You know him as an actor and director. From his earliest role as Kunta Kinte in the consciousness-raising mini-series, Roots, in 1977… to his role as the blind, VISOR-wearing Georgi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation… to his 25 years as host of PBS’ Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton has used his gifts to entertain, educate and inspire others. He spoke with Angie Miles of HAPPY Reading about his personal relationship with books, and what he sees as he looks to the future of literacy.
An Interview with LeVar Burton
What do you remember about your first book or an early book that you enjoyed?
Whenever I’m asked this question, I always refer back to the experience I remember… when I got what reading was about…in terms of it being a tool for transporting me out of Sacramento, California. And that book was Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. And what I remember most about that experience wasn’t just getting caught up in the lives of the characters in that novel, but I remember distinctly how sad I was when I came to the last word in the last paragraph on the last page. And to this day, when I’m reading a good novel, I consciously slow down when I come towards the end, knowing that I’m going to leave a world that I’ve become quite attached to.
Do you remember how old you were then?
I was in about the third or fourth grade. I was reading before then, but that’s when the light bulb went off, went on, actually, in my head. It was like, “Oh! This is what it’s about! You get to travel. You get to go places in your imagination!” I loved it!
I guess that’s what Jim Trelease would call your “home run book”. That was the one that turned you on to ALL of reading in a new way.
Yes! I’ve never heard that term before, but that’s a good term. My home run book… Captains Courageous is my home run book.
Sometimes in working with parents and families and schools, we hear parents say their children don’t enjoy reading. That’s where we have to let them know they haven’t read enough books! They have to keep going until they find that book that creates the magic for them.
That’s right. That’s exactly right.
So you enjoyed reading as a child. Did you find heroes or role models through books?
Yes, but it was a long time before I discovered novels where the heroes looked like me. I always identified with the hero in whatever story I was reading, but it wasn’t until I really discovered science fiction literature that I really encountered heroes in the pages of fiction… who looked like me.
Talk about that a little bit. How did that influence your relationship with books early on? Did you recognize that you weren’t seeing yourself?
Of course! How can you grow up as a Black child in America in the 60s or 70s and not recognize that you’re not represented in the popular culture? It was a big deal when we started seeing ourselves represented in the popular culture on television, in magazines, in books, in movies. Right? Those were home run moments!
Those early shows like Julia with Diahann Carroll….
We watched Julia religiously in my family! Whenever Sammy Davis, Jr. was on ANYTHING… an episode of The Rifleman… it didn’t matter! We watched Sammy Davis, Jr.! And then there was Clarence Williams as Linc on The Mod Squad. It was huge… huge! Then there was Uhura, Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek. That was huge, because there again… my worlds collided. By then I had discovered science fiction as a body of literature and to see a representation of a future where I was represented on t.v.? Come on, now! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
You were destined for Star Trek from that moment!
You know what? Everything happens for a reason. Everything!
You mention books not representing African-American culture in the 60s, and really it was a long time after that before it became more main stream. Were you familiar with the work of Ezra Jack Keats as the first, really, to portray African-Americans and other children of color in starring roles in books?
Not as a child. I didn’t discover Ezra Jack Keats until Reading Rainbow.
So you always identified with the heroes in the books you read, but it wasn’t until science fiction that you really made that cultural connection?
It wasn’t until science fiction that I discovered a body of literature where people of color were included as the heroes in the novel. Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind most notably…Ray Bradbury, these were guys, like Gene Roddenberry, who had a very universal vision of the future.
Were you inspired by that when you wrote your book?
What do you remember about the process of learning to read? What do you remember about that?
There was a fundamental and seminal moment that I will never forget. I must have been in first grade or kindergarten… yes, kindergarten or first grade. I was sitting in the big chair with my aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, Hope. I was reading aloud and I got stuck on a word, and I’ll never forget the word. The word was “pretty”. And I knew what the word was, but I didn’t want to be wrong, so I hesitated. And it was the moment when I realized, okay, you DO know how to do this, and you just need to trust yourself.
Hmmm, perhaps a theme that has recurred in life? One that most or all of us have to learn?
Over and over and over again, in some cases, until we get it!
What about in school? What do you remember about the reading process in school?
I only remember that by the time I was in the third grade, in Mrs. Twiggs’ class in Germany…Mrs. Twiggs would want to go make tea in the teachers’ lounge and she would stand me up in front of the classroom to read… like LOOONGG passages… so she could go make tea. And that was third grade. So my recollections about reading, the early childhood recollections are that once I learned to trust myself, then I just took off.
Do you think that’s an issue for kids in school today, that they have the ability but not the experience to know to trust themselves to know what they know?
Yes. I think that’s a very true statement. One of the things that our educational system doesn’t do as well as it might… is instill that level of confidence in our students that they do, indeed, know what they know.
We’ve talked about science fiction. Are there other genres or authors that you especially enjoy, that you recommend, including to kids? You come from a different place, here, too, because not only do you read as an adult, but you have had exposure to more children’s books than most children ever see in all of childhood. So what, to you, is just really, really good?
When I was a kid, I read a lot of biographies. This was around fifth or sixth grade. And I don’t read biographies so much anymore. I haven’t read a biography in years, but I used to love to read biographies. I used to love to read about the lives of people who were noteworthy, for one reason or another.
Parents ask me all the time… how do I get my kids to read? I tell them to find something that’s in an area where your child has a passion. You know? If your child loves race car driving or NASCAR, then give your kid books about NASCAR or magazines or comics… I don’t care! Just so long as they’re reading!
Now, you sound like Twila Liggett [also from Reading Rainbow], in that she is passionate that kids should read just about anything they choose so long as they are reading.
In this way, Twila and I are kindred spirits. We have to get kids to read!
How important is reading… for individuals, for the country, for the world?
I believe every human being has the unalienable right to be fluent in at least one language…as a reader, as a speaker and as a writer… in at LEAST one language. I believe this is a God-given right. And clearly, we have not created a society, globally, where that is our truth… YET, but that should be a major priority for us.
There is a lot of information out there right now about the American economy and the juggernaut that we are about to face in terms of the next generation of the workforce and the challenges they will have in joining the workforce… the challenges they will have because of what can only be described as a lack of literacy. We’re seeing signs of it now, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. That thing that sunk the Titanic is nothing compared to the iceberg we’re headed towards in terms of educating our children. We need to do better. We NEED to do better.
Here’s a natural transition, LeVar, to the roles of teachers and parents in that process. What praise and what advice do you have for them?
I think that one thing that may be absent for many kids these days is that primary example in the home. See, I grew up in a house where reading was like breathing. My mother was an English teacher. You either read a book or she hit you in the head with one. It was really your choice. She didn’t care which. Actually, she did care! So, she was reading-encouraging. I will say this about my mother: she always, ALWAYS, and to this day… had more than one book going… for her own pleasure and her own enjoyment. So I got that very critical example in the home, that reading is… you know, we eat food, for nourishment. We play games or go outside or watch movies for entertainment and equally important as food as nourishment and entertainment as nourishment, reading is in that loop. Right?
So I think that’s an area we can definitely work on, as a nation. And our opportunities to read have shifted. I grew up in a time when we got two newspapers delivered to the house every day. We just don’t live in that world anymore. So we have to consciously create examples for our children where they can see us reading… not flipping through magazines, necessarily, as fast as your eye can take in the pretty things on the page as imagery. Right? But really reading!
Yes. Any interaction with print can be helpful, but there is a different part of the brain that’s engaged with sustained reading versus flipping through for pictures or images. We know this is a scientific fact. Sustained reading exercises different parts of the brain. In your own deep reading over the years, what have you read that has affected you deeply?
The easier list would be what I have read that has NOT affected me deeply. It is a rare thing that I don’t finish a book. If that happens, it just means I wasn’t able to connect with it.
Are there authors who are must-reads for you? When they have a new book out, you know you’re going to read it?
It shifts for me. Over time, I’ve been a really big Stephen King fan, Dean Koontz, David Baldacci, you know, popular fiction. I go in and out, but science fiction really does constitute my body of literature of choice. So, over time, Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Octavia Butler… I’ve read everything I can find that that woman has written!
What is it about the science fiction that pulls you so strongly? Is it just that you find it fascinating?
No. And I’ve really given this a lot of thought. Science fiction literature inspires one to ask what may be two of the most powerful words, in combination, in language: What if?
I love looking at life from that perspective. I’m an Aquarian. I’m optimistic, by nature. And looking to the future, well, I’m hard-wired that way. And the link between that which we imagine, that which we focus our imagination on and that which we manifest in the third dimension…that link is inextricable.
Educators in your early life… who had an impact?
My mother. My mother. Erma Gene Christian. That woman was my first teacher and she’s the best teacher I ever had.
If you were writing a children’s book today… and I’m going to guess it would be science fiction… what would…
I don’t know, actually. And if I were to write a children’s book… which I intend to do, but I have yet to do… but I don’t think I would begin with the science fiction genre, not for kids. Kids are already in their imaginations.
So what might it be? What might be the title… and if you’re actually going to write it, I don’t want you to give too much away.
You know, I’ve spent so much time over the past thirty years talking to kids, both on television and in my daily life, that even though I know I want to write children’s literature, I haven’t really decided what kind of children’s literature I want to write, because I’m still so engaged in the process of getting kids to want to love reading. I’ll get there. I will get there.
I wrote Aftermath (see below) because the opportunity presented itself and I wanted to know if I had a book in me. I’m the son of an English teacher. I wanted to know if I had a book in me. And it was, pretty much, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. However, putting a galley copy of Aftermath in my mom’s hands was a pretty cool moment.
Summary? Is there one thing you’d like to say about books and reading that we haven’t covered? Anything more about imagination? About the link between reading and the arts? What is your parting thought for us?
In the beginning, there was what?
The Word! (Laughter)
You know what I mean? Let’s just go back to the root. In the beginning, there was the word! And in that creation story, EVERYTHING came AFTER the word. So, I believe that an integral part of the human story is literature, is the written word, and the stories that we tell one another and how they illuminate our lives, entertain us and inform us, largely, about who we are and what our place in the cosmos really is.
So many people were saddened over the end of Reading Rainbow’s run on PBS. Are there any prospects for some sort of revival of the program?
Reading Rainbow was a brilliant way to use the medium to steer children back in the direction of literature and the written word. It really, really worked. We have a couple generations of kids as empirical evidence of how that mission was carried out. And the truth is that kids today are consuming their entertainment, their media and their education from many more sources than just the television screen. All the data and research indicate that the television is every year becoming less and less the first option for this generation of kids. So that brings up a new opportunity to reinvent this effort to stay engaged. I definitely want to stay engaged. I want to be a part of the conversation about kids and reading. The opportunity is there to do much, much more.
In addition to his acting and directing credits, LeVar Burton is the author of Aftermath, a science fiction thriller. His current projects include hosting the upcoming documentary, The Science of Peace, with the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and new, media content creation through his company, BurtonWolfe Entertainment. He lives in California with his wife and daughter.
Aftermath by LeVar Burton (Buy Online or find at World Cat, library nearest you)
Amazon – Aftermath
Better World Books – Aftermath