If you attended grade school after 1983, you’re probably able to sing along to the Reading Rainbow theme song from the moment that first note is played. It’s first episode aired in June 1983, and the show quickly became well-loved by teachers and librarians alike to help introduce kids to new books and new ideas. Running from 1983-2009, each of the thirty-minute long episodes would focus on a different children’s book, diving deeper into themes from the book with informational featurettes.
“PBS would commission surveys, and over an 18-year period, teachers reported Reading Rainbow was the most-used video in their classrooms. They saw it not only as a reading show, but as a way for kids to see things they might not otherwise get exposed to,” says Pam Johnson, former VP of education and outreach at WNED in an article for Mental Floss.
Hosted by the iconic LeVar Burton (whose birthday is February 16th), each of these episodes (over 155 of them total) would take place in a location relevant to the book. Not only were the locations incredible, but Burton and his ever-changing group of guest stars made it easy for readers of all ages to connect to important story points. Burton also consulted kids in his review process, and would have them provide the reviews for the books on the show, that way it seemed like the book was being talked about by a friend.
For many, Reading Rainbow helped to spark a love of reading, and now, over a decade after the show stopped airing, the lessons learned from Reading Rainbow still ring true.
You can “go anywhere”
Burton had an innate ability to make reading any kind of book feel like an incredible adventure. Using the power of his voice along with the prose from beautifully written books, viewers were swept away on captivating journeys through all kinds of places, experiences, and cultures throughout the world.
Burton’s impressive number of guest stars like Run DMC, James Earl Jones, Kermit The Frog, Eddie Murphy, and many others helped expose millions of impressionable students to a wide variety of backgrounds, opinions, and experiences that they would channel through to real life.
You can “be anything”
“Part of the secret sauce of Reading Rainbow was tying literature to a real-world experience. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who told me they became a writer or librarian or bee keeper or were inspired by the show to some degree or another and that it had a major impact on their life,” says Burton in an article for Mental Floss.
“If you’re a reader for life, you’re a learner for life. And if you are a learner for life then you are the definition of what I would consider to be a dangerous individual, which is somebody who doesn’t take someone else’s word for it.” - LeVar Burton
Burton was also the first Black man to host a show on the network, making him stand out in a predominantly white industry as an actor, author, mentor, and literacy advocate, undoubtedly inspiring thousands of young readers that a career in any industry is possible, regardless of race.
You can learn anything “in a book”
BookClub was built on the insight that people learn more from books than they do from any other source, and Burton too used books to illustrate this point, teaching kids important lessons on life, challenges, social expectations, and more through the episodes in his show.
Reading Rainbow made it easy for kids to apply knowledge they learned in real life scenarios. In “A Chair For My Mother” (Season 2, Episode 5), Burton taught about saving up for a long period of time in order to buy something special, and in “Game Day” (Season 21, Episode 4), the episode focuses on teenage twins training against all odds to compete in the Olympics, a perfect example of the “hard work pays off” mentality in real life.
“If you’re a reader for life, you’re a learner for life,” says Burton in EdTech Magazine. “And if you are a learner for life then you are the definition of what I would consider to be a dangerous individual, which is somebody who doesn’t take someone else’s word for it.”
Since Reading Rainbow has come off the air on PBS, Burton has started a podcast where he has carried on the show format as digital technology evolves. No matter your age or generation, Reading Rainbow has and will be a powerful education tool for years to come. Do you have a favorite Reading Rainbow episode? Share it with us on Twitter at @bookclubdotcom.