As I mentioned in my previous article (Steel City Con Proves the Local Cons Have a Lot to Offer), I ended up going to Steel City Con because my friend Kim was a backer for the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter (if you’ve been living under a rock, you can find info about the Kickstarter here). The backer bonus that Kim signed on for was to meet LeVar at a con and she asked if I wanted to accompany her as her guest. I believe my exact response was “Hell Yes!!!” but I’m a little fuzzy on the details. There were a few changes to the package, but Saturday morning we found ourselves waiting in line to meet LeVar and killing time by watching a 15-year-old boy in a homemade MechaGodzilla costume get his picture taken with Verne Troyer (Mini Me from the Austin Powers films)—quite possibly the best moment I have ever witnessed at a con.
While listening to the people around us in line, one thing became apparent very quickly: we were surrounded by Reading Rainbow fans. I went into this event thinking most people wanted to meet LeVar (I call him LeVar now) because of his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. There were a number of Trekkies in attendance, but the one thing I heard over and over as people spoke with LeVar at the signing table was “Reading Rainbow was such a huge part of my childhood. Thank you.” I’m including Kim and myself in this, since those exact words came out of our mouths when we met him. Kim was even wearing a Reading Rainbow t-shirt, which LeVar noticed and complimented her on. I told him how much the Tar Beach episode had meant to myself and my NYC Geek Girls, and he seemed thrilled to hear that. He autographed the Reading Rainbow head shots we had chosen, and then he let us take photos with him. From start to finish, about five minutes, and yet in that brief period he let us know how glad he was that Reading Rainbow had touched us and generally made us feel awesome. I would have been crushed if my childhood icon had turned out to be an ass, but he wasn’t; he was everything you would hope LeVar Burton would be.
We proceeded to wander around the floor for about two hours until it was time for LeVar’s Q&A. I wasn’t sure what format the program would take, but after a brief little chat with the moderator, LeVar just started taking questions from whoever wanted to ask them. People asked him about the Big Bang Theory, about Community, about Roots, about Star Trek, and yes, about Reading Rainbow. And again, most people prefaced their questions by telling him how much that show had meant to them growing up. And LeVar answered every single question with grace and a sense of humor. Some of the funniest moments were when asked what Geordie LaForge’s favorite book would be (“Three Blind Mice.” A boo came from the audience, which he answered with “How are you gonna boo me on that? I thought that was pretty good!”), when a little boy he had apparently met the day before decided that he needed to continue their very important conversation about cars (“Christopher, we had this conversation yesterday, what kind of car do I drive?” “Lexus!” “Yes!!”), his description of his wedding party (“Brent Spiner was my best man, and Michael Dorn, Jonathan Frakes, and Patrick Stewart were my groomsmen. So my wedding photos are pretty kick ass.”), and his response to the question “Is there anything we can take your word on?” (after a really length pause filled with a lot of thoughtful faces, he said “I’m…here.”).
There were of course a lot of Star Trek questions. One person asked his opinion on JJ Abrams’s Star Trek films, to which he very candidly replied “I like the films, I do. I’d love to be able to say I love them. They’re great action pictures. But I miss Gene [Roddenberry]’s vision. Star Trek has always been *about* something. I would love for these new movies to follow in that tradition. I’ve asked him [Abrams] whenever I see him ‘When are you going to talk about something important?’ and he never answers… I love the characters, I care about what happens to them, I just want to see them engaged in some story that inspires me and causes me to think and feel.” There was also a very moving moment when he discussed the impact that seeing Nichelle Nichols on the original Star Trek had on him as a boy, because he realized that in the future there would be a place for people like him. “Seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge meant the world to me. I don’t really have words to express how much.” He talked about how honored he was that Geordie had been the same touchstone for disabled people Lt. Uhura was for him.
Unsurprisingly, given how recently the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter ended, there were a fair amount of questions about that show, the new app, and LeVar’s experiences with both. He told us that the inspirations for Reading Rainbow were his mother (a teacher) and the experience of people watching Roots, which demonstrated the power of the moving image for him as it opened up a nation-wide discussion on slavery and racism. He realized that television was a medium that could reach people, particularly kids as they sat at home on their summer vacations. Figuring that there were a variety of means for children to learn how to read, he chose instead to teach them to love reading, because it’s “…not possible to achieve your full potential as a human being without being a reader, without loving to learn.” LeVar has received some flak for focusing the new version of Reading Rainbow on computers, tablets, and other electronic devices, but these devices are to kids of 2014 what television was to kids of the 80s and 90s—a constant companion, and an excellent place to reach them. He cited that kids are reading 200,000 books a week via the Reading Rainbow app, which drew several appreciative “wows” and a round of applause for the audience. Asked about the choice between printed books and e-readers, he answered “I like reading bound books, but sooner we will come to the conclusion that it is not sustainable to cut down trees. We will always have some bound books… but I now carry a library around with me. For kids, I don’t care. I simply want them to read.”
Someone asked LeVar what he legacy he was proudest of, Star Trek or Reading Rainbow. After insisting that Roots be added to the equation and then wondering why he had to choose, LeVar admitted that he was proudest of Reading Rainbow. Sitting in that room, surrounded by hundreds of other people who had been (and still are) ardent fans of that show and knowing that we were only a tiny part of a group who LeVar taught to love the written word, I can see why. He has shaped a generation of readers, who will in turn teach generations after them to love reading as well. That’s an impressive legacy for one man to leave behind.
*Editor’s Note: (2014-08-14 7:39pm est)
We love to cover events and review books, that’s why we do it. Then an article like this garners a thank you from an organization we all love and respect and it just makes our job even more rewarding…
— Reading Rainbow (@readingrainbow) August 14, 2014