking children’s attention away from reading. Noticing this troubling trend, two public television employees set out to discover if they could fight fire with fire and use a television program to get kids excited about reading again. The result was Reading Rainbow.

“I loved the counter-intuitive idea of it,” Burton said in an oral history of the show at Mental Floss. “It was no secret children were spending time in front of the TV set, so let’s go to where they are and take them back to the written word.”

Each week a new children’s book was featured, often read by a celebrity. Then Burton would host a segment related to the book’s theme. The show didn’t shy away from tough topics, as when Burton visited a New York City school one year after 9/11 to talk to the children about their experiences on that day.

In one memorable episode, Burton took viewers on a backstage tour of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played Geordi LaForge. I still remember being awed by the Enterprise replica, which they filmed upside down, and the way they created the “beaming” special effect by mixing sparkles in water. The show always ended with book recommendations and reviews by kids, introduced by Burton’s iconic catchphrase, “But you don’t have to take my word for it!”

Reading Rainbow promo
LeVar Burton hosted Reading Rainbow for over 20 years.

After Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2006, Burton, along with business partner Mark Wolfe, founded RRKIDZ, a new media company that turned Reading Rainbow into an iPad application. Since many children didn’t have access to the technology, Burton launched a Kickstarted campaign in 2016 to bring back Reading Rainbow “to every child, everywhere.”

“A resounding number of teachers have told me that they want Reading Rainbow in their classrooms, where they know it can make a difference,” Burton wrote on the campaign’s website. The goal was to provide teachers in disadvantaged school districts with literacy tools and resources completely for free. It earned $6.5 million.

Unfortunately, around 2017, things between Burton and the studio that launched his success took an ugly turn. RRKIDZ was sued over licensing rights by WNED, the public broadcaster in Buffalo, New York, where Reading Rainbow started. Part of the suit insisted the actor stop using his catchphrase or any other language related to the show he had become synonymous with over the past three decades.

As a result, Burton no longer uses the Reading Rainbow name. His “Reading Rainbow Skybrary” iPad app became the “The LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary” app, and is now known more simply as “Skybrary.

Today, Burton continues his advocacy of literacy for children with Skybrary, which gives families access to hundreds of interactive ebooks, engaging videos hosted by Burton, and literacy games. It’s owned by Reading is Fundamental, the largest non-profit children’s literacy organization in the United States.

With such a long and storied career advocating for child literacy, LeVar Burton is the perfect person to be named the Inaugural Literary Champion by PEN/Faulkner. The award will be presented during a virtual ceremony on May 10, during which the 40th PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction will also be announced.

For more on Reading Rainbow, read this excellent oral history over at Mental Floss. And here are 10 Great Episodes of the show to take you back down memory lane.