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LeVar Burton Immortalized with Figurine Designed to Encourage Kids to Read

·3-min read
LeVar Burton and this reading tool for kids
LeVar Burton and this reading tool for kids

Courtesy Tonies

From a young age, LeVar Burton found joy in reading. And he's made it his purpose to ensure other kids feel the same.

So when Tonies approached the former Reading Rainbow host about partnering on a figurine and a reading of his children's book, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, he was in.

"I believe in their mission, what they're doing, and I wanted to help," Burton, 64, tells PEOPLE. "Plus, as avatars go, he's pretty cool."

Tonies is a screen-free entertainment system for kids, which includes a Toniebox — a soft speaker cube kids can operate themselves — and the Tonies, which contain beloved children's stories and songs that are activated when placed atop the box.

Burton is the first celebrity to get his very own Tonie — "I certainly hope I'm not the last!" he says — and believes the topic of his book, which was first released in 2014, will resonate with young readers.

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"It's a story of loss and how we can recover from loss, what it takes to recover," the current Jeopardy! guest host says. "It's something we don't do on our own — it's best accomplished when we have help from others. And that's a message I feel very passionate about."

Burton's passion for books in general came from his mother, an English teacher, he tells PEOPLE.

"She modeled how important the written word is in everyday life by how much she read not simply to me but in front of me," he explains. "My being a part of Reading Rainbow is a reflection of that … it's a reflection of that love."

READING RAINBOW, LeVar Burton
READING RAINBOW, LeVar Burton

PBS/Courtesy Everett Collection LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow

"My life had just been sort of turned upside-down by the Roots phenomenon, so when I was presented with the opportunity to be involved with Reading Rainbow it made so much sense to me, because I had gone through an experience where it was clearly demonstrated to me the power of the medium of TV," he continues. "In seven nights, Roots changed the way America thought about slavery — that's a pretty powerful statement to make, and it's true. So the opportunity to use this very powerful medium to counterintuitively steer children back toward literature and the written word was too delicious a proposition to pass up."

Hearing from former Reading Rainbow viewers who are now introducing their kids to Burton through The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm and Tonies is pretty special for the actor, too.

"The idea that they're sharing their love of literature and stories with their kids is awesome to me," he shares. "And being able to have the conversation with them about storytelling that doesn't involve screentime — it's what Tonies is all about."

Burton's Tonies will be available for $14.99 on Sept. 9; until then, he's partnered with the brand on the #ReadToYourChild challenge and contest as part of his personal mission to inspire and support childhood literacy. Parents are encouraged to to film a video of themselves reading their favorite childhood story to their child, posting to Instagram with #ReadToYourChild and tagging @tonies.us and @levar.burton. Burton will select his favorite entry to win an in-person visit and storytime with him at the winning family's school.

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