There are shows from childhood that shape us for better or worse. Butterfly in the Sky, directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, looks at the origins and struggles to bring the beloved PBS show Reading Rainbow to television. The documentary, aired at Tribeca, interviews the crew, educators, children from the show, and show’s host and star, LeVar Burton. Reading Rainbow inspired children to enjoy reading, and that impact is indelibly embedded in the foundation of countless people. Butterfly in the Sky takes us down memory lane and shows us what was happening behind those joyous scenes. 

Searching for LeVar

Most people who came together to create Reading Rainbow were new in their field. Reading declined because most kids watched television all day. So, when they pitched the idea for a show to get children passionate about reading, people were skeptical. But they got the green light to shoot the pilot. Now they needed someone akin to a Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers is iconic in the show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood to the point where someone else in the role is unimaginable. They needed to find theirs. 

LeVar Burton came from the limited series Roots, and everyone talked about Burton’s role. No one thought LeVar Burton would agree to the show, but he loved the idea and did. LeVar is a rare celebrity who wants to give back to the community somehow. Reading Rainbow merged reading with television. The show included kids and stories from various backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. Kids saw themselves represented on the screen and could imagine being on the show talking about a book they loved. It reveled in diversity and roused kids to learn about other places and experiences.

Honest Reviews From Kids

Butterfly in the Sky image of LeVar Burton seated, holding a book
Courtesy of XTR

Shows today are heavily scripted with well-timed execution giving the appearance of authenticity. Butterfly in the Sky shows the kids wrote their reviews on the books. That is because the creators and production team understood the show is about kids recommending books to kids. The documentary also includes interviews with Whoopi Goldberg and writer Jason Reynolds, who explains the impact of seeing a Black man and kids on Reading Rainbow. However, that is not to say there was no friction or conflict.

The Danger of Connecting

There were arguments about Levar Burton’s appearance. He would be clean-shaven one season, then have a mustache the next. Burton dug his heels in, despite their urging him to keep his appearance consistent. Yet, the more prominent issue was outside the show. Politicians, especially Republicans, wanted PBS shut down and Reading Rainbow too. The Republicans’ fight to prevent diversity starts with education and reading. The thing that made the show beloved was also why Republicans considered it dangerous. Levar Burton defended the show at a hearing to end PBS and Reading Rainbow. Without connecting on a basic level, harm arises.

Butterfly in the Sky reminds me of the joy I always had for reading. I can close my eyes and hear the Reading Rainbow opening and LeVar Burton’s voice. Burton’s warm welcome made me feel I was in a safe space, where I could share ideas and questions. I would not have the passion or joy for reading and writing without Reading Rainbow and LeVar Burton. It is tragic to realize there is still, and likely always will be, a battle to stifle diversity and learning. Butterfly in the Sky shows love and honesty about the show’s 26-year battle to stay on air, and why every generation needs their Reading Rainbow.