In a crowded Upper Manhattan kitchen, Kendall Joseph, a young actor in fire-red oven mitts, stood by the stove. While a happy song played and a director called “Action!” shouted, he opened the oven and took out a baking tin.
Rolling cameras focused on the treat inside: a chocolate cake in the shape of a butterfly.
“Remember? ‘Butterfly in the Sky?’” Isabella Wager, another young performer, remarked when the shooting was over.
The cake won’t evoke memories in young children, but it can inspire nostalgia in their parents. Wager was referring to the theme song for “Reading Rainbow,” the PBS literacy-themed kids’ show, which ended 23 years in 2006 and had won 26 Emmy Awards. (Reruns aired through 2009.) Created to instill a love of reading by introducing authors and their work — and the wider world they explore — the series, hosted by LeVar Burton, debuted an animated sequence featuring a neon-colored butterfly. which turned into a book.
This whimsical cake was a little reminder, or Easter egg, in what was filmed one recent afternoon: a segment of “Reading Rainbow Live,” a reboot that both imitates and reinterprets the original show.
“This almost came to me as chicken soup or a warm glass of milk on a cold winter’s day,” Steven Beer, the creator and executive producer of the reboot, said during a video call. Amid the chaos of a pandemic, he added, “What better time to take something that was simple and pure and lo-fi and bring that forward as the next chapter in the ‘Reading Rainbow’ story?”
But while “Reading Rainbow Live” may be lo-fi in concept — using picture books as a springboard for learning and creativity — it’s high-tech in execution. Produced by Ohana Pictures in association with Buffalo Toronto Public Media (the organization that runs WNED PBS, which was instrumental in the development of the original “Reading Rainbow”), the new series will be broadcast online rather than televised.
On Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time, the public will be able to livestream its first event on Looped, a digital platform created in 2019 to facilitate one-on-one communication between celebrities and their fans. (Viewers will also be able to stream the content after the premiere.) Here, however, young viewers will chat not with pop stars, but with authors, other guests and a changing crew of musically gifted hosts, the Rainbows, including Joseph and Wager.
However, viewers will not interact with Burton, who is not participating; as of 2011, WNED filed multiple lawsuits against him, which were eventually settled, involving the rights to the brand. And while Beer said he admired Burton, he didn’t approach him for the reboot, rather developing it “to be a more active and engaging formulation of the classic series.”
Amy Guglielmo, an educator, children’s book author and creative director of the new series, emphasized that the goal in casting the show was to build “an ensemble of talented individuals.” “And,” she added, “we like the idea that this is a book club.”
In the 25-minute premiere, families are introduced to the Rainbows for the first time in their clubhouse. As in the original series, the premiere will feature a picture book reading—Katey Howes’ “Be a Maker,” a celebration of invention—along with segments where kids report on their own favorite titles. A mix of live and recorded segments, it will also include a visit to an invention convention.
However, unlike the old show, “Reading Rainbow Live” will feature skits and original songs in each event, as well as a dance break (Wager, the Rainbows’ dance captain, choreographs all the moves) and multiple invitations to do more than just watch.
“The movement is slower to accommodate kids looking at it,” Wager said. “They’re not really complicated, crazy tricks.”
A separate 25-minute after-show will follow, featuring interactive story time, art projects, more dance, sing-alongs and six suites, or chat rooms, in which young audience members (targeted ages 4 to 8) see the rainbows and talk to authors. If Burton was your kids’ most charismatic English teacher, the youthful Rainbows—one of them still in college—are more like their coolest babysitters or camp counselors.
All of this comes at a price: standard home visit tickets cost $9.99; interactive tickets that allow kids to appear on the screen and access the six suites of the aftershow are $14.99. (Parents purchasing these must submit releases if their children are minors.) All cardholders will be able to stream the event on demand for 30 days later at readrainbowlive.com.
While the cost isn’t uncommon for a streamed event, the creative team recognized that it could be an obstacle for families used to getting PBS-affiliated projects for free.
“We are actively reaching out to potential partners to help us provide access to those who can’t afford $9.99 to participate,” Beer said. Meanwhile, his non-profit business is supported by contributions. It’s also kind of a family business: Beer, an entertainment attorney who is WNED’s outside counsel, knew Guglielmo because she was his son Maxwell’s kindergarten teacher. Now Maxwell Beer, an accomplished composer, a Rainbow and the show’s conductor, writes his upbeat pop songs with lyricist Kenny Harmon. Even Beers’ Havanese poodle, Frankie, has a part on the screen.
The series’ main asset is that it “engages kids in real time,” said Nancy Hammond, chief operating officer of Toronto Buffalo Public Media. Kids can run away while they watch TV, she added. “But ‘Reading Rainbow Live’ will grab the attention of children because they will be in constant contact with the Rainbows.”
Some kids are already in touch with the show, as Guglielmo has used social media to ask young people for videos of their own songs about books and photos of their favorite places to read. (The most unusual was with the family hens.) A selection is shown in the premiere event. The premiere will also feature a very young guest author: Sammie Vance, 13, who started making “buddy benches” from recycled plastic for her school’s playgrounds at the age of 8.
The first event showcases other innovators who are “child inventors,” said Bat-Sheva Guez, the premiere director. This should lead viewers to go beyond thinking, “‘Oh, I can be an inventor when I grow up,’ which is what the original show would,” she added. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, I could be an inventor’ now†
The new series also emphasizes diversity, in casting and in the highlighted books, looking for artists and authors “who may have been overlooked and traditionally not represented,” Guglielmo said. “Look, grandma! Ni, Elisi!” by Native American author Art Coulson, who is also part of the first event, depicts a Cherokee boy.
But the creative team is not averse to classics. Guglielmo plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day,” one of the first American picture books to focus on a black child, by combining it with a recent work.
After the first event, the producers plan to develop the show further, based on viewer feedback and whether the pandemic is abating. While they only offer one event per month for the 10-episode first season, they ultimately want to have a weekly schedule. They also do not rule out a future television series. But while very young children won’t remain vaccinated against Covid-19, they hope “Reading Rainbow Live” will help tear down the walls that screens commonly create.
“In a complicated time, I like to keep it simple,” Beer said. “Let’s read. Let’s sing. Let’s dance. Let’s get together.”