Reading Rainbow

If you ever watched Reading Rainbow growing up, either in school or on your own, you probably remember the basic idea. In each episode, the host, LeVar Burton, presents a children’s book.

As an educational show, the first episode, which aired in 1983, isn’t a pilot in the typical sense; it doesn’t need to introduce characters or a story, just a format. But if think back to your childhood (depending on your age) you might wonder what book was the first that LeVar shared with us.

That book was Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen, with pictures by Trina Sharp Hayman. Before introducing the book, however, the show starts on location, exploring a particular theme. The theme, in this case, is pets.

We meet LeVar, clad casually in jeans and a polo shirt, strolling around a pet fair. He meets kids and asks them questions about their pet hamsters or turtles. The feel is very natural and out-doorsy, unlike the artificial-looking sets of Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The fair activity goes on so long, you may start thinking, “Isn’t this show supposed to be about books?”

At last the book is introduced, and it’s read by a young boy, fitting the first person voice of the story’s protagonist. The young hero  describes his family’s experience with “tight times,” when the economy is bad and money is scarce. The family must make sacrifices, which means the little boy can’t have the dog he so badly desires. It’s a nice choice for a first book, since it centers on a child coming to grips with adult problems. Twenty-eight years on, it’s a reminder of how history repeats itself. That kid, were he real, would probably be explaining to his son right now why Santa’s sleigh will be a little lighter this year.

As we bathe in 80s nostalgia, Reading Rainbow no doubt holds a place in a lot of adults’ hearts. The show lasted until 2006, so this particular trip down memory lane is not the exclusive domain of Generation X. The longevity–together with his TNG pedigree, of course–might explain LeVar’s recent meme-dom, appearing as himself last season on The Big Bang Theory and Community, and in fun tidbits like this:

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