November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton Talks About His Children’s Book About Depression | ALA Midwinter 2015

Flying Twice as High: Reading Rainbow 2.0 | SLJ Talks to LeVar BurtonOne of the most anticipated events of this year’s American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter conference was an appearance and talk given by celebrity and children’s literacy advocate LeVar Burton. Star of the original PBS series Reading Rainbow (1983-2009), Burton’s multimedia company, RRKidz, recently published his first children’s book, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm (2014), co-written with Susan Schaefer Bernardo and illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher.

Burton opened his appearance by lamenting that he hadn’t brought everyone hot chocolate as Sunday’s blizzard (on February 1) rolled into Chicago. To the delight of the filled auditorium, Burton read The Rhino aloud to kick off the event. The book, written in rhyme as a folktale, tells the story of a young rhino struggling to overcome the storm inside himself with the help of his friends. Burton explained that he wrote the story to help children understand that depression and sadness can be part of anyone’s life and to help them overcome the social stigma of mental illness.

Speaking with clear passion, Burton talked about his own love of stories and the importance of reading in children’s lives. He spoke of his own “storytelling mentors,” in particular, Fred Rogers, Gene Roddenberry, Alex Haley, and his own mother. Burton’s mother raised her three children on her own and was instrumental in creating a love of reading and stories in all of them. Speaking to cheers and nods across the auditorium, Burton emphasized the importance of adults reading in front of children and encouraging the passions of their children through books.

“If your child is passionate about superheroes, damn it, buy your kid comic books,” said Burton.

TheRhinoWhoSwallowedStormIt was clear throughout Burton’s speech, as well as during the Q & A session afterwards, that he remains a devoted and steadfast advocate for children. He recalled with fondness that Mr. Rogers of the PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, had taught Burton to believe that television ought to be used as a pulpit to make the world a better place for children. He embraced this idea and treasured his 26 years on Reading Rainbow. Several audience members asked about favorite episodes, books, or experiences from his time on the show, and although Burton recalled flying a plane and learning to scuba dive on the show, he insisted that he had special memories from each and every episode. Early in his career, he recalled, society was concerned that television was the death of educated children, but Burton was clear, “All media is educational. The question is: what are we teaching?”

Burton’s love for Reading Rainbow continues, and it led him to co-found his company RRKidz, Inc. in 2011 with business partner Mark Wolfe and launch the Reading Rainbow app, which is the most downloaded educational app on iTunes. In May 2014, Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to help expand access to Reading Rainbow materials. Burton expressed his lingering awe and gratitude when he spoke about the campaign’s success, reaching its $1 million goal on the campaign’s first day and going on to become one of the most funded campaigns in Kickstarter history hitting $5.4 million total. Burton reiterated his dedication to the campaign’s promise to reach every child. He explained that Reading Rainbow is expanding the free content available to classrooms and will be advancing to the international level soon.

The standout moments of the event both came during the Q & A portion. When asked good naturedly by an audience member who he favored for the Super Bowl, Burton again made his dedication to children clear. He spoke about the influence that professional athletes have on children and encouraged everyone to consider supporting teams based on the examples their players and coaches set. Many audience members thanked Burton for his work before and after their questions, and he accepted their comments with genuine gratitude.

However, Burton became visibly emotional when a young deaf woman expressed the profound impact Reading Rainbow had on her as a child. She asked if she might shake his hand, but Burton spread his arms wide and climbed down from the stage to embrace her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.


Amy Diegelman is a young adult librarian in Massachusetts. You can find her on Twitter @amydieg for talk about teen, public libraries, and all things fangirl.

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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