Butterfly In The Sky: The Story of Reading Rainbow

The childhood trips with my family I remember the most were our annual summer outings to Cape Cod. One of the things that this provided me was access to American cable television which our family did not have back home. We were still with our old antenna, picking up signals and hoping for the best. Cable would only come to our household at the start of the millennium. One of the blocks of television that I watched in the afternoon was the PBS hour of kids programming. One of the shows that stuck out to me the most was Reading Rainbow hosted by LeVar Burton, with its catchy synth hook theme song open.  Simply put, the show was promoting reading as a fun adventure that the reader takes upon reading a book, rather than seeing reading as an academic test to set standards. It showcased the importance and wonder that books hold. As well, it showed how book readers can connect through a shared interest, where kids were often featured recommending their book selections. When LeVar Burton spoke to the audience, normally children, he delivered his tone in a friendly manner that was direct and non-patronizing. 

Promoting a reading show amongst children was what the Public Broadcasting Service was looking for in the 1980’s. Educators were tasked with developing a show that promoted reading as a fun activity that was also educational. The idea for Reading Rainbow was developed and LeVar Burton was tapped as the host, only his second role after his big break in the mini-series Roots as the character Kunta Knight. The standard format of the episode was simple, Burton would introduce a theme around the episode and that theme was adapted into an adventure outing that normally Burton would participate in. Nothing was off limits, besides the adventure in the Bat Cave that he passed on. Books would be selected around the theme or adventure of the day that was animated by animators and would have a guest voice actor to narrate the books. Some of these voice actors included Angelica Bassett, Regina King and Nathan Lane. There was even an instance when James Earl Jones came in to read, however, he apologized for being unprepared and asked if he could come back the day after when he got the essence of the book he was going to be narrating. As well, there would be a section of the episodes where kids were given the opportunity to promote a book that they read with their own review. The first send-off of the series was done next to a great calypso cover of the theme song in the Season 5 episode "My Little Island," as Burton would be going on to working on Star Trek The Next Generation. 

There was still some more reading to do when the show relaunched in the late 80’s early 90’s. I would have tuned in around the mid to late 90’s when the opportunity was there. The premiere took place on the Star Trek Enterprise where Burton introduced the children to the television show he had been working on. The 90’s also saw the first wave and fight to keep Public Broadcasting Services alive through funding that the government wanted to cut. Burton even went to Congress himself to make statements on how it was important to keep PBS alive for future generations of children, including his own. The next adventures of Reading Rainbow in the series revival dealt more with the real world and more serious topics including birth (the episode would not air in one southern state), living with an incarcerated family member, homelessness and even a post-9/11 episode where Burton meet with a group of children at a school that was near the world trade center. What was most important was how Burton spoke about those themes and his style of caring about people’s emotions. 

This is what made Reading Rainbow so special, like Mr. Rogers, the host LeVar Burton and how he communicated the ideas and themes for reading in a manner that was direct, honest, sincere and most importantly non-patronizing that the educational system was developing in contrast towards reading. He took a fun approach to the adventure but was never shy about talking about life, emotions or even death from a kid’s point of view. Later on in the 90’s there would be heavier topics but LeVar knew that listening held more power than speaking at important moments when it came to interacting with kids. He wanted to be the contrast to the educational system of conformity. Speaking about conformity he always changed his appearance as the seasons went on to reflect his identity, which did not sit well with the show's producers, but it represented his individuality. Some statistics showed that boys were reading less than girls, so developing a show that cast an African American male lead as a host would make reading appealing to the male demographic. Burton as the host left an everlasting impact as a role model for reading that Reading Rainbow led to a dramatic 800 percent rise in reading amongst youth. Every book publisher wanted their book selected for an episode of Reading Rainbow. 

Even though Reading Rainbow is off the air, LeVar Burton is still working in the spotlight guest starring on an episode of Community where Troy (Donald Glover) is a huge fan and too starstruck to talk to him, or even hosting a podcast where he still reads books to his listeners. My love for reading is still there though my parents who encourage it, but also through my early years of watching Reading Rainbow. Most of the time, books had important messages of tolerance, fighting against injustice, or even being true to yourself. In today’s climate of censorship and book banning it’s important to remember the fundamentals that Reading Rainbow and host LeVar Burton championed while they were on the air. 


Butterfly in The Sky is currently streaming on Netflix. As much as Remi is an avid reader and movie watcher, he hosts At The Movies (With Iconic Sounds) alongside co-host Danny Aubry every Tuesday Morning from 8-9 AM only on CJLO 1690 AM.