I have to confess I never watched the PBS series Reading Rainbow when it aired. At 14, I was already an incorrigible reader, often getting in trouble in school for hiding paperbacks behind the open textbooks I should have been reading in class. But I have seen its impact on my peers who are a few years younger than me. Any time the show would be mentioned, friends’ eyes would light up and discussion would turn to various beloved children’s books that the show introduced them to.
Directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb new documentary Butterfly In The Sky – a title taken from the first verse of the show’s opening theme song for those who don’t know – takes a look at the creation and history of the iconic PBS series which ran for 23 seasons starting 1983. Part nostalgic retrospective, part behind-the-scenes glimpse, the documentary follows much of the same template that recent documentaries that looked at PBS children’s programming from a generation before – Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and Sesame Street (Street Gang). A small core of educators and television producers come together to create a series that would encourage children to read more. The casting of LeVar Burton, the son of a former school teacher, would be the final, and perhaps most important, component to the show. And for nearly two-and-a-half decades, they would take young viewers literally around the globe as they explored not just the books themselves but the themes and worlds that the books opened up.
Perhaps because of PBS’s already strong record in terms of educational programming for children, it seems like Reading Rainbow didn’t have as tough a time getting started as its predecessors. Once the key creatives were in position and the ever-present question of funding was resolved, it seems as if things were smooth sailing for the show. An initial hesitancy on the part of publishers in having their books featured on em>Reading Rainbow soon disappeared once they saw the show’s rising popularity. Books for consideration were soon coming into the production offices by the box load.
It could be seen as a tribute to the vibe among the show’s productions staff that even when Butterfly In The Sky attempts to go “warts and all” in the telling of the show’s history, there aren’t that many warts to begin with. Concerns raised over Burton’s changing facial hair dissipates fairly quickly when it becomes clear that the kids in the audience didn’t care or notice. The possibility of losing Burton to the just going into production Star Trek: The Next Generation similarly evaporated after some talking with that show’s producers. Those discussions ultimately led to a Reading Rainbow episode that took its audience behind the scenes of the science-fiction series. A move by Congressional Republicans to completely defund public television is quickly squelched in part due to Burton showing up at a Congressional hearing and reading the offending politicians the riot act.
If Butterfly In The Sky has any faults, they lie in the fact that the documentary doesn’t explore fully the impact that the show had outside of its creators. While the film mentions how the show helped to jump the sales of children’s books overall exponentially, we don’t get to hear from any authors on how having their work featured on the show directly impacted them. It also would have been interesting to perhaps see high-profile professionals from various fields who could state that they felt their careers were direct results from having been encouraged to read by the show.
Ultimately, Butterfly In The Sky is a nice look back at the series from the viewpoint of its creators and should be provide plenty of nostalgic feelings for those who were in its audience during its run. But it also works as a reminder about the importance of engaging children in their education and finding ways to teach them while simultaneously stimulating their imagination. A reminder that is good to have every now and then.
But don’t take my word for it…