Every Friday at Holy Trinity School, we piled into the library, plopped on the carpeted floor, and watched a tape of the PBS show “Reading Rainbow.” I’m sure we sang along with the theme song, which still pops into my head unbidden from time to time. We didn’t know that LeVar Burton was famous on “Star Trek” or had played a character on “Roots.” We knew him as the friendly host who encouraged us to read books, but not to take his word for it.
This morning, NPR played a story about the end of “Reading Rainbow,” which lacks funding for broadcast rights. I don’t know if schools still have the luxury of herding second-graders into the library for a half-hour of reading evangelism, but I feel a little bereft on their behalf if they don’t.
Obviously, reading has been a lifelong passion for me; I wouldn’t be writing a blog about books if it hadn’t been. My Catholic school upbringing gave me not only a pathological avoidance of lying but also the encouragement to always carry a “free reading” book with me and to regularly conference books with teachers. In first grade, we sat loyally at the feet of our beloved teacher as she read to us from Beverly Cleary books and the Boxcar Children series. I remember learning that pneumonia has a silent “p” on the front because my third grade teacher was reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which features a tiny rat struck down with the mysteriously spelled disease. In fourth grade, our teacher mandated reading time each morning and actually made us announce our progress out loud. In sixth grade, my teacher organized a Newbery Club, in which half our class met monthly over lunch to discuss Newbery Award winning books. Reading for pleasure was an integral part of my upbringing, at home and at school, and “Reading Rainbow” was absolutely part of that.
When I was in first grade, I was home sick one Friday. I lived next to the school, so I watched my classmates playing on the playground from the kitchen window. However, I didn’t have to miss out on LeVar Burton — I watched “Reading Rainbow” on our TV. Children are ritualistic, and I was not going to be left out of my weekly “Butterfly in the sky…” theme song and introduction to books through the eyes of children like myself.
I haven’t watched the show in years, and I don’t believe that long-running series have a destiny to continue indefinitely. But it’s sad that “Reading Rainbow” has to end because there isn’t enough money to continue its mission. I hope that schoolchildren will still get the encouragement they need to read for fun. If you don’t develop a love of reading early on, I think it’s hard for you to develop a rich adult reading life.
Did you watch “Reading Rainbow” in school or at home? Do you remember it as fondly as I do? How important is television in encouraging us to read, since it is a competing activity?