Monday, August 29, 2011

"The Legacy of Reading Rainbow"

by Cyrus Webb (Conversations Magazine,September/October)

Reading Rainbow Theme Song
Butterfly in the sky
I can go twice as high
Take a look
It's in a book
A Reading Rainbow

I can go anywhere
Friends to know
And ways to grow
A Reading Rainbow

I can be anything
Take a look
It's in a book
A Reading Rainbow
A Reading Rainbow

When I was growing up, Reading Rainbow was one of those shows that was on my daily to-do list. From the theme song to Levar Burton's upbeat personality and introduction to new and exciting places, I looked forward to that show to take me away from where I was and to introduce me to new books along the way.

For me Reading Rainbow was one of my motivations to begin reading and eventually writing. Even if it was a subject that I didn't think I would be interested in, the show would at least challenge me to think outside of the box and want to give it a try. Then there were the kids like my self who had read books that they were excited to tell us about, and through them I learned how to talk with others about what I was reading.

Yes, Reading Rainbow changed my life and the lives of individuals all around the country. Through it a literary community was formed that started a movement based on books yet expanded to include a genuine interest in the world around us. After 26 years on television,more than a two dozen Emmys and gaining the distinction of being the third longest running program on PBS it was announced that August 27, 2009 would be the end of the popular show. I felt sadness not just for those of us who became better because of the show but for those who would never know the power it had to influence others and encourage a love or reading.

As my way of paying homage to Reading Rainbow and the lives it changed I asked individuals to share with you, our readers, the impact it had on them. Here are just a few of the responses:

"Here’s a factoid I find interesting. There’s a Twitter account with 2.5 million followers, from a now-31 year old named Justin Halpern called @shitmydadsays ( He is only following ONE person, and that’s Levar Burton. I think that says something about the impact of Reading Rainbow." Will Craig,

"I was growing up in the 80's and 90's and am such a product of Reading Rainbow. Today I'm a published author. I won't say that it was all Reading Rainbow's doing, however I loved that show. I can remember getting the books they mentioned out of the library at various times. That show was part of my routine. I think one thing awesome it did was it exposed me to various books and subjects I wouldn't have normally investigated." Anna M. Aquino,

"I was a huge fan of this show...looked forward to it whenever it came on. I believe the excitement it fostered in me about books, and by extension writing, led in part to my current career as a freelance copywriter." Michael Schein,

"I grew up watching episodes of Reading Rainbow at school and at home and absolutely loved the show! Levar Burton was such a great host and really made me believe that reading books would take me on exciting adventures. Seeing how the show made children's books come alive really inspired me to write stories as a kid. Even listening to the theme song now brings a smile to my face and my heart. :) As a children's book author, I'm sad that the wonderful program is off the air because I know how important it is to nurture a love of reading in children." Sheri Fink,

"I absolutely loved Reading Rainbow growing up and I also really loved reading. And I still REALLY love reading. I have very happy memories of Levar -- 'you don't have to take my word for it!', the musical number about 'cooperation makes it happen,' the episode about "New York - the city that never sleeps!" The whole show was like a fun invitation to discover the joy of reading, which I think is the most important gift any kid can ever receive. As our country seems to focus more and more on standardized testing as a measure of literacy, we seem to have lost track of the basic truth that adults read because they WANT to read... so if we want to raise readers, we need to find ways to feed kid's innate DESIRE to read. I think Reading Rainbow did a great job of this and I'm sad it's not around anymore!" Rebecca Zook,

"Reading Rainbow was one of my two favorite shows as a kid and it had an enormous influence on me growing up. My mother raised my sisters and I mostly on her own in poverty, and it was a combination of her influence and Reading Rainbow that turned me on to books for as long as I can remember. It was depressing to here of the cancellation a couple of years ago, as I had hoped my children would be able to look forward to the show as much as I did. It filled me with a love for books I’ve never left behind, and I credit my eventual success in college and law school in part to Reading Rainbow. My strongest Reading Rainbow-related memory, though, stems from Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island. On one of the days where we were doing grenade training, a recruit and I before the training began to debate whether Reading Rainbow or Sesame Street had the better children’s song. I very quietly started to sing the Reading Rainbow song to prove the other recruit wrong when, unbeknownst to me, a Marine instructor had approached us from behind. He lost it, and had me sing as much as I could remember as loudly as I could in front of the Marine recruits before getting back to training." Michael M. Giel

"Reading Rainbow always brought books to life in a way that made it fun to read, but my family took it one step further (probably at my insistence). We incorporated Reading Rainbow into our vacations. Because of Levar Burton’s adventures, we visited Dinosaur National Monument, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown where he ate on the show (which involved rewinding and pausing a taped copy of the episode over and over to get the right address), and more. As a now 26-year-old, I still want to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where Levar x-rayed a mummy; that episode also cemented “Mummies Made in Egypt” as my favorite book at the time and inspired me to want to be an Egyptologist. When I visited Hawaii earlier this year, I was disappointed that my husband and I wouldn’t be traveling to the island where Levar learned about a’a and pahoehoe and couldn’t visit the studio of the artist who used the volcanic rock on Reading Rainbow. Between the loss of Reading Rainbow, the declining popularity of libraries, and Kindles/Nooks/iPads, I’m just not sure how children will learn to love reading as much as I did, and still do." Amanda Kelly

"Growing up, Reading Rainbow was my world! I truly feel that I stayed interested in reading because of this wonderful show. Today, I attribute a great deal of my success to my love for leisure reading. I was greatly saddened when it came time to say farewell to the show 2 years ago & I believe that its absence creates a real void for young people. The importance of reading isn't stressed enough in our society today; the show was incredible in engaging youth and making reading seem like a fun thing versus something young people have to do." Rina Shah

"The show inspired me to work in publishing, which I do now. It was also incredibly important to me when I had few friends at my new school." Nina Lassam

Have a Reading Rainbow story you want to share? Feel free to post it on our website with this story or email me at We look forward to hearing from you and keeping the work of the show alive.

1 comment:

  1. Cyrus, thanks so much for including me in your story! I also vividly remember that Hawaii episode with all those lava flows. I think part of what made the show so special was it made kids feel like they were part of a big, beautiful, exciting, and welcoming world. Thanks for your heartfelt tribute to Lavar Burton and Reading Rainbow!