‘Butterfly in the Sky’: LeVar Burton talks with amNY about new documentary on ‘Reading Rainbow’

Actor LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow in a library holding a book
Read a Book LLC

Can New Yorkers go anywhere? They can — especially if they take a look in a book and see the new documentary, “Butterfly in the Sky,” a behind-the-scenes look at the beloved children’s show, “Reading Rainbow,” hosted by LeVar Burton.

Bookworms of almost all ages most likely remember the educational, entertaining show, which ran on PBS from 1983 to 2006. Throughout each 30-minute episode, the award-winning Burton took viewers on exciting adventures throughout the world, all in effort to foster a love of reading among kids in an age where television often prevailed over books when it came to down time.  

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Butterfly in the Sky” went on to screen at dozens of festivals, winning 14 awards. It is now showing in select theaters in NYC and will be available on select streaming services in April. 

The premise behind ‘Reading Rainbow’

As discussed in the new documentary, rather than compete with TV, the show’s producers and creators — many of whom have backgrounds in education — embraced it. Each episode featured a particular children’s book that was brought to life on TV through exciting on-location segments, fun facts and interviews, all designed to entertain kids. 

For example, the book, “Louis the Fish,” brought Burton to an aquarium to hang out with giant groupers. Meanwhile, the book, “The Bionic Bunny Show,” brought young readers to the set of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” of which Burton was a cast member while he was hosting “Reading Rainbow” simultaneously.

actor LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow sitting down next to a TV
LeVar Burton as host of “Reading Rainbow.”Read a Book LLC

The heartwarming documentary, which features interviews with Burton and other cast and crew members, gives viewers an inside look into the production of the iconic show. Inspiring and nostalgic, it also tells the story of Burton and details some challenges he and the show’s creators faced in cultivating a love of reading through television. 

“It really did take me back and it was an experience where I was able to remember and relive some very cherished times, and the whole journey of the show and the people who made the show,” Burton told amNewYork Metro in an interview. “It’s been many years since we were all together. Seeing us all at a much younger time period in our lives was also very cool.”

Burton spoke about the unwavering passion and dedication of “Reading Rainbow” crew members who appear in the documentary, including Cecily and Larry Lancit, Twila Liggett and many others. 

“Not that I didn’t know this already, but to see and hear their passion, and have it memorialized, my heart was full,” Burton, who is now 67, added. 

From ‘Roots’ to ‘Reading Rainbow’

In “Butterfly in the Sky”, Burton discusses his iconic role in the classic ABC television mini series, “Roots,” where he played the character, Kunta Kinte, a young Gambian man who was enslaved and brought to America in the late 1700s. 

“The story of slavery in America had never been told from the perspective and point of view of the Black people before,” Burton explains in the documentary. “It had always been explained as an economic engine necessary. There are politicians who say that up to this day.”

Almost the entire country watched the groundbreaking series, which first aired in 1977 and was re-aired several times in subsequent years. Burton’s Kunta Kinte, to this day, is a character that lives in the hearts and minds of many people across the world.

“‘Roots’ taught me about the power of the meaning of television,” Burton said. “It was there that I really learned that all television is education.”

What is LeVar Burton’s favorite episode of ‘Reading Rainbow?’

With so many adventure-packed episodes that took him to exotic locations around the world, it is hard to just pick one, Burton said. 

But there are some that standout. One example, Burton said, is the episode named for the book, “Hill of Fire,” which brought cast and crew to a Hawaiian island to get an up-close view of an active volcano that was, per nature, scheduled to erupt. 

What did Burton and his team want? To get the volcanic eruption on film for “Reading Rainbow” fans to see. 

“We did two shows, I believe, on the island, and we were finished,” he said. “We waited for a couple of days and were getting ready to go home because it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen. We were there because there was a good possibility. And just when we surrendered, gave up and were about to go home, off she went.”

And so, young viewers were able to see footage of magnificent natural event on TV. 

“Butterfly in the Sky” details a mostly delightful and happy look at the class TV show, but it also discusses challenges producers faced over the years, one of them being public broadcasting faced with budget cuts. 

But overall, directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb give audiences of all ages the opportunity to relive the show’s legacy. Both Thomason and Whitcomb call “Reading Rainbow” an “unsung hero” of children’s television. 

“Having both grown up in Texas, ‘Reading Rainbow’ not only reflected the diverse cultures that surrounded us, but LeVar Burton also introduced us to other worlds in colorful and magical ways,” the directors shared. “We believe ‘Reading Rainbow’ is among the most important shows ever produced and a true unsung hero of children’s programming.”

How to watch ‘Butterfly in the Sky’

New Yorkers can see the documentary at AMC theaters Lincoln Square 13 and Empire 25 on March 20 and will be available to watch on iTunes and Amazon starting on April 30.