Butterfly in the Sky is a love letter to LeVar Burton’s PBS children show, depicting how storytelling can change lives for the better.
If you enjoy catching up with film reviews such as this one, then you most likely than not love storytelling as a whole. Whether it is through literature, movies, music, paintings, or creative writing of your own, stories are doorways into other people’s imagination. They can help us understand the world and how others view life differently, or similarly, to us.
Everyone who is an artist, or simply admires art, has their unique origins in how they got involved with their passions. Some got introduced to storytelling by their parents, others by art programs at school. A grand number of children in the early 1980s and 2000s, though, developed their early passion for literature and art through PBS’s educational series Reading Rainbow.
Reading Rainbow ran for 26 years and explored real life issues that could be related to illustrated children’s books in order to educate kids on serious manners. The series didn’t just seek to educate youngsters, but it encouraged them to participate, as children would be invited to review their favorite books on air. This would motivate kids back home to read on their own and fall in love with stories. Documentary Butterfly in the Sky chronicles a rare time in history where filmmakers, educators, and broadcasters came together to agree that television could bridge the world of literature and TV to inspire interest in reading.
Butterfly in the Sky is the definition of delightful. A lot of documentaries of this nature that attempt to recollect the making of a famous production often fall victim to being overly simple. They mostly care to cover the inception of the project, the production process, and how it came to its end. Directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb do cover these steps, but Butterfly in the Sky is more interested in Reading Rainbow’s legacy and why it was important to so many people; children and adults alike. LeVar Burton (Star Trek: Picard), the show’s host, brought a sense of authority, while also speaking to you as a parental figure who cared about you and wished for you to be ready for your future ahead. He is one of the many reasons why the series worked so well, as he unintentionally helped raise so many kids around the globe.
I didn’t get the chance to see the show growing up, but I do wish I got to see somebody like LeVar Burton on my TV as a kid. Burton instantly became an icon of children’s television because of his kindness, his gentle way of approaching topics, his patience, and a genuine fascination for kids’ opinions that could only be comparable to that of Fred Rogers and his series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. On top of that, as a Black man being offered to engage with young viewers, Burton gave children of color a voice to express themselves. Butterfly in the Sky wasn’t just another kids show like Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it was a show that allowed its diverse audience to see themselves and identify with narratives that spoke to them on a personal level.
Books aren’t just cute little stories we tell children before going to bed. Burton understood this. They can open our minds and help us discover things about ourselves that otherwise would be suppressed. Jason Reynolds, American author of young adult novels, is one of the many individuals who are interviewed in the film. He argues that seeing LeVar Burton on his screen gave him, and countless other kids, the confidence to stand up for himself. It told them that their stories mattered, their voice mattered, their opinions mattered. Reading Rainbow empowered them to realize their stories were worth telling.
Kenn Michael (The parent ‘Hood) was one of the several children who got to review a book on the show. His experience on Reading Rainbow pushed him to pursue his career as an actor. As a writer myself, I can relate to this as well because I can’t even begin to list the amount of films and books I consumed as a child that guided me to where I am today: writing for an audience. Even simple things such as a tweet or a post on Facebook had to be influenced by either our education, or the art we ingest.
Discussing the importance of storytelling in one’s career is just touching the surface. There are other interviewees in the film who reflect on how Reading Rainbow helped them discover their sexuality through the power of literature. In another episode that aired around 2001, LeVar Burton navigated the difficult task of explaining to children what happened on September 11th, 2001. Watching the footage of the episode in the documentary is quite powerful, particularly seeing kids from New York mourn the people of their city that passed away that day after the twin towers fell. It is incredibly emotional. We often make the mistake of dumbing-down information because we believe children to be fragile, or think they’re not smart enough to understand serious issues, but LeVar Burton and the crew of Reading Rainbow knew not to underestimate kids’ capability of sympathy.
Like all good things, though, Reading Rainbow saw dark times in the mid-90s, when Congress tried to cut funding for public television. Butterfly in the Sky does not shy away from addressing this issue and spends a great amount of its runtime showcasing Burton arguing to Congress that public television was just as important in the educational journey of a child as much as school. The show eventually did lose the support of the federal government years later, leaving the crew of Reading Rainbow with an empty feeling as their mission to inspire children to read was not accomplished yet. LeVar Burton did try to continue their mission by helping develop the Skybrary app, in which kids could read books from their tablets or computers.
Butterfly in the Sky is an important piece of filmmaking that takes us back to a time where shows like Reading Rainbow were possible. In an age where parents are more willing to lend their phones or iPads to their kids in an effort to get them to shut up, and the ongoing push to ban children’s books that discuss social issues like sexuality and race, I think more than ever we need the Reading Rainbows of the world. Television series aimed for kids that can fill the gap between literature and technology in order to engage children to read and expand their imaginations and knowledge of the world.
LeVar Burton’s legacy is one that future generations should try to immerse themselves in because people like him who genuinely want to make the world a better place deserve the praise and attention others receive for doing the bare minimum. If the film ever comes to a theater near you, or on streaming in the future, give Butterfly in the Sky the opportunity to remind you of that child-like wonder we got when we picked up a book and we were absorbed by the characters and their journeys on the page.
Butterfly in the Sky premiered at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival on September 30, 2022.