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What Makes a Good Storytime?

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Storyteller Julie uses her eyes, ears, voice, body, and sense of humor. Photo: Shara Hardeson.

Storytellers and story lovers know that that the essence of collaboration lies in the “Stone Soup” tale — everyone gives a little something (carrots, a potato, some salt and pepper) to achieve a common goal (a more satisfying soup for everyone). When the whole community contributes ingredients, it becomes a real meal.

To expand their reach and enrich the soup, librarians often collaborate — with other libraries, schools, universities, museums, healthcare organizations, community groups, literacy councils, and really anyone who has a willingness to share and something special to give.

A very important collaboration for a librarian occurs right in the storytime space. People often consider storytime a performance, but true collaboration happens when children, their grownups, and the librarian all bring their unique energies and spirits together for times of reading, singing, talking, and playing. The result can change the course of the day or the week. Over time, positive experiences sharing stories can change one’s life — for a child, a caregiver, or a librarian.

At my own storytimes, I spend half an hour with a roomful of toddlers and their entourage of parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors, nannies, and other caregivers. Rich stuff happens here. Not only does storytime develop early literacy skills and foster a love of language and books, it encourages children to make connections between the stories and the world around them. It helps increase attention spans and provides young children with early group experiences. It offers opportunities for children and their grownups to bond with one another as well as to develop a relationship with a children’s librarian.

I depend on the audience, and the audience depends on me. We are a team, and it would be a mistake for me to arrive at storytime with too rigid a plan. Anyone who has done much collaboration knows that approach ensures a bland soup and a frustrating experience.

Toddlers add creativity to the content of storytime whenever they’re given the opportunity. Ask toddlers what they want to add to Old MacDonald’s farm, and you end up with the best farm song ever. That farm will have pigs and cows, of course, but it might also have airplanes, dinosaurs, monsters, and rocking chairs. Such a rendition offers all the same benefits of familiarity, rhythm, and repetition, but the audience gets to drive the tractor.

* * *

We have another group of partners in storytime, without whom there would certainly be no soup at all. The artists, writers, and book creators are a critical part of this collaboration. Through picture books, the children and grownups in the room connect the art on the page to the emotions they feel. They connect the letters on the page to the words they hear. We know these are the ingredients of pre-literacy, but they also cultivate stronger human connections. Not only do children begin to recognize that, say, blue is blue, yellow is yellow, there are three birds, the sun is round, and the letter b makes a specific sound, they also feel real emotions based on how the art works on the page and on the meaning of the words in the text.

I always bring a huge pile of picture books to storytime, more than I could ever read. I like funny ones with very simple plots or concepts to reach the youngest people in the room. I like those that ask the audience to participate. I look for large text that I can read facing out and bold pictures to grab the attention of those sitting in the back. I sneak in a couple of longer stories as well, in case the audience skews older than usual or everyone seems up for a challenge.

In a public library storytime, the size of the group and range of developmental stages present can be unpredictable. Having many books with me allows me to make choices depending on who shows up. I avoid having a theme or being precious or clever about storytime. Better to choose an assortment of strong books with wide audience appeal than to force a selection of potentially unwieldly stories on the audience just so that everything can be about bears.

Armed with options, I am ready to see what everyone else brought: laughter, tears, a smile, nerves, a new sibling, a visiting relative, an obsession with backhoes…Then we start putting these ingredients together.

We start with a song, and everyone — caregivers too — must join in. A song gathers us in our common goal and sets the tone: we all play a role in this together. I use the same song every time. Ritual soothes people of all ages whose lives are otherwise unpredictable. I try to ascertain everyone’s mood. Happy? Bored? Tired? Grouchy? Is anyone aggravating anyone else? Is anyone crying? This informs what we do next and throughout. Maybe everyone wants a longer story or perhaps something quick and interactive. If everyone is extra wiggly, we need another song.

* * *

As librarians, we use our whole selves to build a stronger collaboration with our partners in the room. Each part creates ways for sending and receiving information, energy, and understanding.

Use your EYES.

I observe activity around the room, making friendly eye contact with anyone who looks like he or she needs some extra attention — a worried toddler, a busy mother, an exhausted nanny. Eye contact makes us all feel more connected and special. Making eye contact while reading aloud also allows for a healthy pause, which will slow things down and draw everyone further in.

Use your EARS.

While reading, I also listen. Are people laughing? Are they chatting? Are they screaming? If I can’t hear any conclusive evidence that people are with me, I will ask them all to make some noise to accompany the book: “Hey guys, what sound do you think this cow makes?” Getting your audience to moo together will bring them back into the moment.

Use your VOICE.

I cannot thank my high-school drama teacher enough for the preparation she gave me for this career — she taught me to make my voice a tool. When reading or singing, I try to make contact through my voice. Sometimes I make it loud and at other times, quiet. A whisper can be as powerful as shouting if you are strategic about it. Sometimes I direct my voice at different areas of the room. I slow it down. I speed it up. A dynamic voice along with a picture book’s engaging art and text creates an experience — one that children and their caregivers often want to replicate at home. (Have extra copies if you can!)

Use your BODY.

Gestures and physical movement can add another dimension to a story. I might point at specific objects or use the book as a physical prop, lifting it high when a character jumps or being extra dramatic with a page turn. When someone in the book stomps, I stomp. I suggest everyone else stomp as well. Maybe the book wants us to wave hello or goodbye. Has a character in the book fallen asleep — can we all snore? Stories often offer opportunities for everyone to move together, and I look for those moments to harness excess energy in the room. In the absence of any obvious prompts, I make them up. Maybe everyone needs to clap, stand up, or give a neighbor a high five.

Use your sense of HUMOR.

Sometimes everyone struggles to get in sync. Reading aloud takes practice, and so does listening. Toddlers have just learned to walk, and mostly they want to do just that. They topple over each other. They bang on walls. They have not yet mastered sitting quietly and listening, which is probably one reason a grownup brought them to storytime. They may try to crawl in my lap or take the book from my hands. When these things happen — as long as everyone is safe — I try to connect using humor. If caregivers see that I am amused by chaos, they will relax. If everyone relaxes, storytime will be better no matter what happens. Lots of toddling about simply means it is time for another song, preferably a loud one that requires moving around. Abandon the book completely if necessary.

* * *

If a picture book is a relationship between words and pictures, when I read it aloud, I join the relationship by creating my interpretation. When seeing the visuals while hearing my particular reading of the text, a listener joins too, adding yet another lens. Even the youngest storytime participants glean something unique because of who they are and what they bring to the story.

Anytime someone in storytime has a visible or audible reaction, everyone’s interpretation shifts again and we become more connected. With each new storytime group, the ingredients change and the experience becomes something slightly different. Every slight shift in this recipe has an effect on the outcome, making storytime a fascinating, rewarding, and powerful collaboration — as well as a comforting and nourishing soup for everyone. Grab a spoon.

 

Ten Tips for Reading Aloud

From the Cambridge Public Library Children’s Room

1. Choose a book that you can hold face out and still read.

2. Keep your audience’s age and attention spans in mind.

3. Practice.

4. Read in a way that feels natural to you — if you’re not comfortable doing different voices you don’t have to do them!

5. Breathe. Take your time.

6. Make the story interactive. (What sound does the cow make?)

7. Don’t be afraid to follow your audience’s lead — if people have questions or want to go back.

8. Young children have short attention spans; don’t worry if they seem to lose focus.

9. It is okay to abandon the book if your audience has abandoned it.

10. And have fun! (If you aren’t enjoying yourself, it’s hard for everyone else to.)

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Collaborations.

Julie Roach About Julie Roach

Julie Roach manages youth services at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. She also teaches children’s literature at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science and at Lesley University.

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Comments

  1. Jen Mason Stott says:

    Hullo, neighbor! This article is spot-on, and provided great ideas – and validation – to this school librarian! Especially this: “We [reader, audience, book] are a team, and it would be a mistake for me to arrive at storytime with too rigid a plan.”

    By contrast, there is constant pressure on teachers – and school librarians – to go into the Interactive Read-Aloud (TM, probably) with a LOT of planning. Where will you pause? What vocabulary will you highlight? What questions will you ask? and “most important,” the “objective:” what will students know or be able to know by the end? I suspect this could help a new teacher who might otherwise commit the error of reading aloud a book s/he hasn’t read (which can take you to unpleasant, unexpected places!) But as an experienced storytimer, Julie’s advice gives validation to what’s truly important: the in-the-moment interaction, which feeds a lifelfong habit of joyful reading. What teacher wouldn’t want to sign up for that?

    Of course, she doesn’t say to abandon preparation altogether. Julie prepares by knowing, and choosing from, a LOT of books, and how they “work ” when read aloud – which takes time. She may not write up a lesson plan or read an IEP, but she knows kids and caregivers – kids in general, and her weekly regulars in particular. She has created a routine with song and movement. But her willingness to let the shape of the storytime emerge shows consummate confidence. We need Julie to teach teachers and literacy coaches, too!

  2. Julie, you shared what we do at storytimes so beautifully.

    Your are spot on about the three most important components of a good storytime -our audience, the books(writers and illustrators) and the presenter.

    Your article reinforces the important work we all children’s librarians do in the storytime space.

    Thank You!

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