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LeVar Burton catalyzes a Reading Rainbow rebirth 

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Ask actor, director and literacy advocate LeVar Burton if he reads print books or electronic books these days, and he'll say, "Yes." And then he'll let out a full and contagious laugh.

"I grew up, and feel like I am lucky enough to have grown up, in an era where my connection to words on a printed page is indelible. Future generations will not have that emotional attachment," says the 58-year-old, who will speak at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on April 27. "Sooner or later, we will recognize that it is unsustainable to cut down trees to make books. And I believe that one of the byproducts of that change in strategy, where literature is concerned, is that we will value, we will hold more preciously dear, those books that we have already printed."

But as a self-described "adopter of new technologies," Burton says he also loves the idea of carrying a virtual library around with him.

"I travel a lot, so not having to carry the weight of manuscripts and books has literally saved my back and my body. You follow me? I mean, this is a miracle to me, that I have, I don't know, literally hundreds of books on my tablet.

"Hundreds of books! That was unthinkable not too long ago."

Also unthinkable not too long ago was the revival of the children's television series Reading Rainbow. As host and executive producer, Burton helped make the series — in which he ushered kids through adventures inspired by various books — one of the longest-running children's shows on PBS. But after 23 years it was cancelled in 2006, due to a lack of funding.

In an NPR interview when the channel stopped airing reruns in 2009, a representative of Reading Rainbow's home station in Buffalo explained that public-broadcasting and federal-government money was moving toward programming that would teach kids how to read, not why to read.

Burton, however, felt there was still a place for Reading Rainbow in the world. A few places, actually. He and business partner Mark Wolfe acquired the rights, launched a Reading Rainbow app in 2012, and completed a Kickstarter campaign a year ago that raised nearly $5.5 million to support app, web and classroom expansion.

"The Kickstarter promise was, 'Every child, everywhere.' Reading Rainbow for every child, everywhere. And so we are about to launch in April, Reading Rainbow on the web, Reading Rainbow Family — which means, again, widening our footprint, making the product accessible to more than those who can afford an expensive tablet."

So how exactly did the actor best known for playing Kunta Kinte in ABC's 1977 television miniseries Roots and Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, become such a reading advocate — so much so that the L.A. Times Book Prizes will recognize him later this month with an Innovators Award?

"Well, reading became my thing long before I started proselytizing." He laughs again. "I am the son of an avid reader and an English teacher, who then had a second career as a social worker. So I believe that I am sort of genetically predisposed to do that which it is that I do, especially where being this literacy advocate is concerned.

"I recognized at an early age that reading was this sort of alchemy of magic that happened with words on a printed page when interacting with the power of the imagination. ... Being transported to another place and time. In your imagination. And literally living an experience that you would otherwise have no access to. I was hooked. I just, it was, it continues to be, such a profound experience for me, to be able to immerse myself in a world by virtue of my attention, giving myself over to that which the author has painstakingly provided.

"And I know that my own life has been immeasurably improved by my relationship with the written word. And so, why wouldn't I want to share that?"

Burton goes on to explain that he believes that nothing happens accidentally in the world, and that it was no accident that literature and the sharing of literature has played such an important part in his life, and in his career.

"Roots was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel," he says. "[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was a writer as well as a visionary. And so, reading, for me, is a key component to one being free, literally free. If you can read in at least one language, then the darkness of oppression cannot be forced upon you because you can educate yourself.

"It is no accident to me that a man who comes from a people for whom reading was illegal, a crime punishable by death, in this century not that very long ago, has grown up and become a symbol of connecting to literature and connecting kids to literature and the freedom that that allows."

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