Each episode centered on a theme from a book or other children's literature which is explored through a number of segments or stories. The show also provided book recommendations for kids to look for when they go to the library.
Reading Rainbow was hosted by actor and executive producer LeVar Burton, who is also known for his roles in Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was produced by On-Screen Entertainment for executive producers WNED and Great Plains National.
A regular feature was a children's book narrated by a noted celebrity. Some of the celebrities who have read on the show include Harold Littlebird (born in 1951) of New Mexico (The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush) and Michael Ansara (The Gift of the Sacred Dog, And Still the Turtle Watched).
Another segment of the show featured Burton in different places talking to different people about their work and other contributions, focusing on the theme of each episode.
The final segment of each show, called Book Reviews, began with Burton's introductory phrase, "But you don't have to take my word for it," and features children giving capsule reviews of books they recommend. Burton ended every show with, "I'll see you next time."
The show's theme song was written by Steve Horelick, Dennis Neil Kleinman, and Janet Weir; Horelick also served as the series' music director and composer. The theme was sung by Tina Fabrik. The original opening, which depicted a cartoon butterfly transforming the surroundings of young children reading books into cartoon fantasylands, was used until 1999. Later episodes used a new opening with the same theme song performed by R&B legend Chaka Khan.
The daughter of producer Larry Lancit, Shaune Lancit, was often featured in the series, most notably as the child thanking the sponsors at the end of the show.
In recent years it had tackled issues that other children's programs have historically avoided, such as poverty in U.S. inner cities, the September 11 attacks, childbirth and its impact on the family, and prison, all from a child's point of view.
Andrew: "Watching Mother f*ckin' Reading Rainbow!"
Chris: "I had to pull a reading rainbow on her, she's an ugly shit"