It’s no secret that Star Trek’s LeVar Burton had a profound influence on multiple generations, especially during their childhood years, thanks to the various roles he portrayed or performed in television and literature, from his magical adventures on Reading Rainbow, which made books come alive like never before, to his stellar role as the helmsman and later chief engineer of the USS Enterprise, Geordi La Forge, in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Burton’s unique charisma, warmth, and ability to weave stories, both fictitious and nonfictional, have made him a touchstone for childhood memories and personal growth. He helped shape the worldviews, interests, and perspectives of many generations. So today, we’ll take a trip down memory lane and remind ourselves of five times this pop culture icon helped shape our childhoods.
He Took Us on a Journey Into Imagination
Reading Rainbow is an American educational kids’ television series that originally ran from 1983 to 2006, with the purpose of encouraging a love of books and reading among children. Burton was actually the show’s executive producer and host, and his genuine enthusiasm and comforting presence on the screen turned every single episode he appeared in (there were other hosts as well) into a fantastic journey of imagination.
Each episode would feature a different picture book narrated by a celebrity guest, with Burton subsequently visiting places that were related to the episode’s theme while often interviewing the guests. The Season 6 premiere was a notable example of this, as it included a behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Burton was part of the main cast.
He Taught Us to Look to the Future…
This section obviously refers to Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which, again, Burton portrayed Geordi La Forge, the chief engineer on the USS Enterprise. The character was notable for more than his technical knowledge; Geordi was known even among non-Trekkies as he wore the VISOR, a device that allowed him to see despite being blind. As revealed in another Star Trek property, he was among the few individuals who were able to successfully function with the device.
However, his portrayal did more than offer a technically literate person with fancy eyewear. Burton’s portrayal also showcased the potential for adaptive technology — you’d be surprised by the number of existing, real-life gadgets that were inspired by Star Trek — and the importance of inclusion. In the end, diversity was always cherished by the Federation, in which each individual played an important part.
…And Learn From the Past
Long before he became recognized for his work on Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Burton starred in Roots, a groundbreaking miniseries about a young African man sold into slavery in America. Burton’s portrayal of young Kunta Kinte was his breakthrough role, and according to him, the portrayal of Kunta was the start of his professional acting career.
While Roots isn’t a childhood show by any stretch of the imagination, as it brought the brutal realities of slavery inside and to the forefront of many people’s living rooms, many students watched the series as part of their education. Burton’s performance earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Performance in a Drama or Comedy Series and made his portrayal a valuable educational tool to help youths understand a challenging period in U.S. history.
He Wrote Us a Book
Admittedly, many of us weren’t children anymore by the time Burton co-wrote and published The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm with Susan Schaefer Bernardo, but many have read it to their own children, feeling as if the actor and author were talking to the inner children within them. The book went beyond merely showcasing Burton’s versatility as an artist, as it touched upon some very important topics by using illustrations and great storytelling.
The book provides young children with tools they’ll need through their life’s journey — the ones that help them understand and manage their emotions. It also discusses mental health and emotional well-being, and similar to Roots, it’s been used as an educational tool in the classroom to help facilitate conversations about emotions and coping strategies.
He Still Seeks to Educate
Burton’s influence and his advocacy for literature and education didn’t end with Reading Rainbow. After the show was canceled, Burton’s company RRKIDZ developed a Reading Rainbow app for iPad, which allowed children to read an unlimited number of books, explore video field trips starring Burton — similar to those from the show — and earn rewards for reading. Furthermore, the company also launched a Kickstarter campaign that would bring the app to Android, game consoles, and streaming devices.
The Kickstarter effort reached its fundraising goal in a mere 11 hours and ended a few days later with more than $5 million from more than 100,000 backers. The app was later rebranded due to licensing issues; it’s still very much active and serves as a testament to Burton’s advocacy for education and literacy. You can find the web-based version of the app on Skybrary.
Burton’s commitment to literacy and education, along with his charisma and warmth, took countless youngsters on various journeys, from the written and illustrated pages of children’s books to the far reaches of space, leaving an indelible mark on generations. His influence taught us about imagination, diversity, and the power of knowledge — a legacy that continues to illuminate our lives.