As a kid, I did a lot of reading. I would go to my local comic book store with whatever allowance I saved up and buy Simpsons comics and manga. As far as traditional kids’ books went, while I still do have a few that I keep because my mom read them to me and they have a lot of sentimental value, I didn’t read most children’s books besides the usual ones. “The Hungry Caterpillar,” “The Giving Tree,” “The Rainbow Fish,” “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” All of these were stories I read, and I’m sure many of you read them too. I’m also sure that a lot of you may have first heard of those books thanks to Reading Rainbow, the PBS show that’s the subject of this documentary, Butterfly in the Sky.
I can’t say I remember watching episodes of Reading Rainbow growing up, but I feel like I have. Watching the opening credits of the show from this documentary triggered something in my brain that seemed too familiar. Even if you knew absolutely nothing about Reading Rainbow, Butterfly in the Sky will try its best to teach you why the show was such a magical experience and how it made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Butterfly in the Sky
Directors: Bradford Thomason, Brett Whitcomb
Release Date: June 9, 2022 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Butterfly in the Sky is an interesting documentary because it almost serves a dual purpose. On the surface, it’s a very comprehensive look at the history of the PBS show Reading Rainbow and its impact on children for over 25 years, but it’s also a documentary about its host, LeVar Burton. Of course, to try and separate the two of them would be like separating Mr. Rogers from his neighborhood. They’re so intrinsically linked that to do otherwise would undeniably make the documentary weaker.
But yes, the main focus of the documentary is looking at what made Reading Rainbow so special. Interviewees range from its host LeVar Burton, to a handful of producers, to the show’s creator Twili Ligget, and even many of the children who wrote reviews for the show who are now grown up. Through each of their testimonies, you do get a sense of the passion and joy everyone had not only for reading but for the show.
We learn about a lot of the backstory behind how and why certain books are chosen and the talent that came on board to narrate each story. The highlights of Butterfly in the Sky come in the form of just how mind-boggling it was just to get the footage that they did for certain episodes. They explain in great detail how they were able to film an active volcano, how a boom mic operator fell in a massive bat cave and passed out trying to escape, or how and why they decided to do a 9/11 episode. All of these accounts are filled with a sense of pride in what they’ve done and the positive message that they believe they sent to kids.
Of course, you can’t talk about Reading Rainbow without mentioning LeVar Burton. Through all of the archival footage and all of the interviewee’s accounts, they paint LeVar Burton as being a man who wanted to be as authentic as possible and was always genuine about virtually everything. When he liked something, he truly liked it and he would put his foot down over subjects that he felt would hamper his authenticity. Former producers talked about how frustrated they were at the time that LeVar’s facial hair and hairstyle kept changing, which they believed damaged the show’s continuity. Nowadays they’re much more understanding and accepting that they were in the wrong, but funnily enough, Burton also attested that he was a lot more stubborn when he was younger. He made their lives more troublesome because of that, and he was apologetic for the stress he caused them. That’s a reflective and classy guy.
As the documentary goes on, it doesn’t overlook the problems that the show faced. Some of the problems were easy to fix, like LeVar going off to do Star Trek the Next Generation since he still wanted to do the show and negotiated with Paramount to allow him to continue hosting it. Other problems, such as Congress trying to restrict PBS’s budget and cancel it, the rise of the internet, and No Child Left Behind redefining the focus of education, weren’t as simple. While Reading Rainbow was created to help promote child literacy, an ironic twist of fate saw critics of the time lambasting television for reduced literacy only to then criticize the show 20 years later for not focusing on core skills necessary for higher test scores. The series was made to escape the draconian policies of public education, only to be taken down by those very tenants.
It’s sad in a way, but nobody regretted their time on the show. The series turned out to be a complete net positive for its 25-year run and people have nothing but reverence for it. Butterfly In The Sky paints a picture of a series that was meant to spread joy, and it succeeded in that goal tremendously. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll probably learn a fact or two about it that you never knew before. If you only watched it growing up, you’ll want to crack open your favorite kid’s book just to read it for old time’s sake. It would make an excellent companion piece to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. You can’t beat watching two movies about two shows hosted by two men who loved nothing more than the joy they were spreading to children across the country.