Take a Look, It’s in a Book

A librarian and her colleagues mourn the end of “Reading Rainbow.”

In the midst of all of the celebrity deaths this summer, just one has touched me personally. Only this time it wasn’t a person, but a television show that’s gone belly up.

For longer than I’ve been alive, “Reading Rainbow” has been on the air. From the first notes of the tinny, electro-pop theme song, I, a gung-ho bibliophile even at the tender age of 4, would be firmly planted on the couch to watch.

In all its years, the show never changed its energetic host, LeVar Burton. When I was a kid, he was basically my hero. Not only did he host “Reading Rainbow,” he also appeared as navigator/chief engineer Geordi LaForge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and voiced Kwame, the African Planeteer, on “Captain Planet.”

Sadly, his days hosting the show have come to an end. Effective August 29, 2009, the Public Broadcasting System stopped showing episodes at all, and for a librarian and book-lover like me, this is devastating news.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

“I am sad that this show won’t be on for my kids to watch someday,” lamented my colleague Barbara Thorp, a children’s librarian, when I asked what she thought about the news. “There was an episode of the show that featured a book that talked about a boy who took boxes and other things and made a pretend/play space,” she said. “I was so enamored with the idea that I took crates and blankets and books and made a place for myself to daydream and read. [...] Just hearing the theme song gets my spirits up as I travel back to my childhood.”

Earning 26 Emmy Awards over its 26 years, “Reading Rainbow” went in a totally different direction from its public television counterparts. While shows like “Sesame Street” were busily and successfully teaching children how to read, “Reading Rainbow” went beyond phonics and focused on teaching children how to love to read.

It introduced different stories and authors and subjects to the preschool and early elementary set (though, certainly, there was a lot to enjoy for even younger viewers); it often featured a guest celebrity who would narrate the books. I still remember adoring Bill Cosby’s reading of Marc Brown’s book Arthur’s Eyes. Other guest stars, including musical acts like Run DMC, would perform too. In each episode, there was a segment in which Burton would go on small adventures relating to the theme of the story, thus tying in real-life examples to go along with what you just watched.

Once, in my all-time favorite episode, Burton did the ultimate TV crossover and took his dedicated bookish audience on a behind-the-scenes tour of the set of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I was thrilled.

After his adventuring and reading was complete, he uttered his now-famous “But you don’t have to take my word for it,” cuing the show’s Book Reviews segment. In it, a few children (and we’re talking real-life children, not the child star variety) supplied their peers with short book recommendations.

“When ‘Reading Rainbow’ came on I was there in front of the TV adjusting those rabbit ears,” said Cynthia Lawrence, another children’s librarian who works with me.
“My favorite part was when the children recommended books. I thought it added a personal touch — I could relate to them because they were my age.”

At my childhood public library — the same one where I work now — I knew I could count on “Reading Rainbow” to supply me with something good. My sister and I would dash around the stacks hunting for a book with the coveted shiny silver “Rainbow” sticker. I knew it would be a good one if LeVar recommended it to me. I can’t remember ever being disappointed with my choices.

It turns out librarians felt the same way. “I made an effort to purchase ‘Reading Rainbow titles’,” Outreach Librarian Cindy Parker told me. “ ‘Reading Rainbow’ exposed kids to a variety of topics, and especially encouraged reading non-fiction.”

But for PBS and its affiliates, that turned out not to be enough. According to this NPR story, the network and affiliated stations were unwilling to put up the money to renew the broadcasting rights. Instead of continuing along with its revolutionary lovefest to literature, they have opted to go back to their roots and focus solely on the basic components of reading. So, public television viewers, you can now look forward to more phonics and less enrichment.

That’s not much of a trade-off, if you ask us librarians. “This show will always live in my heart as one of the reasons for my creative side and my imagination,” Thorp told me. “I can recall many episodes that touched me and made a positive mark on my mind.”

Thank goodness, at least, for DVDs. You can bet that I’ll be snagging my own box set when I have children of my own. I want my kids to share in the magic too, even if the theme song graphics are kind of silly.

Until then, LeVar, see you next time.

Article © 2009 by Molly E. Weeks