Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Don't Take My Word For It...

"If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes."
--Mark Twain

There is always the tendency to look back on the "good old days" with fondness and longing, and in a world where Youtube offers convenient glimpses into the past, this tendency is especially strong, even in those of us who have relatively short lives on which to look back. And so it is that LeVar Burton is on my list of literary heroes, as I recently stumbled across a video from Reading Rainbow, the hit children's show that Burton produced and starred in from 1983 until 2006. For those of us born in the late-70s, 80s, and 90s, the show provided a way for our parents to let us watch TV while actually encouraging brain development. Reading Rainbow was an extremely successul program, winning over 26 Emmys as well as many other awards, but, more importantly, it stands out as one of my earliest influences to read and read voraciously.

Burton's introduction to literature came from his mother, who worked as an English teacher and always emphasized the importance of reading. Speaking at Wellesley College in February of 2008, Burton stated, "I got at a very early age that reading was a part of being human, as much a part of being human as breathing, and so it's been my pleasure to share my love of literature and the written word for twenty-five years." Though most people probably know Burton from the hit TV special Roots or from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it should be remembered that Burton worked on Reading Rainbow for a quarter of a century. That's an amazingly long period of time to work on one project, and it is my belief that if the funding for the program would have continued, the show would still be on TV today.

While there are many educational programs on PBS Kids today, what makes Reading Rainbow stand out in the crowd is that it focused explictly on books and children's relationships with them. While Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer may teach children their letters and basic words, only Reading Rainbow bridged the gap between learning how to read and actually reading, creatingwhat would seem to some an unusual dichotomy: while TV and reading are generally placed at odds with one another, Burton used the power of television to emphasize the importance of reading. Burton himself said in an Interview with Cable in the Classroom in 2007:
"[Television] is the most powerful tool in the history of civilization for addressing the opportunity as humans to inspire ourselves towards growth and change. There has never been a more powerful tool to spread consciousness in our history, and why is that? It's because television is everywhere; you cannot escape this all-pervasive medium, and so there is a responsibility, I believe, that goes along with that opportunity to have that kind of reach and impact, and that responsibility is to use that medium to its best advantage."
In order to take advantage of this impact, Burton would invite guest stars with recognizable voices (such as Whoopi Goldberg or Bill Cosby) to read books on the show, and he would encourage audience interaction by having children in the target age range give quick summaries of their favorite books. I remember always wanting to be one of the chosen few who got to present on the show, but there was never any try-outs in my hometown, so it will always be an unfulfilled dream of mine. (Perhaps this denial of my early literary ambitions is one of my reasons for having a literary blog? Hm...) In addition, Burton also worked to feature books that featured characters who were of color or girls to encourage those who are not white males to read, as well, an effort he acknowledges got significantly easier as time passed.

It is through the effort of Burton and others who encourage children to read that we give the younger generations opportunities to flourish. Reading has been consistently linked both to success in school as well as success in life-after-school, and we would do well to encourage both as much as possible. In Burton's words, "There is a purpose to your being, and it is my belief that it is not just important to your being, but essential to our being-ness, to make contact with that reason we are here. And if you can find that thing that you love to do, it will serve you so well in your life."

And do you know what I love to do? I love to listen to this song:

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