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Butterfly in the Sky: The Reading Rainbow Documentary

Take a nostalgia trip through the most beloved TV read-along program of all time
Aviv Gijsbers van Wijk •
Apr 23rd, 2024

From 1983 to 2006, PBS aired the reading enrichment show Reading Rainbow, hosted by LeVar Burton. Burton first rose to fame as a star in the epic television series Roots, based on Alex Haley's book of the same name. And many people recognize him as a main character in the Star Trek Next Generation among other major TV and film appearances. But Burton's towering cultural legacy will be the beloved read-along show that captured the hearts and minds of millions of children across America—this writer included! "But you don't have to take my word for it," as Burton said in his famous catchphrase used in nearly every episode of Reading Rainbow.

Now, a feature documentary film called Butterfly in the Sky explores the phenomenon of Reading Rainbow with a close-up look at the making of the show, the auditions of show guests, the wonderful book reviews by kids and interviews with some of the incredible talent who narrated the books in each episode. The film also chronicles the lasting impact of Burton on some of today's most beloved authors, delves into how Reading Rainbow changed television, and even explores the show's political impact. Butterfly in the Sky premiered at last year's TriBeCa Film Festival and is now showing in select theaters. You can stream it on Amazon Prime and iTunes starting this Tuesday, April 30.

Homage to this iconic series, which celebrates kids' access to books and literacy, is especially timely with the rampant debates over nationwide banning of children's literature. LeVar Burton even appeared recently on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show with "Banned Book Rainbow," a spoof segment on the series.

For all of you filled with Reading Rainbow nostalgia, here's a reminder of some of the wonderful books read by celebrities, who kept children rapt attention for each 30-minute episode for more than 26 seasons. How many of these do you remember?

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain

The premier episode of Reading Rainbow featured a story narrated by none other than James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader and an actor who, as mentioned in the documentary, took recording so seriously that he asked to reschedule his recording in order to prepare a better take. A story of bringing rain to a small African village, the rhythm of the words and evocative art make this book so memorable.

The Tortoise and the Hare

This classic fable of taking your time versus hurrying things up is narrated by the hilarious comic actor Gilda Radner. Even if you know who wins at the end, this story of patience and sacrifice imparts wisdom to readers through the generations.


An adaptation of a South African folksong and lullaby, author Pete Seeger calls this Abiyoyo a "storysong." The folk music legend narrated and sung the story on the show. Take a boy and his ukelele, add some of his dad's magic, and a giant, and you're in for a ride!

How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World

If you want to bake an apple pie, but the market is closed... what do you do? Why, you explore the globe to get your ingredients! This high-flying, globe-trotting book takes readers from a steamboat in Italy to apple-picking in Vermont. Apple pie recipe included! This episode was narrated by Dame Helen Mirren.

Math Curse

Did you ever have a day where the math just wasn't going your way? You've got five things to do and four minutes to do them in, or twenty homework questions to answer and ten minutes before the bus leaves? That's the math curse! In this amusing story, one girl tries to break the curse. In the show, this was narrated by Harriet The Spy's own Michelle Tratchenberg.

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