“The story about Rhino isn’t just about everything that he lost, it’s also about things that he gained in terms of knowing that we’re never alone, and that we all need help getting through life,” said actor, educational advocate, and author LeVar Burton to an assembly of Richman Elementary School students. Burton built his career around his love of stories and nurturing storytime fascination for school-age children everywhere. On Tuesday, March 15, LeVar Burton shared his own story, The Rhino Who Swallowed the Storm, with students and the Fullerton community during a special event at Richman Elementary, hosted by Tonies and the Fullerton School District.
The event was made possible by a generous donation by LeVar Burton and Tonies, who partnered to donate over 100 Tonieboxes to Fullerton School District schools. According to the company’s website, Tonies is the original screen-free audio entertainment system for young children. Launched in 2016 in Germany, co-founders Patric Fassbender and Marcus Stahl created Tonies with one thing in mind: their children. The Toniebox was designed to allow kids to experience storytelling in a digital age in a way that stimulates their imagination without screens. Today, Tonies is the fastest growing toy company in Europe, and is becoming more popular in the United States. The assembly they hosted at Richman Elementary was live streamed and shared with national partners, including GoNoodle and Hula Frog.
Many Observer readers may be familiar with LeVar Burton, whose decades-long body of work includes Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Reading Rainbow. He has been honored with 13 Emmy Awards, 3 NAACP Awards, a Grammy Award for Spoken Word Album, a Peabody Award, the Fred Rogers Award, the Inamori Prize for Ethics in Entertainment, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Outside the Richman Elementary Multipurpose Building, signs were posted with Burton smiling and holding up a Toniebox. After children from different classes filed into the room, Principal Kristen Holm welcomed everyone to the reading-related event. Students remembered reading The Rhino Who Swallowed the Storm. When they were asked who their favorite character was, they answered in unison, “The Rhino!”
Drew Vernon, Marketing Director at Tonies, then began with an introduction. Vernon said, “One of the reasons I like stories so much is because when I was your age, when I was a little kid, I used to watch a show called Reading Rainbow. On Reading Rainbow was a person named LeVar Burton, and he became a very special person for me because he taught me how to appreciate stories. Now, I grew up and I get to help share stories.”
Burton entered the stage and began reading his book to the group of ecstatic students. The Rhino Who Swallowed the Storm is a book-within-a-book. Little Mica Mouse, a character who was inspired by Burton’s own daughter, becomes scared once she hears thunder booming outside her house, so Papa Mouse must find the right story to read to her. In Papa Mouse’s story, a rhino is devastated by a storm that takes away everything he loves. The rhino swallows the storm, but it doesn’t make him feel any better, so he sets off on an imaginative journey of healing and self-recovery and meets quite a few friends along the way. With the help of his friends and family, rhino is able to let go of the storm he swallowed.
It’s a story written to help children express their feelings and navigate through difficult circumstances. “We live in a world where so many tragic events happen, like storms, floods, fires, and hurricanes,” Burton said. “I was in New York City one Saturday afternoon when another one of these major tragedies happened.” He asked the kids if they knew who Fred Rogers was. Most of them weren’t familiar with the man and his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but were familiar with the fictional character of Daniel Tiger. Mr. Rogers was a big hero for LeVar Burton, and the two of them eventually became friends. He said, “Fred used to be so brilliant at writing books and explaining to an audience of kids about the world that we live in. And, on this one particular day, I realized that Fred was no longer here. Fred had passed on, and there was nobody really stepping in to speak to kids about tragedy, loss, and recovery.”
Burton explained that his story about the rhino is to show that life is a group effort. “We never do this thing called life alone. There are, as the book says, family and friends, even sometimes people we don’t know who are here to help us through the tough times. So, this book was a response to that need, seeing that Fred wasn’t here anymore.”
Afterward, Drew Vernon showed kids that they can put a little character on top of a Toniebox and emanating from that box would be LeVar Burton’s voice, reading The Rhino Who Swallowed the Storm. Vernon, along with the company’s mascot, Red, presented Richman Elementary and Fullerton School District officials with a check for one hundred Tonieboxes. In return, the students from Richman Elementary presented Burton with a blanket with a drawing from his book. Each of the classes had made their own books about the rhino story: one about how the rhino makes them feel, and another about how the rhino is feeling.
“I loved being here. I loved sharing rhino with all of you. I loved that you were all familiar with the story, and already had a favorite character,” Burton said. “I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm welcome and wonderful hospitality…It’s so wonderful to feel the presence of the Fullerton community in this room together. I understand this really was a community effort.”