How Reading Rainbow Inspired Me

If you are a child of the ’80s like I am, then most likely Reading Rainbow was a big part of your life. I still get a thrill when I hear that old theme song. I loved learning about books that I could read, most of them even available in my local library. I loved that the show didn’t only have boys on it, or that only the boys got to talk about the dinosaur books. They let girls talk about the cool science-y books, too, and that had a huge impact on me, although I’m sure I didn’t realize it at the time. All I knew was that I liked that the girls could talk about science, too, and didn’t have to help their moms make cookies or something while the boys got to have all the fun. I am beyond delighted that Reading Rainbow is back on the air, even if it is only available online. I am hopeful that a whole new generation of children will be as influenced and inspired by it as I know I was.

Reading Rainbow first started airing in 1983. For me, this was a perfect timeframe. I first learned how to read when I was four years old and immediately became hooked. While I don’t recall the title of the book, I do remember when it actually “clicked” for me, when it made sense that the letters on the page formed into words that could tell me a story. The book that made its first literary magic for me was about a bumblebee. I remember bugging my poor, beleaguered mother out of her wits for more books and more story time and more of basically anything at all to do with reading.

Enter Reading Rainbow. My mother learned about the show literally a couple days before it started and plopped me down in front of it and I. Was. Hooked. In my little then-five-year-old brain, it was like the gods of literature had created it just for me. I mean, I’m an only child and I was only five, so I’m all kinds of self-centered. But still, Reading Rainbow rocked my childhood world. There was a rad guy on it who obviously loved kids who just wanted to talk about books! How was that not the best thing ever?

The very first show featured TIGHT TIMES, about a kid who couldn’t have a dog because they needed to save money, but he found a kitten instead. *I* had found a kitten recently! I couldn’t keep it because it turned out I was super allergic to cats, but still! Was LeVar Burton psychic? Did he know I’d found a kitten and picked that book just for me? It had seemed so at the time!

And do I really need to tell you about the dinosaur episode? I still remember the book, DIGGING UP DINOSAURS. It was that specific episode that gave me a lifelong interest in paleontology. For the longest time, I thought I wanted to BE a paleontologist. I have tried hard to keep up with at least an educated layman’s level of knowledge about the field, and have been continually fascinated by the ongoing discoveries scientists have made.

SPACE CASE was one of the first sci-fi books I ever read. Not only has that influenced literally my entire reading life, it also had an impact on my writing life as well. My own creative writing tends toward the sci-fi and speculative fiction, and I am positive this book, which I learned about because of Reading Rainbow, played a role in that every bit as much as watching reruns of Star Trek: TOS or reading old sci-fi from the ’50s and ’60s with my mom.

In addition to imbuing me with a general love of sci-fi, Reading Rainbow taught me to love all science, not just paleontology. Dinosaurs and aliens were just my gateway drugs. GERMS MAKE ME SICK undoubtedly triggered my fascination with diseases and microbes. To this day, I am morbidly fascinated by the Black Death and will read anything about it. I almost became a virologist because of this episode about germs, and it was only when it occurred to me – as an adult – that some diseases can literally make you melt from the inside out that I changed my mind and went with something else in my college studies. Other sciences I have a lifelong interest in because of Reading Rainbow are volcanology (thanks, HILL OF FIRE!], astronomy and astrophysics (not that I understand a lot of that, but they are rad anyway! Also, thanks, ALISTAIR IN OUTER SPACE!), and apiology (thanks, THE LIFECYCLE OF THE HONEYBEE!).

Let us not overlook the humanities, of course. MUMMIES MADE IN EGYPT and OX-CART MAN, among others, taught me to love history. To this day, my second-favorite form of literature is historical fiction, and I earned my degrees in medieval literature because I just couldn’t decide if I loved literature or history more. Medieval lit seemed like a good mix of the two. I learned about history first through Reading Rainbow rather than a classroom. Also, it was because of books I read because of Reading Rainbow, such as BRINGING THE RAIN TO KAPITI PLAIN, LIANG AND THE MAGIC PAINTBRUSH, THE GIFT OF THE SACRED DOG, and WATCH THE STARS COME OUT, that I learned about other cultures, whether they were in my own country or in other parts of the world, so huzzah for a big anthropology win there! Many of those same books taught me that not everyone is as lucky as I was and that some people had different challenges in life. Others, such as A CHAIR FOR MY MOTHER, drove that message home and made me grateful for what I had and helped to inspire a spirit of wanting to help those who were less fortunate than me. That was the first book I remember making me have feels. I felt bad that the little girl’s house burned down and they didn’t have enough money even to buy a nice chair. It made an impact on me.

I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying thank you, Reading Rainbow, and thank you, LeVar Burton, for giving at least one little girl the inspiration and confidence to learn and pursue her own interests. For whatever it’s worth, Reading Rainbow was a formative presence in my early life and I seem to have turned out okay. Thank you for teaching children that reading is cool and that you can learn about some really fun things through books. Thank you for showing us that girls as well as boys can love science and math. Thank you for helping me and so many other children understand that the world is a rich and complex place full of wonderfully diverse people. Reading Rainbow had a big impact on the formation of my social conscience, so thank you for that as well. Oh, and Happy Birthday, LeVar! The world needs more good men like you.

Samantha Irby and Robin Sloan talk about their favorite books in our newest podcast, Recommended. Download it for free from Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
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