LeVar Burton is one of those rare celebrities who seems to inspire almost unanimous positive feelings—particularly from anyone who grew up with his beloved PBS series, Reading Rainbow, which ran from 1983 to 2006. Since that program’s conclusion, he’s continued to find ways to promote the magic of reading to kids, including an app and collection of classroom materials, but recently he’s turned his attention to another audience: grown-ups.
For his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, he does just what the title implies, using his soothing voice to read a short work of fiction in each 30- to 45-minute episode. After an acting career including Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Burton appreciates the creative control the podcast format allows. “There were no gatekeepers involved, no studio or network that I needed permission from,” he says. “It’s just me and a microphone, my producer, the sound designer, and a great story.”
The stories, each hand selected by Burton himself, are really great. So great, in fact, that listening to the podcast has a way of making even L.A. traffic seem more pleasant. His selections come from an eclectic mix of authors, including works by John Chu, Oscar Casares, and Joan Aiken.
“I choose stories that I want to read aloud, that will bring me pleasure in the sharing of them. That’s the criteria,” he says of picking the material for each episode. “It also helps if they are of a certain length to fit the format of the show—but the primary consideration for a story to be selected is that I love it.”
On the latest episode, he reads “Childfinder” by Octavia Butler, an author particularly close to Burton’s heart. “When I encountered the work of Octavia Butler for the first time, it blew my mind. Having been an avid science fiction reader for most of my life, and then finally encountering as an adult a voice in speculative fiction that reflected her African American origins, it rocked my world,” he says. “It’s so easy for me to see myself in the future she writes about. I feel included. Or, not simply included, I feel like the stories are written for me.”
If all of this sounds so lovely you want to experience it in person, your chance to immerse yourself in Burton’s dulcet tones will come at a live show on May 2 at the Regent Theater, with guest author Nalo Hopkinson.
“The live events are great! I read a story, and the story itself will dictate the choice of musical accompaniment,” he explains. “After the story, I invite the author on stage for a conversation and a brief Q&A. And then there’s a meet and greet. It’s a full evening for those who love storytelling.”
Reading and writing are lifelong passions for Burton, as is sharing his love of books with children. He continues his work in that arena through his LeVar Burton Kids venture and the Skybrary programs, which bring interactive reading and teaching materials into homes and schools around the world.
“For me there is no greater gift that we can give our children than the gift of literacy,” he says. “When a child is indoctrinated into the storytelling experience, it usually begins in the lap of someone who loves them. So much is communicated in those moments of intimacy that don’t get communicated in any other activity. When we share stories with our children, we teach them just how important stories are to the human experience.”
Since Burton’s love of reading and sharing literature might put him at the top of our fantasy book club guest list, we had to ask him who he would invite for a dream book discussion group. “Barack and Michelle Obama, Alex Haley, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and my wife, Stephanie, because she’d kill me if she wasn’t invited to that party!”
LeVar Burton Reads: Live!, Wed., May 2, at the Regent Theater, 448 S. Main St., downtown. Tickets available online ($30 to $100).