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You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It: A Selection of the Best Books from Reading Rainbow 

Reading Rainbow. There’s probably not a better show in the whole world! How can you go wrong with a host like LeVar Burton? He always seemed so cool and just hung out and taught kids interesting things, like how bowling balls are made, or what happens in a city at night. Not to mention that the Reading Rainbow theme song was a bop!

The format of the show was simple: first, a book was read, often by a celebrity, and their voice and camera movement made the still illustrations come to life. This was followed by a field trip that corresponded with the theme of the book. The ending segment of the show included real book reviews by children, each with their own little personality showing boldly, recommending books to find at your local library.

The series premiered on June 6th, 1983, and it was created to counter the ‘summer loss phenomena’ where children read fewer books over the summer and lost some of their reading skills. It became very popular and is still the most-watched PBS program in the classroom.

The half-hour children’s television show ran from 1983 until 2006, with 155 episodes over 21 seasons. It is the third-longest-running show on PBS behind Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Burton, the executive producer, may be best known for his roles in the series Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but at least one generation of kids only knows him as the guy from Reading Rainbow!

Below are some of the best books featured on Reading Rainbow over the years …but don’t take our word for it:

Notable Reading Rainbow Books:

Miss Nelson is Back

Season 1, Episode 2, June 13, 1983. Narrated by Ruth Buzzi.

Written and illustrated by Henry Allard, Miss Nelson is Back was first published in 1982 by Houghton Mifflin. The kids in room 207 plan to act up when they find out their teacher, Miss Nelson, will be away for a week. Unfortunately for them, in comes Miss Viola Swamp, the meanest substitute teacher in the whole world!

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash

Season 1, Episode 14, July 28, 1983. Narrated by Kaleena Kiff and Laura Hicks.

Written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Steven Kellogg, The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash was first published by Dial Press, New York in 1980. Jimmy’s pet Boa constrictor gets loose on the class trip to a farm.

Gila Monsters Meet You At the Airport

Season 1, Episode 8, July 20, 1983. Narrated by Douglas Parvin. This was the original pilot episode but was shown as the eighth episode of the series.

Written by Marjorie W. Sharmat and illustrated by Byron Barton, Gila Monsters Meet You At the Airport was first published by MacMillan New York in 1980. In this tale, a young boy who grew up in New York City imagines the new life that waits for him out West as his family prepares to move.

Ox-Cart Man

Season 2, Episode 3, July 18, 1984. Narrated by Lorne Greene.

First published in 1979 by Viking Press, Ox-Cart Man was written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. It was awarded the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished children’s book of 1980. Originally published as a poem in the Oct 3, 1977 edition of the New Yorker, the book tells of an early 19th-century farming family in New Hampshire taking their goods to market in an ox-cart.


Season 4, Episode 10, August 8, 1986. Narrated by Pete Seeger. Also featuring a guest appearance by Run DMC rapping about books!

Published by Simon and Schuster in 1986, folksinger Pete Seeger had been sharing the story of Abiyoyo for 20 years before it became a picture book Illustrated by Michael Hayes. Based on a South African bedtime tale, this story is about a father and son who are outcast by their community until they save everyone from a fearsome giant. There is a hardcover edition with an audio CD published by Simon and Schuster, a mass-market softcover edition, a Books-on-the-go mini-edition, and a Scholastic School edition with an audio recording by James Earl Jones that has sold over a million copies.

Knots on a Counting Rope

Season 6, Episode 8, March 29, 1989. Narrated by musicians J. Ruben Silverbird and Kenneth Blank.

Written by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault, this story was first published in 1966 by Henry Holt and Co. In 1987, Knots on a Counting Rope was re-released by the same publisher with illustrations by Ted Rand. The counting rope in this story shows the passage of time and a boy’s emerging confidence in dealing with his blindness as he and his grandfather share stories of his birth and life around the campfire.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

Season 6, Episode 10, March 31, 1989. Narrated by Phylicia Rashad.

Written and illustrated by John Steptoe, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is about two beautiful daughters – one who is selfish and vain, and the other kind and charitable. When the king announces he is looking for a bride, the daughters set out in hopes to become his queen, not realizing the king has disguised himself along their path in order to learn the true nature of his prospects.

Florence and Eric Take the Cake

Season 8, Episode 4 March 31, 1989. Narrated by Julia Child.

First published in 1987 by Dial Books, Florence and Eric Take the Cake by Jocelyn Wild tells the story of two lambs that mistake a beautiful hat for a delicious cake.


Season 9, Episode 4, September 19, 1991. Narrated by Hattie Winston.

Written by Karen Lynn Williams and illustrated by Catherine Stock, Galimoto was first published in 1990 by HarperCollins. Kondi is determined to make his own galimoto – a toy vehicle made of wires, and he spends the day collecting the needed supplies with unwavering determination.

Tar Beach

Season 10, Episode 1, October 5, 1992. Narrated by Ruby Dee.

First published in 1991 by Knopf Books for Young Readers, Tar Beach was written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold. The story tells of a young girl’s dream of flying above her apartment building in 1939 Harlem.

Amazing Grace

Season 11, Episode 1, October 11, 1993. Narrated by Tyne Daly.

Written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch, Amazing Grace was published in 1991. Grace loves stories and longs to be the lead in her school’s production of Peter Pan, even though her classmates point out that Peter was a boy and wasn’t black like Grace. But she doesn’t let that stop her dreams!


Season 12, Episode 8, October 11, 1994. Narrated by Anne Jackson.  

Written by Janell Cannon, Stellaluna was first published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A young fruit bat is separated from her mother and adopted by birds who have very different habits than her own.

The Wonderful Tower of Watts

Season 13, Episode 1, October 2, 1995. Narrated by Angela Davis.  

First published in 1994 by HarperCollins, this story was written by Patricia Zelver and illustrated by Frané Lessac. The Wonderful Tower of Watts is the true story of an Italian immigrant with no formal training building an artistic masterpiece called the Watts Towers in an impoverished neighborhood in LA, using discarded materials like broken bottles and pieces of mirrors and tiles.

On the Day You Were Born

Season 16, Episode 1, April 7, 1997. Narrated by Patrick Stewart. This was the only episode of Reading Rainbow that wasn’t aired in certain markets, like South Carolina and Manhattan (because it involved a live birth).

Written and illustrated by Debra Frasier, On the Day You Were Born was first published in 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Children. This book explores the miracles of birth, and the world, in simple words and bright collage pictures.

Visiting Day

Season 20, Episode 1, December 15, 2004. Narrated by Alfre Woodward.

Published in 2001 by Scholastic Press, Visiting Day is by Jacqueline Woodson, who has won numerous awards for her literature for young people. The book is illustrated by the award-winning artist James Ransome. A young girl and her grandmother prepare to visit her father in prison, and her father prepares for the special day in anticipation of seeing his little girl as well.

After five episodes in Season 21, Reading Rainbow ended on November 10, 2006, and reruns ceased on PBS on August 28, 2009. If you’re interested in hearing more bookish bits from LeVar Burton, you can listen to his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads.

Thanks for joining us!

We’ll see you next time.

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