Longtime 'Reading Rainbow' host LeVar Burton urges kids to read banned books: 'That's where the good stuff is'

Jaclyn Peiser
Washington Post

As conservative lawmakers, school board members and parents wage battles over what books are offered or taught in schools, LeVar Burton, a longtime education advocate and former host of "Reading Rainbow," has a different message for students.

"Read banned books!" Burton said in a segment on "The Daily Show" with Trevor Noah.

Burton's cameo followed Noah's Tuesday monologue about book-banning efforts putting pressure on educators across the country. The American Library Association has called the rate at which books are being challenged "unprecedented." Most of the efforts have targeted books that "mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color," the association said in a November news release.

LeVar Burton

In "The Daily Show" clip, which had been viewed more than 700,000 times on Twitter as of early Thursday, Burton follows the formula of the beloved PBS children's show "Reading Rainbow," which he hosted for more than two decades.

"I am so excited to read with you today," he says. "Our first selection is called 'Rosa,' and it's the story of Rosa Parks."

But before he can open the book by Nikki Giovanni, the feed is interrupted with a staticky black-and-white screen with the messages: "Please stand by" and "content violation."

"As it turns out, that book is banned because reading about segregation is divisive," Burton says when he returns to the screen, adding that "almost any book with Black people these days is considered divisive."

He then holds up another book - "And Tango Makes Three" by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell - that he says should be devoid of controversy since "it doesn't have any people in it at all." The 2005 story features two male penguins who start a family.

"Both penguins are boys," Burton says before the static returns.

"Well, I'm told that that book is also banned because of sexual perversion, which is weird because there's no sex in the book at all," Burton says.

He suggests another book that "they can't possibly have a problem with" - "Hop on Pop" by Dr. Seuss. But the static interrupts him again.

"What? Disrespectful to parents? You got to be kidding me!" Burton says.

Defeated, Burton tells his viewers they can go out and find the books on their own.

"Read the books they don't want you to. That's where the good stuff is," he says as police sirens wail.

Lawmakers in a number of red states have clamped down on reading materials in public schools in recent months. In November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, ordered state agencies to review books in schools to make sure they do not include "inappropriate content," claiming that "Texas students have been exposed to pornographic books and content." The governor subsequently referenced the ban of certain books that touch on LGBTQ subject matter. Weeks earlier, state Rep. Matt Krause (R) had presented a list of about 850 books that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex."

Last month, a Tennessee school district unanimously voted to ban "Maus," the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum. Board members said the text included inappropriate language, illustrations and subject matter. Last year, parents in the state advocated for the removal of books touching on the country's history of racism, including one about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to attend an all-White school in Louisiana.

In his monologue, Noah pointed to conservative lawmakers' efforts.

"This isn't about books," he said. "This is about keeping the culture war going for political benefits."