© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Butterfly in the Sky' celebrates the legacy of 'Reading Rainbow' & all who made it

"Reading Rainbow" host LeVar Burton looks at "Amazing Grace," one of the books featured on the children's program, as he reflects on his experience for the documentary.

If you’re a child of the 1980s or ‘90s, Reading Rainbow was probably an integral part of your childhood. Even hearing just a few seconds of the show's theme song has you feeling the urge to run to your living room and sit cross-legged in front of the television.

Such is the beloved nature of the classic children’s literary TV show that introduced millions of kids to the wonder of books. And of course, we can't forget about the man that made the series what it was — LeVar Burton.

A new documentary called Butterfly in the Sky tells the story of the PBS children’s series Reading Rainbow — from its iconic host, the people behind the scenes, and the challenges its creators faced in cultivating a love of reading through television.

The documentary's co-director and editor, Bradford Thomason grew up watching the program along with co-director Brett Whitcomb. "The idea of Reading Rainbow, the influence on us had always kind of been there, even if we weren't thinking about it," says Thomason.

They were surprised to discover no one had yet to make a documentary about the show, so they started delving into research.

"Once we found the group of people who made this show who poured their hearts into it, each with their own journey, we sort of felt like we really had an interesting story to tell," notes Thomason. "Not just about the show but about the people who made it and then of course the lives of young people who were impacted by the series."

Reading Rainbow was created in the early 1980's to address the summer reading slump, and the idea of how television could be used for education was a still a new idea particularly for targeting children in first and second grade according to Thomason.

"I think that incorporating the documentary segments, sort of bringing the book to life — these were all new things that Reading Rainbow was bringing to television," he notes.

Along with the images of the books, the narration, and the on location filming, LeVar Burton was the central piece of what made the program a success. Thomason says that Burton always talked to children like they were his peers and speak in an empathetic and kind manner.

"I think LeVar was really good at sharing in the enthusiasm of the viewer," he says. "Every time that he speaks, you listen. And he has the tendency to say things that give you those [warm] feelings as well. We grew up with him, and the minute we sat down [with him] we were like, 'Oh this is going to be good.'"

Despite running for 26 years, Reading Rainbow could not survive or get funding in the era of No Child Left Behind with impact having to be measurable through test scores. Today it lives on in the form of an app and classroom curriculums, but for those who grew up with the program Thomason says the documentary takes them right back to what they felt as children.

LISTEN: LeVar Burton: Reading Rainbow Helped Build A Generation of Readers

"They leave inspired, they leave obviously reflecting on the show and their memories of the show. But they also leave sort of saying gosh books were such an important thing to me when I was young, or books still are and I want to go read another one," he says.

Thomason says that he and Whitcomb were so enthralled and taken by the people who made Reading Rainbow, that ultimately they wanted to do right by them with this documentary.

"Another part of our story is walking away just understanding and empathizing with the passion and the creativity that went into this show from all of these wonderful people," he says.

You can see Butterfly in the Sky at the Oriental Theater Sunday September 18th at 5pm for the closing night of Milwaukee Film’s Cultures and Communities Festival.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Related Content