My Storytime for Big Kids is the high point of my week, which is otherwise occupied with budgets and HR and planning and communicating with board and staff and the public. I actually enjoy that work too, and I like working with colleagues to create an environment where good things can take place. But there is nothing in that work that feels as successful as a storytime that has gone really well.
I had a great reaction in storytime today to a book. Its pictures are black and white; the text by modern standards is too long, there is not a trademarked character in sight, and the kids (and adults) were completely and enthusiastically engaged. The book came out in 1928, and it is funny and quirky and wonderful. Most of all, it is a story, and kids love love love a good story. Instead of waiting through the book to find the parts where they were supposed to be participating, the kids were riveted because they wanted to know what happened next.
The biggest mistake I see people making in planning their storytimes is that their focus is so much on participation. It’s about having a craft (and the eternal struggle to find a craft that kids can do without too much adult intervention and still be something that the adults who bring them will find worthwhile). It’s about getting the kids up and down and up and down and not making them sit through too many books. It’s about making sure the books themselves have lots of opportunities for the kids to participate. Often these days it is about teaching a child facts or skills. It is almost never about finding a story that will surprise and amaze and delight a child.
There are some great, highly interactive books, and the very best books and folk tales often have some element that repeats, or that kids want to say along with you. Being interactive in itself isn’t a bad thing. But the problem with the modern storytime structure is that young kids have a hard time settling down, so planning your storytime assuming that books are boring is exactly the wrong thing to do. They actually need time to settle in, begin to focus, start to catch on that something interesting is happening in the story. They need a chance to actually look at the pages long enough to notice things, and they need the stories to unfold in a way where they start to get the hang of it, but they are still surprised at the twists and turns.
I am a big fan of Megan Lambert’s technique of slowing down and really examining a book closely. I find that when I take the time to look at the cover, and the endpapers, and the title page, and to stop and make sure we know what’s happening in the pictures at first, the kids get much more deeply engaged in the book. They are able to predict what will happen (sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but that’s part of the fun). They often notice details in the illustrations that I haven’t even picked up on. They listen more carefully, too.
Most of all, they get to take a few minutes in lives that these days are rush rush rush rush, and they get to stop and appreciate and enjoy things. They aren’t being told to stand up as soon as they finally started looking at the pages of the story, and they aren’t being hustled through one activity to get to the next. There is a stillness that comes over a room when the adults and the children are deeply engaged. Those are the very best moments of storytime.
My colleague at the library where I work, Ms. Clara, once told me that the kids in her storytime really love the moment in Kevin Henkes’ Little White Rabbit where the little bunny imagines what it would be like to be as still as a rock. She has them try that out, and they all get as still as they can be. Since then, I have tried that out several times with groups and she is right–they love that few moments of stillness.
Today’s big hit was a book I learned to tell as a story–Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, with the immortal refrain, “Hundreds of cats. Thousands of cats. Millions and billions and trillions of cats.” It has one of the most brilliantly unexpected plot twists in any of children’s literature… and unlike the equally charming and old-fashioned Caps for Sale, none of the kids knew it.
I encourage storytime planners to focus on finding the stories that they love, the ones that have a turn of phrase or a sensibility about them that are unlike the others. Don’t keep looking for the book that you have to shake or stick your finger through or the one that is trying too hard to be funny. It is all about the rhythm. Have confidence in yourself, and the books, and the kids.