Butterfly in the Sky (2022) is a loving look at the PBS TV series Reading Rainbow, its host, Lavar Burton, and the many people who helped make the show’s 26 years happen by directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb. It’s impossible not to think about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) when watching this – for some obvious reasons – but the story being told here doesn’t have exactly the same goals that the Mr. Rogers documentary had. Still, some of the beats are the same, and – most importantly – that feeling of love, appreciation, and joy that emanated from the 2018 documentary returns here in big waves.
I find it so odd how the waves of our lives crest and fall. When I was a child, I loved both Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Reading Rainbow. By the time I got to middle school and high school, I looked at both shows with snobbish derision and mocked their earnestness and sincerity that I’d unknowingly appreciated as a child. Now, as a teacher and lover of story and film, I look at both Fred Rogers and Lavar Burton as heroes, role models, and the men that I wish I could exhibit one-tenth of their enthusiasm and passion. Both documentaries serve as a reminder of the importance that the figures we see on TV and in movies can have on us, and the world we live in.
Butterfly in the Sky takes time to wholly showcase the talent and the caliber of the man that Burton is – but it is not the film’s only focus. The talking heads aren’t there just to praise the host, but also to discuss their roles with the show, and the impact the show had on society. Who would have thought so many people would be questioning the intentionality of a show that simply wanted to encourage kids to read? Then again, who would think that a show about children’s books would travel to a live volcano, and put its host in harm’s way? However, that’s exactly what Reading Rainbow did and encountered over its 26-year existence. I learned much about the show and the various episodes via this documentary.
One episode that really surprised me was the one after 9/11. I was a sophomore in college, and had not watched Reading Rainbow for quite some time – so I never knew this episode happened. Hearing the creators discuss their rationale for the show was obviously powerful; however, it never felt manipulative or malicious. That is something I think both Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow shared. The shows weren’t attempting to do anything other than offer a safe place for children, and demonstrate healthy behaviors for all people. In 2022, these ideas feel all the more important, as both people and books are being attacked by individuals with authority. It seems as if now, we need Reading Rainbow and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood more than ever before.
As soon as you get a chance to see Butterfly in the Sky, I totally recommend that you do. For those who grew up with it, there will be the obvious pangs of nostalgic love so commonly spoon-fed to our generation by media. Yet, there will be longing for the type of content that shows like Reading Rainbow gave our youth, the generations after, and – if PBS sees fit – could potentially do again for many years to come. Butterfly in the Sky earns the Must See rating.