In hindsight, it’s inevitable that LeVar Burton, who was the executive producer of the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning PBS television reading program Reading Rainbow and hosted the show for 23 years, would move beyond promoting books written by others and write his own children’s book. “It was just a matter of time before I had the grace to sit down and write,” he told PW Wednesday afternoon during a break in his filming schedule. Burton’s debut book for children, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, will be released on October 7 by RRKidz/Reading Rainbow.
The 32-page picture book for ages 5-7 was written in partnership with poet Susan Schaefer Bernardo; it’s illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher and retails for $17.95. In the story, a mouse is frightened by the thunderclaps during a storm outside of her home; she is comforted by Papa Mouse, who reads her a story-within-a-story about a rhinoceros overwhelmed by a storm that takes from him everything he loves. Swallowing the storm makes Rhino feel even worse, so he sets off on a journey. Along the way, he meets friends who help him on his quest to let go of the turmoil raging within. The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm will be released simultaneously in digital formats. Independent Publishers Group in Chicago is distributing the book, the first one published by RRKidz under the Reading Rainbow brand.
Burton told PW that he was inspired to write The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm in response to “all of the headline tragedies in America these days,” particularly shootings in schools and on streets. “The loss of life and property take a huge toll – especially on children,” he noted, explaining that he wanted to write a children’s book that addresses “when bad things happen to good people – which happens often in life.”
Burton also wanted to relay a message of the importance of having family and friends to help one through life’s challenges. He did so via a children’s book because, he explains, “storytelling is my job. It’s what I’ve done for over 30 years.”
Burton, who played Kunte Kinte in the 1977 television miniseries, Roots, and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, isn’t simply a storyteller: he has continued to promote literacy since Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2006. Burton and his business partner, Mark Wolfe, are the principals of RRKidz, the media company promoting children’s literacy the duo founded. RRKidz launched its educational app, Reading Rainbow: Learn & Read with a Library of Children’s Books, Videos, and Educational Games. in 2012. According to RRKidz, more than 15 million books have been read and videos watched via the app to date, demonstrating, Burton says, that “children come to this technology to read – not to play, but to read.”
Although Burton insists that he is committed to the print book, he calls himself an advocate for books in both print and digital formats. Stating that “sooner or later,” it won’t be sustainable to create books “out of trees,” he predicts that in the future, fewer books will be printed and “we will consume most of our reading material in the digital realm.” But, he adds, “I want kids to read. I don’t care, board books or tablets. I just want kids to read.”
This past spring, Burton asked others to join him on his mission by launching a Kickstarter campaign to launch a web-based platform that will deliver interactive books, teaching guides, and video field trips to 10,000+ classrooms in need, according to Kickstarter’s website. The 35-day campaign ended on July 2 with more than $5 million raised from more than 100,000 contributors. The original goal of the campaign was to raise $1 million – which it did on the first day. It is the fourth highest grossing Kickstarter campaign of all time and set a record for the most backers.
Burton told PW that the Kickstarter campaign was motivated by his commitment to helping teachers make reading and writing accessible to “every child everywhere.” It’s about “universal access,” he emphasized. “Wherever kids consume content, the RRKidz product will be there.”
Burton is passionate about promoting literacy, he says, because he considers that being a strong and outspoken advocate is “part of [his] destiny plate.” Disclosing that he studied to be a Roman Catholic priest in his teens, Burton insisted during the interview with PW that “everything happens for a reason,” including his leaving seminary to attend the University of Southern California, which led to his becoming an actor and a literacy advocate, and now, a children’s book author.
“There’s a reason my mother was an English teacher and insisted my sisters and I read while I was growing up,” he said. “There’s a reason why literature played such an important role in my life and my career.”
Burton’s greatest wish is that children not only learn to read, but also find pleasure in reading. “If we teach our children not just how to read, but also to enjoy reading, we can change the world, one children’s book at a time,” he said.
If that’s what it takes to change the world, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm may well have an impact: the initial print run was 25,000 copies; due to strong pre-orders, it has already gone back to press for a second printing. Burton is planning on making bookstore appearances this fall in New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, and Los Angeles. More bookstore appearances will be scheduled in 2015.
While Burton was noncommittal when asked if he had any plans to write another children’s book, he disclosed that RRKidz will continue to publish children’s books under the Reading Rainbow brand.