The actor, author, and educator, who is being honored with a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy, reflects on his career and literary inspirations with EW.
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Emmy-winning actor, director, author, and television host LeVar Burton will be recognized by the National Academy of Arts and Sciences (NATAS) with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the First Annual Children and Family Emmy Awards Ceremony held at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on December 11. Burton spoke with Entertainment Weekly about being honored by the NATAS and how his career has impacted him and audiences across the country.

The actor first gained widespread recognition for his role in Roots, an eight-night television event that broke viewing records and enlightened audiences. Burton landed an Emmy nomination for his role as young Kunta Kinte, a Gambian taken from his country and sold into slavery. Regarding his experience on the series, Burton says, "I saw firsthand the power of the narrative on TV storytelling." Roots would go on to earn nine Emmys and brought in an estimated 130 million viewers transforming how audiences thought about race and genealogy. 

So when the idea of a television show that encouraged children to read books came to Burton, he knew the potential in such an enterprise. "Television had become a really important part of the daily lives of America's children, and the question was, and always is, how do we get our children to read more?," he recalls. "How do we more effectively submit that relationship between an emerging reader and the written word? And television was a very counterintuitive medium to enlist as an aid in this process." While at the time, television was viewed as the "evil empire to the world of education" as Burton puts it, the opportunity to get children inspired about reading and going to their local libraries was ultimately the immense achievement of Reading Rainbow.

Created by Twila Liggett, Cecily Truett Lancit, Larry Lancit, Lynne Brenner Ganek, and Ellen Schecter, Reading Rainbow first aired on PBS in 1983 with Burton as host. From the opening moments with the iconic theme song to the book review by children, each episode of Reading Rainbow was able to capture the hearts and imagination of children. "The whole point of the show was to be a window into the world of experience," Burton explains, "so that kids could get a smattering of what's out there in the world and perhaps identify with some of it and in the hopes of sparking and igniting a passion for something inside of them and helping lead them to achieving their fullest potential in life." With readings from countless icons including Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones along with Burton's Star Trek: The Next Generation co-stars Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg, the series showcased interactive storytelling of books and took children behind the scenes of themes that took Burton himself on some incredible journeys. 

"The one that really stands out bigger than any is being at the summit of Kilauea during the eruption of that volcano," Burton remembers of the "Hill of Fire" episode. The host also learned to scuba dive to the Coral Reef, fly an airplane, and got to intertwine his TV worlds with his Next Generation co-stars and crew. For instance, visual effects supervisor Rob Lagado helped show how movies and TV series were made, stirring up sparkles in a bowl to create the iconic transporter from Star Trek, and "The Bionic Bunny Show'' is widely remembered as one of the most famous episodes of the series for its behind-the-scenes footage and gag reel of the cast of TNG.

As the third-longest-running children's show in PBS history, Reading Rainbow was embedded in a golden era of children's programming when it aired alongside Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street. "We know how good those shows are now by the truth of the absence of shows like them," Burton says, highlighting the importance of programming like this classic shows on public broadcasting. "They may get some social emotional awareness from Mr. Rogers, they'll get some rudiments in letters and numbers and the same from Sesame Street, and they'll be encouraged to develop a personal relationship with the written word and storytelling through Reading Rainbow. That's a pretty good moment."

Reading Rainbow concluded in 2006 with 155 episodes and a lifetime of memories for children.

"I'm certain that the impact that the show has had in popular culture is probably very cemented in the history of books," Burton says. The legacy of Reading Rainbow lies in not only the 26 Emmy wins and over 200 nominations, but also the impact it had on kids, and continues to have on them. LeVar Burton himself also has enough reason to be cemented in history. With 13 Emmy Awards, three NAACP awards, a Grammy Award, a Peabody Award, a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, award-winning books, and even a park in Sacramento named after him, the actor and educator has had an illustrious career that has far surpassed the end of Reading Rainbow.

Even though the show ended, LeVar Burton still finds ways to inspire readers in his life. His podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, has been downloaded more than 25 million times and is a way of "sharing new stories and authors with the audience of adults now who grew up on Reading Rainbow and continuing that dynamic relationship around literature." He still feels that he has much to do and share with the world.

As he prepares for the Emmy ceremony on December 11, Burton still feels humbled by receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. "It tickles me because this isn't anything that I have ever anticipated thought about; this wasn't even on the list," he says. The Emmy honor caps off an incredible year for Burton that began when he was selected to be Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena, then subsequently hosted the non-televised portion of the Grammys as well as the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Burton's friend and fellow Emmy winner Laurence Fishburne will present him with the award for his incredible work in inspiring joy and reading among children and adults for decades. 

Regarding his legacy, the multi-hyphenate notes, "I believe that Reading Rainbow is and will continue to be the most important work I've ever done." While readers of all ages, from elementary school kids to older adults, continue to be inspired by LeVar Burton, the award winner offers his own list of literary influences that have helped change his life, which are listed below.

Alex Haley
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Alex Haley

"I don't have the life I have now without Alex Haley and his writing," Burton says. Perhaps best known for his 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley's works, that include The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the posthumous Queen: The Story of An American Family, have inspired and enlightened generations of readers on the subjects of American history and genealogy and, of course, led to Burton's career-defining role as Kunta Kinte.

J R R Tolkien
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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Perhaps made even more famous thanks to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and prequel trilogies based on the novel, The Hobbit has captured the imagination of children and adults with its world of wizards, dwarves, dragons, elves, and of course, in a hole in the ground, a hobbit.

Author James Baldwin
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James Baldwin

The legacy and influence of James Baldwin as a man and writer are firmly cemented in American literature and culture. From Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell it on the Mountain to If Beale Street Could Talk and Giovanni's Room, Baldwin's works have endured as foremost observations and discussions on race, masculinity, social change, and acceptance.

Paramahahsa Yogananda
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Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda

Published in 1946, Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi is a masterful work of storytelling about the author's life and spirituality among the Eastern and Western worlds that has inspired millions of readers.

O Henry
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O. Henry

With works like The Gift of the Magi, The Duplicity of the Hargreeves, and The Caballero's Way, O. Henry has influenced writers and readers with vivid, surprising, and fun tales that got LeVar Burton "hooked on short stories."

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck

M. Scott Peck was an author and psychiatrist, whose book The Road Less Traveled is a well-read and loved examination of human fulfillment. 

Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda
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Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda

American author Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books largely considered fictional accounts about his tutelage under Yaqui Indian Don Juan. Tales of Power completes the author's journey into sorcery, a controversial work that inspired readers with its narrative power.

Edgar Allan Poe
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Edgar Allan Poe

The 19th-century scribe is one of the most famous writers in American literature. His poems and stories such as The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Cask of Amontillado continue to spook, excite, and bewilder readers, and have led to numerous film and TV adaptations and homages.

Toni Morrison
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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's works are widely influential and the author has inspired countless readers with her intelligent discussions on race, feminism, and American politics. Books like The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon have only increased in popularity and critical reception following her passing in 2019.

Kurt Vonnegut Portrait Session
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Kurt Vonnegut

Writer, satirist, and anti-war advocate Kurt Vonnegut has many classic works that delve into different genres and styles, with perhaps his most famous work remaining the powerful dystopian, sci-fi, part-memoir masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five.

Portrait of writer Ray Bradbury
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Ray Bradbury

Versatile author and screenwriter Ray Bradbury is one of the most renowned American literary figures of the 20th century, with works like Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man influencing readers and writers alike to this day. 

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