Day 6

Why Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton wants to read to you through the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world last Spring, acclaimed actor LeVar Burton took to Twitter and read stories for all ages via live stream, and recently launched a new season of his storytelling podcast.

The acclaimed actor has found a home on social media, and a podcast to share tales

LeVar Burton attends the 2020 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on November 03, 2019 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Ian Tuttle/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize ) (Ian Tuttle/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

Originally published Oct. 2, 2020.

When LeVar Burton reads for an audience, it's like a one-man show.

"That's what I love about it," the actor told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "For me, that's the most pure form of storytelling that an actor can engage in." 

Known for his roles in Roots and Star Trek, Burton's career as an actor is varied. But for those who grew up in the '80s and '90s, he may be best remembered as the iconic voice behind Reading Rainbow. For a generation of children, he was a companion.

In recent years, Burton has become a companion to many more with his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads. It has been described as "Reading Rainbow for adults." 

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world last Spring, he also took to Twitter and read stories for all ages via live stream.

"I just love reading aloud because it's such an intrinsic part of the human experience. We can all relate to it," he said. "Not everybody has been to the ballet. Not everybody's been to the theatre. But most everybody has an experience of having been read to."

The tales he shares run the gamut, from children's picture books to adult short stories. While some stories entertain, others comfort.

During one of his April live streams, Burton read a book of his own, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm. It aims to help children express their emotions and navigate challenging situations, and was written in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

Part of the inspiration behind the story — and the decision to read it during a pandemic — comes from another beloved storyteller, Burton says.

"I thought if Fred Rogers were here, if Mr. Rogers was still alive, he would be addressing, in an age-appropriate way to an audience of children, how to cope with these huge changes that are happening in our life," Burton recalled.

"We're all dealing with loss, and how to deal with loss in a healthy manner is really a skill that one develops over time, and I don't think that you can begin that conversation or that education early enough."

Storytelling for justice and equality

Before he was known as a reader, however, Burton rose to fame starring in the acclaimed 1977 miniseries Roots. Based on a novel of the same name, the series told the story of slavery in America.

As protests over police brutality against Black people and other people of colour continue across America, Burton says the series is still relevant more than four decades on.

"When Roots aired, it was a great awakening for America. It really was a tool for enlightenment for Black and white America, because the story of the enslaved had never been told from the point of view of the Africans before," he explained.

"Now, we are not only aware that slavery was one of the worst evils ever visited upon this earth, we're now getting the information life is different for black people and other people of colour and those who have been others in this society."

At the beginning of the year, Burton began a YouTube video series sharing some of those experiences. In This Is My Story, Burton speaks directly to the camera and shares what it's like to be Black in America.

In the first instalment, he shares his own story.

"I feel a responsibility to do my best to continue to educate, to help educate those allies who have declared themselves to be allies in this struggle — this ongoing struggle — for justice and equality in America," he said.

Diversity 'the most delicious part'

The stories that Burton shares on his podcast come from writers from all walks of life. That, he says, is key to its success.

"One of the reasons why I'm so proud of the podcast is that I really focus on bringing to the forefront writers who have been marginalized," he said of LeVar Burton Reads. 

"People of colour, LGBTQ, non-binary writers…. They deserve to be exposed, and we deserve to have that exposure to these diverse voices, because it is the diversity in this world, the complexity of it, that is really the most delicious part."

Sharing stories has always been Burton's love, one that was fostered through literature and listening to the radio while living abroad, he says.

But when asked whether he expected that his role as a storyteller would have an impact on pop culture, Burton was humble.

"For a storyteller to experience this kind of longevity in a society that is more or less disposable when popular culture is concerned … it's a real luxury."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.