Goodbye, Reading Rainbow

 After more than twenty years of introducing children to great books, PBS’s Reading Rainbow television series has come to an end.   Over the course of 155 programs, host Levar Burton visited museums and pueblos, interviewed entrepreneurs and biologists, showed us how crayons are made and how oil spills are cleaned up, all the while linking the real world to the best in children’s literature.  Here’s a look at a few favorite books Levar introduced over the years.

    Two boys at loose ends come up with a bright idea:  how about building an airplane?  They root around the house and the barn and manage to knock together an airplane made of common household materials like sheets, windows and an old engine.  It’s not till they start to wonder where the boys have gone that their parents look up in the sky and see them flying high overhead.  Peter Spier’s “Bored! Nothing To Do” is a testimony to the power of invention, told with few words and witty, detailed watercolor illustrations.  Levar follows up with a commercial plane trip and a chance to pilot a plane himself.

    “Show Way” is Jacqueline Woodson’s powerful story of a little girl sold away from her family in Virginia and raised in South Carolina with only a piece of muslin cloth and some red thread to remind her of her mother.  The little girl learns to stitch maps into quilts – “show ways” – and passes them down through the generations, long after slavery is gone.  Hudson Talbot’s mixed media illustrations make the most of the squares and triangles found in traditional quilts, using these shapes to connect the people and quilts over the years.  Woodson has based the story on her own family’s history, and her own little girl makes a cameo appearance in one of the quilts.  Levar visits with a grandmother who survived the Holocaust and talks about exploring family histories.

    James Marshall was a master of the sly story, and “Fox on the Job” shows him at his best.  Needing money for a new bike, Fox goes in search of a job.  Delivering pizza ends disastrously, he loses his job in a shoe store when he exclaims over the size of a customer’s feet, and working at an amusement park is way too scary.  Will the perfect job ever come his way?  Fox is a lovable scoundrel, and his story is just right for beginning readers.  Levar introduces people with interesting jobs, like the architect who designs Lego displays and a police officer who patrols on horseback.

    What could be more fun than a disaster that ends in laughter?  In Steven Kellogg’s “The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash” the narrator is explaining to her mother how the class’s boring field trip to the farm gradually got exciting.  The absurd story, told back to front, is well matched by Kellogg’s detailed watercolor illustrations that tuck in more jokes on every page.  Levar visits a pet shop that sells tarantulas and a livestock show featuring goats and sheep.

    Most of the books introduced on the show are still on library shelves and being read by today’s children.  As for the shows, the library still owns a couple dozen on video, so you can dust off your VCR and hold a Reading Rainbow festival at home this weekend.


This column was first published in the Free Lance-Star on September 1, 2009.