Interview with Miss Lauren: What makes a good storytime book?

Doing “Step Into Storytime” (my library’s name for its weekly storytime for two- and three-year-olds) has been a hugely fun experience. Over the past eight months, I’ve developed a long list of picture book titles that seem to work well for this group: longer lead-off books and shorter books for when the attention span starts to get wiggly. Funny books and serious books. Stories with repetition or rhyme and those with more complex plots. Animal books, counting books, color and shape books, peekaboo and surprise books, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

I read a lot of picture books at home with my daughter as well, and others by myself in the library. Some of these are a little longer; they work beautifully one-on-one with a kid in the right mood, but they probably won’t hold the attention of twenty toddlers at once. (Other books rely on their illustrations for much of the story, which is fabulous if you are looking at the pages up close and can take your time, but works less well in a large group.)

My friend/mentor Miss Lauren currently does a storytime for three- to five-year olds. We have some overlap in the books we read (I definitely got Just Add Glitter and Harold Loves His Woolly Hat from her, and we both love Bark, George! and Oh No, George!), but she’s able to read longer books with her group. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about storytime books and audiences. Thank you, Miss Lauren!

What do you look for / what do you think is most important in a read-aloud book for younger kids (2- and 3-year olds)? What about for preschool-aged kids (3-5)?

This is such an interesting question. I am amazed how many times I’ve asked other librarians their go-to story time books and how everyone’s are unique. Now that I have been on both ends of story time (the reader! the listener!), I’ve really come to appreciate the power of the reader. The best advice I got from one of my mentors in grad school was to read books that you love and to know them inside and out. The excitement and familiarity translates into very positive energy for the audience.

With that said, when evaluating books as the reader, I always find myself looking for an opportunity for participation. Engaging the audience to join in the story in some way is both fun and energizing. It may be an ongoing, intended part of the story (such as whispering “Shhh” and shouting all the loud sounds throughout Valeri Gorbachev’s) or something small I add on my end (for example, if a story involves eating something, I invite the listeners to take a big pretend bite of that food too). It is nice to give kids an outlet for a wiggle or noise release when they are sitting and listening. Plus, it’s fun to growl / stick out your tongue / pretend to sleep / blow out the birthday candles / vote to go or not go into the big dark cave / etc.

What makes a “good” storytime book? How do you gauge whether a book is a storytime success, or maybe better for one-on-one?

The biggest element of a story that has tripped me up is length. The illustrations are beautiful! The story is wonderful! I want to jump into the pages! But my audience is losing it! These days, I can tell pretty quickly if there is too much text for the listeners in front of me. (Please note I’ve never had a problem with a book being “too short”). This changes with an audience of kindergarteners or older; but, for pre-K, I am extra sensitive to length. Like many librarians, I lead with the longest book and look for a wiggle or noise release to add in.

Other elements I find myself evaluating: does the text have a good rhythm / flow or does it feel clunky to read aloud? Do the illustrations reach the back of the room? Does it check the boxes of good rhythm, illustrations that work with and for the story, opportunity to participate AND leave me with a warm and happy feeling? Home run book. A few of my home run books from recent story times for ages 3-5 are Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall, The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers, Little Gorilla by Ruth Bornstein, and Blackout by John Rocco.

What are some of your favorite go-to storytime books (for either age group or both)?

A few of my favorites for the 3-5 year olds:
The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats
A House in the Woods by Inga Moore
A Boy and His Bunny by Sean Bryan
Tiny Little Fly by Michael Rosen
Lizard from the Park by Mark Pett
How To Be Friends With a Dragon by Valeri Gorbachev
Where’s Teddy by Jez Alborough
Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig
Can You Make a Scary Face by Jan Thomas
Otto the Book Bear by Katie Cleminson

Finally, what’s your favorite source for storytime research?

Observing other story times in action is extraordinarily helpful.  Easier to do now that I have my undercover partner… [Ed. note: even if you don’t have a kid you can bring with you, plenty of librarians would be happy to let you “audit” or observe their storytimes; just ask first!]

Thank you, Lauren! Happy storytiming, everyone!

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Step Into Storytime, April 29

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Storytime books and scarves for Huff & Puff

It has been a very wet and windy April, but today was sunny and we had a slightly smaller group – I imagine some others were taking advantage of the weather to go to the playground. But we had a great time at storytime, with several regulars, a couple of younger siblings, and a pair of older kids (older kids are almost always less shy and more able to answer questions like “What’s this animal?” so I like having them in the group).

  • Welcome, announcements
  • “Hello Friends” song with ASL from Jbrary
  • Name song (“___ is here today”): I usually do this if there are 10 kids or fewer, as was the case when we started today (a couple more came in later)
  • Hugs From Pearl by Paul Schmid: I chose to use this as a lead-off book because it’s on the longer side for this age group, but it’s got a gentle humor and shows good problem-solving.
  • “Sun and rain yoga”: stretch up to the sun, then bring the sunshine down to your toes; stretch up to the rain, bring the rain down to your toes
  • Huff and Puff by Claudia Rueda, with scarves for the huffing and puffing parts. (We keep our scarves stuffed into empty tissue boxes.)
  • Song: “Where is Thumbkin?”
  • Song: “Kookaburra” (I put the words up on the whiteboard, along with a picture of a kookaburra)
  • Pete’s A Pizza by William Steig: This one is fabulous for incorporating movement into the story, as the kids pretend to knead their pizza dough, toss it in the air, spread oil on it, decorate it with tomatoes, sprinkle it with cheese, and slide it into the oven. Yum!
  • “Pizza yoga”: sit in a forward fold and “spread” oil, sauce, cheese, and toppings over your legsIMG_20190429_095346
  • Bark! Park! by Trudy Krisher: Simple, minimal words but plenty going on in the pictures, and an opportunity for kids to join in (“Bark, bark bark!”). Someone actually checked this out afterward, hurray! I brought out four dog puppets/stuffed animals for kids to come up and pet before and after the story.
  • One Very Tired Wombat by Renee Treml: They were super wiggly and kind of noisy during this one; I’m not sure how much is due to the book itself (a kind of counting book of Australian animals, with illustrations in mostly black and white, and somewhat detailed) and how much it had to do with the book’s place near the end of the lineup.
  • Song: “Kookaburra” reprise, to start cementing it in memory so it becomes part of our regular rotation. Maybe I will make a new song cube…
  • Spots in a Box by Helen Ward: A favorite, with simple text and a lot of visual interest, and a nice message as well: “So the best spots to choose if it’s friends that you seek, are the spots that you find put a smile on your beak.”
  • “Goodbye Friends” song with ASL from Jbrary
  • Clean up mats
  • Spots/dots craft: using gluesticks to stick spots to butcher paper

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Step Into Storytime, April 22

Yet again, a minor sore throat/cold caused me to lose my voice, and it still wasn’t at full strength today – but I explained to the kids and they were SO QUIET. It was astonishing.

Our magical puppet/stuffed animal closet once again delivered, so we had Mr. Panda and the patient penguin from I’ll Wait, Mr. Panda. I also borrowed an idea from a parent/child yoga class I went to at another library recently, and we made stars with our bodies (feet apart, arms out to the sides) and rocked back and forth (balancing on one foot at a time, or just swaying) while singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

  • Welcome, announcements
  • “Hello Friends” song with ASL, from Jbrary
  • Edward Gets Messy by Rita Meade: This story has a lot of words per page for this age group, but whether because of my quiet voice or the easily graspable subject matter, the kids sat and seemed to be listening!
  • Yoga
  • Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian: A sweet story of two worms who just want to be married – and eventually they are, because Worm loves Worm.
  • Who in this room has thumbs? Okay, now hide your thumbs behind your back. “Where is Thumbkin?”
  • I’ll Wait, Mr Panda by Steve Antony, with panda stuffed animal and penguin puppet.
  • Yoga/song: Stand in “star” pose, balance/sway, and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle”
  • Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes
  • Carrot and Pea by Morag Hood
  • “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”
  • Perfect Square by Michael Hall (tie-in activity at the end)
  • “Goodbye Friends” song with ASL, from Jbrary
  • Clean up mats, put out project: Paper squares to tear, crumple, and glue

Bird's-eye view of kids gluing squares to paper

We still did six books as usual, but a little less singing (still, five songs/rhymes including our hello and goodbye), and wrapped up a little bit earlier than usual. The project was popular, though next time I’d cut the squares a little smaller; I had cut sheets of colored construction paper into six pieces each (not exactly squares, but close). With older kids, they could have worked on their own projects and used scissors and a hole punch to recreate some of the pictures in Perfect Square, if they’d wanted. Michael Hall’s books really lend themselves to craft tie-ins!

Step Into Storytime, April 12

Today I covered our Friday session of Step Into Storytime, which skews a little younger (more twos than threes) and a little smaller.

Spines of storytime books

  • Welcome and announcements (closed next Monday for Patriots Day)
  • “Hello friends” song with ASL
  • Name song (“____ is here today”)
  • The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld: Kind of a quieter lead-off book that I might not have chosen if I’d known the book beforehand, but it worked okay.
  • “Kookaburra”: I thought I’d introduce a new (old, actually, 1932) song. I printed out the lyrics and put them up, along with a picture of a kookaburra (we didn’t have a kookaburra puppet, believe it or not), and also made small copies for the grown-ups.
  • Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love
  • Yoga flow – and we sang “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” while we were doing it, because I saw a kid put her hands on her head.
  • Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott: This simple little story shows kids playing together, solving problems, and ultimately agreeing about the main thing in life: WE LIKE ICE CREAM!
  • “Happy birthday” song and putting candles on flannel board cake. It didn’t look at all like I envisioned and that was perfect.
  • When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano: This might not be a book you want to read over and over to your own kid, but it’s perfect for a group – you can put a ton of expression into it.
  • Yoga flow – using both sides of the body and the brain.
  • Monkey and Me by Emily Gravett: Probably one of my top five storytime books for this age group. It’s got a sing-song repetition AND animals. What more could you want?
  • “Kookaburra”: We sang it again (repetition helps learning), and I dropped in an early literacy tip (“If you’re wondering why we do so much singing in storytime, it’s because singing breaks words down into parts and introduces new words, all of which helps literacy development”). Plus I just love this song.
  • One Woolly Wombat by Rod Trinca and Kerry Argent: A counting, rhyming book full of Australian animals.
  • “Goodbye friends” song with ASL
  • Clean up mats
  • Color with crayons
  • Handout for grown-ups

Flannel board cake and candles

Step Into Storytime, April 8

It’s a rainy day, so I looked for Christian Robinson’s book Rain, but it was out. I went with my original lineup, including some books about bugs and eggs hatching. Maybe because of the weather, we had a slightly smaller group today, about 12-13 kids.

Book covers

  • Welcome, announcements (no storytime next Monday because of Patriots’ Day)
  • “Hello Friends” song with ASL from Jbrary
  • Name song (“____ is here today”)
  • Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt: This might’ve been too much of a reach for this group. The story is in rhyme, but it’s a little on the long side, or maybe there just isn’t the familiarity with the classic Cinderella tale yet, so it’s harder to enjoy variations. Some of the grown-ups liked it, though.
  • Song cube: “Where Is Thumbkin?” “ABCs”
  • We All Went On Safari by Laurie Krebs and Julia Cairns: Today we focused on the counting aspect of this book, but you could easily focus on animals instead.
  • Yoga flowBug puppets on chair
  • Bug puppets! We had a big basket of them in the closet, so I pulled them out and we looked at them one by one. One of them was even a caterpillar/butterfly, so the kids could see the transformation. We also had a ladybug, an ant, a spider, a fly, a monarch butterfly, a praying mantis, and a grasshopper. This was a perfect lead-in to…
  • Some Bugs: words by Angela DiTerlizzi, bugs by Brendan Wenzel. I love this book for storytime or one-on-one: it rhymes and moves quickly, and the illustrations are bright and interesting.
  • Song cube: “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” “Row Row Row Your Boat”
  • Shake A Leg, Egg by Kurt Cyrus: One of my favorite springtime books, though maybe better one-on-one than in a group; the author/illustrator uses some really different perspectives, and there’s plenty of detail in the realistic illustrations. But I do love saying the first line (“Hello in there!”) like Miracle Max in The Princess Bride.
  • Speaking of eggs…time for shaker eggs and “Shake Your Sillies Out”!
  • Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer, with penguin puppet. Most of the kids came up to pet and hug the penguin, which helped its grumpy mood. There’s also counting (“One, two, three…SPLASH!”).
  • Yoga flow
  • There’s A Bear On My Chair by Ross Collins: Kids’ attention was starting to wander a little but the ending got a laugh from a couple grown-ups.
  • “Goodbye Friends” song with ASL from Jbrary
  • Clean up mats
  • Handout for grown-ups: Great books to share with two- and three-year-olds
  • Drawing with crayons on butcher paper on the floor

Next Monday we’re closed for Patriots’ Day, but I’m covering another Step Into Storytime this Friday and might debut a flannel cake and candles I just made to go with When’s My Birthday? Stay tuned!

Arlington Author Salon: Love in Tumultuous Times

The theme for tonight’s Arlington Author Salon, an event held quarterly at Kickstand Cafe in Arlington, was “Love in Tumultuous Times,” and the three featured authors were Whitney Scharer (The Age of Light), Jenna Blum (The Lost Family), and Christopher Castellani (Leading Men). The Arlington Author Salon is supported by the Arlington Cultural Council, which is in turn supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. I’ve only been to two events so far, and both have been packed.

AgeofLightWhitney Scharer was up first, showing slides and then reading from her debut novel about Lee Miller, known as a model for Vogue and surrealist Man Ray’s muse, though she was a photographer in her own right, and co-inventor of the technique of solarization. (Aside: Every student should have a project like the one mentioned in Meg Wolitzer and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s new middle grade novel,  To Night Owl From Dogfish, “Give the right person the credit.”) Scharer discovered Miller at an exhibit featuring Man Ray at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2011, and was interested in the two of them “being in love and making art together.” (Miller went on to be a war reporter; she reminded me of Robert Capa’s partner, Gerda Taro, who was killed while documenting the Spanish Civil War.) Scharer read a scene from her novel in which Miller describes what she calls “wild mind”: her ability to set any expression on her face while modeling, yet thinking of anything she wants, setting her mind free. The scene (possibly the whole novel?) was in present tense.

LostFamilyNext, Jenna Blum (The Stormchasers, Those Who Save Us) talked about and read from her new novel, The Lost Family, set in New York and centered around a Holocaust survivor, Peter, who lost his wife and daughters. He now owns and runs a restaurant called Masha’s, after his late wife, and has sworn not to get involved with anyone again – but, of course, he does. The novel is about Peter and his second wife and their daughter, “a whole family trying to put its arms around a loved one’s PTSD.” Blum didn’t have slides, but she did share a cocktail of her own invention, and cream puffs called “Masha’s Little Clouds”; she said that she invented and kitchen-tested all the menu items in the book.

LeadingMenFinally, Christopher Castellani (A Kiss From Maddalena, The Saint of Lost Things, All This Talk of Love) talked about his newest novel, Leading Men, which imagines a party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino in 1975, the guests, and the aftermath. Castellani said that people always want to know “how much is true and how much is not true,” so he explained that the party did happen, and that Tennessee Williams and his lover Frank Merlot really were invited, but that Williams’ journal does not mention the party in the days or weeks following it. Using both “real and invented people,” Castellani imagined and invented “between the cracks of what was known about these people.” Merlot is his main character; Williams isn’t a “point of view character” largely because he is too well-known, has written and been written about too much; Merlot, though not obscure, is less of a known quantity. Castellani admitted that it was daunting to write dialogue for characters like Capote and Williams; he would often use an “anchor quote” from their writings in order to get the tone of the dialogue and scene, and would sometimes remove the “scaffolding” once the scene was finished.

Though the book I’m currently reading (Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess, who, like these three authors, also has a Grub Street connection) is firmly speculative, I do love historical fiction and all three of these books are on my to-read list now. Thank you, Arlington Author Salon! (If you’re local, the next one is July 11.)