LeVar Burton, Alisa Reyes, Dean Parisot, Kenny Blank
Bradford Thomason, Brett Whitcomb
"Butterfly in the Sky" a Nostalgic Cinematic Wonder
There may not be another documentary you'll see this year that will so completely wrap you up in its good heart and absolute warmth as the cinematic wonder Butterfly in the Sky, a beautiful little piece of movie magic that tells the story of the beloved PBS chldren's series Reading Rainbow, its iconic host LeVar Burton, and the challenges the show's creators faced in cultivating a love of reading through television.
Reading Rainbow premiered in July 1983, a couple of months after my high school graduation and years after I'd already been possessed by that love of reading. However, even as a young adult I found myself in love with the show that managed to capture everything I loved about reading and more. It didn't hurt, of course, that the wonderful LeVar Burton was there front-and-center with a charismatic smile, gentle and hospitable demeanor, and such a complete and utter sincerity that you couldn't help but believe everything that he said.
Directed by Bradford Thomason and Bret Whitcomb, Butterfly in the Sky joins such docs as Won't You Be My Neighbor and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street in capturing the difficult to explain magic of PBS's ability to use television to reach America's children in a pretty amazing way. LeVar Burton was an inspired choice to host Reading Rainbow and he's become so associated with the show that it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone as host. Along with his own warm and inviting spirit, Burton easily shared the spotlight with real kids offering real book reviews, readings by celebrity guests, a fantastic theme song that I can still sing to this day, and special segments that always seemed to fit just right.
Reading Rainbow aired on PBS from 1983-2006 and nearly everyone involved in its creation engaged with Butterfly in the Sky including Burton. Twila Liggett was a teacher who left teaching because she didn't care for the superficial testing of children that was so rampant. She desired a different way to reach children. Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit had a production company and a willingness to try something different. For his part, Burton had learned about the power of television to educate through his breakout performance in the iconic Roots. When introduced to the idea of Reading Rainbow, he jumped into the product quickly. Having studied for the priesthood earlier in his life, it's almost as if Reading Rainbow fit sublimely with that sense of vocation.
The stories that unfold in Butterfly in the Sky are like a nostalgia overload. If you've never watched the series, you'll find yourself wanting to chase down the episodes as quickly as you can. If you are, like me, already a fan of the series then watching Butterfly in the Sky will be like a warm and fuzzy journey back to the best parts of childhood or, in my case, young adulthood.
I mean, let's face it. In some ways, we never really grow up completely.
For over 20 years, Reading Rainbow empowered children with the love of reading and did so in a way that was warm, inviting, safe, and seemingly limitless. Rather magically, Butterfly in the Sky captures all of this and it's easily one of my favorite documentaries in 2022.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic