Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Let The Little Piggies Go Home: Or:It's Not Just About the Theme

I was thinking of my former colleague Linda. Lovely lady who'd worked in libraries for years as an assistant, went to library school and ended up as a children's librarian. She was wonderful with the kids, but had a minimal background in children's literature. She was childless, so she didn't even have experience in dealing with bedtime reading for her own offspring. So she really knew next to nothing about kids books--not even sure she'd done a kidlit course in grad school.

All the children's managers in our system used to get together once a month or so to do book order. We'd read book reviews we'd selected from places like Kirkus and Hornbook and SLJ and we could choose which books we wanted to order. And I have vivid memories of Linda's book selection methods.

If she had been asked for or was doing a certain topic--say squirrels, she would go into Amazon and get printouts for every title on the topic she could find. Never mind if they got awful reviews, Linda would bring them to meetings. And often she would buy a whole batch, even some of the bad ones.

I bring Linda up today because as someone who has been doing kids programs longer than some of the librarian blogging about their story times have been able to read on their own, I am appalled at some of the stuff I'm seeing them using for story times because they are doing a theme and it needs to fit that theme!

Bad piggyback songs--their own or ones they've culled from other sites. Flannel boards with stories they've created purely to fit the topic.

Don't get me wrong--there ARE some good creations. There's some talented writers out there. And the art work is often top notch. Being very untalented in that department, my hat is off to those who can.

But having spent 25+ years professionally reading kids stuff, I think I am reasonably qualified to tell Spam (the canned kind) work from Beluga caviar. And a lot of the stuff I'm seeing is Spammy.

Look, if you work in a library you have (I hope) access to the best children's books, the best children's music.

I certainly have. I read every picture book that comes into my library. EVERY DAMN ONE, and I have done so for 20 years. Because if I don't know my books, how can I help my patrons?
I do draw the line at series I hate. I've read one "Olivia" and that was plenty.
And I do the same for regular kids fiction and young adult books, BTW, though I've begun to shy off YA paranormal fiction and I don't do zombie books. Feh.....

It's taught me that children's writers--the good ones are probably the best writers in existence.
Via my patrons, my kids and their friends I've also seen what appalling dreck most kids are exposed to in their home libraries.

That's what librarians are here for--to promote a love of reading via quality literature. If not that, why not just go work in Barnes and Noble or the frickin' Disney Store?

You owe it to yourself and even more to your patrons to find the good stuff, use it and promote it.

Can't find books, fingerplays and a feltboard all to fit your theme about one-eyed crocodiles who live in Malibu, California?  Well, perhaps you need to broaden your topic.  Perhaps there are some alligator stories out there, a cool song or too.  Hey, "The Lady With the Alligator Purse" SORT of has an alligator in it, and the book w/the cool Nadine Westcott pictures is worth a giggle!  And there's Michel Doucet's wonderful song about "Sue", who shouldn't bathe in the bayou where the crocodile might eat her tous cru (naked!) on his "Hoogie-Boogie" album!

Or perhaps your fab story about the one eyed croc has him going to buy some designer chocolate chip cookies on Rodeo Drive. Bet you could lead away from that story into say, "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie".

There is way too much good stuff out there for librarians to spend their time creating mediocre stuff merely to fill a theme.

Better to do "If You're Happy and You Know It" or "The Wheels On the Bus" in their old, familiar forms then to rewrite them to fit every theme.

The kids LIKE the originals. They love recognizing songs they love and singing them over and over. If you are not a parent, you may not have learned this, but trust me, they do!
When SC, my older daughter, was 2, I sang her "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Chanukkah O Chanukkah" every night straight for 2-3 months. Maybe longer. Really....

Kids need to learn the originals.Especially in this day and age when you'll often find that parents themselves don't know the originals!

The purpose of story time is not to create themes, but to create a love of reading and of books.
Good books!

And there's too much really good stuff to offer kids to waste time on less than stellar offerings.


  1. You're so salty :D

    I totally agree though. I try to only use songs/rhymes/fingerplays that we can (AND WILL) use over and over. They may or may not relate to the theme--and in ways like you describe above. I usually use a theme to help me organize my thoughts and give me a direction, but I know that the theme is OFTEN not discernible to my audience. Yesterday's theme was "books off my cart uncataloged new cart," lol.

  2. Yup, from what I can tell, I'm one of the senior citizens of the children's librarian blogosphere. So I've decided to "be mother" and yell--after all I'm used to it, I have teenagers!

    Over the years I have ranted a little on my primary blog about working with kids (and their parents) and about story hours. But this blog focuses purely on that work, and I want it to be more than just where I keep track of my story hour stuff. I want it to be where I can talk about what I do and maybe reach out to others in the field.

    With all respect to a lot of the bloggers I see, they are off to a great start, but doing story hours for a year or two does NOT make you an expert!
    It's given you rules to go by, but it's just the start of (if you're lucky) a long career worth of learning.

    I am never satisfied completely with what I do at story times. There's always something new to try. I always want it to be better, to grow and learn.

  3. It never fails to amaze me how many people think reading to children is easy! They seem to think they can pick up any book and they'll all sit there quietly while you read. We had a few volunteers that were tired of sitting at the greeter's station (a really important job in a new and significantly larger library!) and wanted to help in the Children's Room. We fixed that by inviting them to a a presentation on how storytimes are done and then to attend a storytime to see it in practice. All but one decided they'd rather not.
    The best advice I ever heard was 1) use what you enjoy because it will show and 2) lead with the harder/longer piece.

  4. I seem to recall giving point 1 as my advice for Melissa's recent storytime class! :D

    Programming IS hard, especially when you're starting out. But even when you're experienced, it's a challenge. My former colleague is now a freelance storyteller and what people don't realize about her programs is that for every 45 minutes they pay for, she has spent HOURS planning,creating and rehearsing her programs.

    True, she is a total Type "A" personality.I do my stuff more on the fly, but I can get away with it because I have a REPERTOIRE!

    I have 10+ years of program records, a "reading room" collection of the books I use over and over. I have props and puppets and a music library and a collection of songs and movement stuff that lives in my head that I can pull out when something goes wrong and I need a filler.

    But when I started, I earnestly planned everything. And I didn't invent my own stuff--- I looked for all the good stuff I could find!


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