Reading Rainbow
Reading Rainbow

Q&A: Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton

Reading Rainbow
Reading Rainbow

If you're a person at all familiar with pop culture, chances are you love something LeVar Burton has been involved in. After all, Burton starred in the award-winning miniseries Roots; played the chief engineer of the USS Enterprise, Geordi La Forge, in Star Trek: The Next Generation; and was the host of Reading Rainbow for its entire 26 year run. For the past few years, Burton has been hard at work developing and promoting a Reading Rainbow app. But you don't have to take our word for it: We sat down with Burton to talk about adapting the show for tablet devices, the coolest place he's taken Reading Rainbow's cameras, and the worst look he rocked as host.

Why did you think an app was the next appropriate medium for [Reading Rainbow]?
Excellent question. When PBS took Reading Rainbow out of the Ready to Learn lineup in 2009, my business partner [Mark Wolfe] and I saw it as a real opportunity. I’d wanted to be more at the center of the decision-making of the brand for a long time. I mean, I was a producer, but I wanted more. [Laughs] I have a thirst for power! So Mark and I spent about 18 months [gathering] up the rights—they were scattered to the four winds—and we made a deal with WNED, the public television station in Buffalo, New York, that owns the brand. And when Mark and I looked at what we wanted to do with the brand once we’d secured it, we knew immediately that, sure, it was 26 years on television, but what’s next? Television’s only one of the screens that kids today use. Even though television was the main technology we used in the '80s to steer kids back in the direction of literature, clearly if you want to reach kids today, you need to be on a tablet device. Now, having said that, when we started this journey, the iPad had not come out yet. So, we have found ourselves full of good intentions in the right place, at the right time, with, I believe, the right idea.

What are some of the differences in making a book appealing for a television show versus making it appealing for an app? What’s the process of adapting books for the app?
That’s really a great question, because the translation of literature for this medium was a large conversation and a long conversation. And obviously, it was a long and large conversation when the creation of the television series was underway; how do we treat literature? And I know that the style that Reading Rainbow adapted—even pioneered—of visual storytelling, using sound effects and voiceover, a storytelling experience to go with the words—that’s what we were after with Reading Rainbow, and I’m proud of what we’re doing. Did you read any books [in the app]?

I did! I looked at the Houdini book.
And I hoped you noticed that, if you were in the “Read to Me” mode, where you have the narrator read the story, that you were locked out of the interactions until the narrator finished with the page. In the “I Can Read Myself” mode, you have more freedom of access to what we call the affordances of the interactions, the bells and whistles. And no matter which mode you’re in, the interactions are always in service of the narrative. For us at Reading Rainbow, it always goes back to the storytelling experience.

The app itself is really fun. I particularly like the “choose your own backpack” feature.
Did you pretend that you were an 8 year old?

Well, I picked the “age 9 or above” option. I didn’t want to lie. I am 9 or above!
So you liked the “pick your own backpack”…

And I thought that the concept of having different islands was really interesting; why did you decide to incorporate that?
Because the whole idea behind Reading Rainbow is to get kids to love to read. It translated the television series into a Netflix-style app for kids. It was really important to nail two things: one, books, and two, videos, ‘cause that’s what Reading Rainbow was all about. And I think we’ve done that. The reason for the island concept is that the whole idea is to have kids find books that they’re going to be interested in reading, all designed to fuel the passion for literature.

Let's talk about the videos. Are you going out and filming all new videos? Are you incorporating old ones from the TV show?
Yes! On both counts. There are what we call “classic” Reading Rainbow segments—videos with LeVar with long hair, short hair, square hair, no mustache, LeVar bearded, LeVar no-bearded … In 26 years, you get a lot of looks, a lot of opportunities for blackmail video. It’s frightening. It’s scary.

What’s the worst look of yours that made it on to the app?
Well, during my Cameo period, when I was hanging out with Cameo—you know the video "Word Up"? I’m in that video, and my hair in that video is like an anvil on my head. That LeVar is represented in the app, too. I have a very creepy mustache during that period as well. It’s bad.

How often are you out there making videos?
We’re shooting all the time. We’ve been to the White House twice since we launched the app. They let us take the Reading Rainbow cameras into the building where they make America’s money, the old fashioned way—they print it. And that’s the thing about Reading Rainbow—part of what we do in terms of collecting literature to the real world is provide these video field trips, these backstage, all-access-pass experiences to life. That’s an incredibly important part of what Reading Rainbow is. It’s the books and the videos.

What’s the coolest place that you’ve gone for these segments?
In 30 years, I’ve learned how to fly an airplane; I’ve learned how to dive for Reading Rainbow. Being at the summit of Kilauea during a full eruption? Not bad. That was a day that didn’t suck. Standing at the summit of Kilauea with the volcano erupting over my shoulder while I’m addressing the camera and trying to pretend like my heart isn’t exploding out of my chest? [Laughs] It’s awesome. Being the host of Reading Rainbow is probably the best job in the universe, and that’s coming from a guy who was the chief engineer of the starship Enterprise.

You’ve been involved in a lot of projects that are meaningful to a lot of people: Star TrekReading Rainbow, Captain Planet

Roots, which they’re now remaking—why do that?
Well, because there’s a whole generation of Americans who haven’t seen it, and who have a bias against moving pictures and sound that feel dated in any way. My kid is 19, and she doesn’t like black and white movies. She’s in college now, and she’s beginning to get over it, but it was a thing with her growing up; she did not want to see anything in black and white. And I’m like, “You are cutting yourself off from so much richness.”

However, having said that, look: human beings, we can be despicable creatures. We are capable of horrible cruelty to one another. The story of America’s founding is one where slavery—the enslavement of a people—plays critically prominent. And to deny that, to try and forget it, to try and go around it doesn’t make sense. So yeah, if remaking Roots is going to make it accessible to another generation and inculcate them in the language of compassion and humanity, so be it.

Would you say, then, that Roots is the most personally meaningful thing that you’ve worked on? Or is there another project—
That I’m incredibly proud of in a long career that’s spanned decades? [Laughs]

Yes. Exactly.
Out of everything that I’ve done, I believe that Reading Rainbow is the most important. I grew up in a house where reading was expected, and I know fully well the value of a relationship with the written word; I believe that the most powerful creature on the planet is a human being literate in at least one language with a thirst for knowledge. And this is the most powerful tool ever created, technology-wise, in terms of its engagement. Television is incredibly powerful, but this tablet stuff? This is like crack for human beings—the engagement factor. And if we don’t use this engagement in these wonderful tools in the service of educating children, then we’re just dense to the nth degree. We have to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, the intersection of education and entertainment and technology. We have to, ‘cause we’re failing now. We’re failing to get it done. So how can we do it differently, how can we do it better? Use the screens.

What was the process of picking books for the show, and what's the process for the app?
For the show, because we only featured one book per episode, the selection of the featured book was a very complex and arcane process that involved a lot of criteria and consideration. As a sort of Netflix model of books for kids, we rely on our publishing partners to provide us with the books [for the app]. And I have gone out into the publishing industry and to the writers and illustrators community and told them, “You know me. You know how I feel about children’s literature. Share with us your gems and we will treat them as the treasures that they are.”

The thing that I’m most pleased about is that all of the books in the service are real literature. And for me, at the beginning of this journey, we went to the publishers and said, “Give us your back lists. Give us the stuff that you’re not monetizing anymore because there’s no shelf space in bookstores because there aren’t any bookstores anymore.” And they were happy to. And now that they see that, just like the television show, being on the app really does expose their literature to an audience that might not otherwise have found them. It’s a win-win. 

The app is a subscription mode. It’s important to me, because I think with the $10 for all you can eat, I think we’re offering value to families as well. And if you pay six months at a time, $29.99—that’s $5 a month. It’s per tablet, because you can have as many as five profiles in the app for the kids.

We were saying in the office yesterday that Reading Rainbow was sort of like the Oprah’s Book Club for kids.
I suppose that’s true. When we were children, our parents would put us in front of the television set and turn on PBS, and walk out of the room and know that whatever was on—even though they didn’t know what the name of the show was—they knew it was good for you and we were going to enjoy it. And they could get 20 minutes or a half an hour to change their clothes or start a meal or whatever. I know that parents today are stressed to the max, and are inundated with choices that they have to make on behalf of their children every day, and one of the scariest is, “What do I let my kids interact with on these tablet computers?” So I want the Reading Rainbow brand to be there so that parents and kids know that there’s something there that they can trust.

So we’re about a year or year and a half out since the release of the app. How has it been performing?
Ready? Seventeen thousand books a week are being read by kids. It’s insane. You have to remember, kids will come to the tablet to read. To read! To read.

It’s amazing. I’m old school; I like my books. But I think it’s so cool that you can carry a Kindle around and have a bunch of books in there.
I have a library on my iPad. A library.

I guess that’s part of the reason kids are reading so much; it’s all just right there.
It is. I grew up in an age where I took the telephone for granted. For my grandparents, it was not normal. You want to talk to somebody, you get together face-to-face or holler over the fence, you know? Every generation has the technology of the day, and that generation has the responsibility both to adapt to the technology and shape how the technology shapes us. I’m convinced that we can literally revolutionize the way to educate kids if we just put a tablet in the hands of every child on this planet, and make sure that those tablets are filled with age-appropriate content that causes them to want to become lifelong learners.

What are you next steps for the app?
We’re going to the web next, with the product, so that we can be more ubiquitously available. Not everybody can afford a tablet right now, and that web product will definitely serve as the basis for our product offering for schools. Teachers love the Reading Rainbow brand, and boy, do they need help in the classroom. We’ve heard from so many of them since we launched last summer, “When can I get this for the classroom?” Common core requires so much more reading on a broad level. We need these in the classroom, so we’re going to get them there as soon as we can.

A model for schools will first of all be able to handle 30 kids in a classroom, as opposed to five kids as a consumer product, and there will be other changes, but it won’t be a freemium to premium model at all, because the school districts will be paying for the licenses and we’ll be able to make that license accessible to large classrooms, large groups of kids.

Stepping away from the app: What's one book you think every kid should read?
Hmm. Wow. I think everyone should read a book called Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. [Because] at a point in any human being’s life, we come across someone who tends to rub us the wrong way; someone we tend to be at odds with. A nemesis, if you will. An enemy. The hero in this story has an enemy, and his father has a remedy. It’s to make enemy pie. I won’t reveal the ending, but there is a twist that you don’t see coming. It’s pretty cool.

Is there anything you’ve read lately that you really enjoyed or loved or recommend to our readers?
It’s been very rare for me to read a book that I didn’t enjoy. You know what I mean? I think I only ever not finished one or two books in my life, and I think both of them were written by Norman Mailer. [Laughs] But let’s see…what am I reading now? I’ve always got science fiction going, so right now I’m reading a compilation of the best science fiction literature.

I’m old. My memory fails. [Hums Jeopardy theme] I want to be the host of Jeopardy. I really, really do. I really, really, really, really, really, really do.

I’ve never read it, but I have it on my iPad: I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray. That’s next up on my list. I’ve never read that. But I should, right? Isn’t that one of those classics that you should’ve read? Well, now I will.

Everybody needs a good fact or piece of trivia to get a conversation started at parties. Mental Floss sort of prides itself on its collection of trivia, so I’m curious if you have a piece of trivia that you like to use to break the ice or get people talking at parties.
Wow. Um…No. I don’t really have a problem talking to people at parties. But if I did—you know what? Here’s a piece of trivia about me that was revealed earlier this afternoon. I mean, I knew it, but it came as a surprise to the person I was in conversation with when it was revealed. They were asking me about my experience having done Fantasy Island. I did an episode of Fantasy Island, and in that episode, Sammy Davis Jr. played my father. How cool was that? 

We get a lot of weird mail. I’m curious, what’s the weirdest piece of mail you’ve ever gotten?
It was weird to me—it wasn’t weird content-wise—but many years ago, I got a piece of mail addressed “LeVar Burton, USA” from overseas, a piece of fanmail. And I thought, “That’s just amazing. How did this find me?” I was truly astounded. It was literally, like, “Are you kidding me? This was 30 years ago, 35 years ago. 

I'm sure you get recognized all the time. Is there one thing in particular you get recognized for the most?
It depends on the age of the people, really. Generally for older people, it’s Roots or Star Trek. A lot of Star Trek fans out there. You’d be surprised, though, how many Reading Rainbow fans there are. Thirty years of the brand and there’s a whole generation of adults now who grew up watching the show. They’re beginning to have their own kids. And they recognize that in the landscape of television and media, it’s not like when they were growing up. They’re really looking for enrichment materials for their kids that they can trust. And again, it’s another reason I’m really happy to doing what I’m doing right now.

Central Press/Getty Images
Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.


"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."


"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."


"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."


"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."


"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."


"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."


"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."


"Never mistake motion for action."


"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"


"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."


"All things truly wicked start from innocence."


"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."


"Courage is grace under pressure."


"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."


"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."


"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."


"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.


Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.


A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.


Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”


For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.


Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.


Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”


The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.


John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.


When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.


The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.


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