Children's Librarians are Experts

Children’s Librarians are Experts at….Storytime.

Several of my friends who work office jobs in downtown Chicago tell me, “Picture books! Puppets! Songs! Awww, that’s so cute. What a fun job!”

Yes. Yes, it is.

But storytime is more than a fun job. Storytime is a system by which we grow the next generation. Because we hold such responsibility, we need to be intentional, engaging, and educational with our storytime programs. Let me explain:

  • Intentional: We choose books, songs, and interactive elements that enhance children’s understanding of the whole How do you think of diversity in your storytime? We can think of diversity in many forms: Do all three of my books have different illustration styles (stylized, cartoon-like, realistic, photographs)? Am I offering nonfiction books? Are there books by authors of color, and/or do they feature characters of color? Are all of my books similar in tone, or are some silly, some serious, some in between? Do I play with format—such as pop-up books, interactive books, or an ebook? What about books that pepper in another language and culture?
  • Engaging: We are performers. That doesn’t mean we are silly, but it does mean that we present our material the best we can. Children know if you don’t like the book you’re reading! Children can tell if you’re in a bad mood. I’ve had bad days where I’ve had to compartmentalize and leave my bad day at the staff door. I’ve had bad days where I say to kids, “I’m having a tough one today. You ever have those?” Authenticity is key, as well as a love for the books. We must be engaging with our eyes, our vocal tone and pitch, our bodies, our brains. We can express enthusiasm with lots of energy, or with a quiet tone. The most important thing is modeling positive interactions with books and songs.
  • Educational: With this word, I do not mean library staff are preschool teachers. Storytime is not about state standards, teaching morals or manners, and it surely is not about formal practices. If there is a #1 goal, it’s to inspire a love of books and reading. If there is a #2 goal, it’s to encourage Kindergarten readiness.

What I do mean by educational is that we showcase what the library has to offer, and model how stories teach us about the world. Through dialogic reading, we can extend the text and illustrations beyond the story. We can ask listeners questions that draw on their own experience: “Pete the Cat looks sad here. Do you remember a time you were sad?” “This tomato is red. What other things are red?” “Let’s count the trees together!” In these examples, we are  not formally teaching the letter A or giving specific instruction. We’re encouraging curiosity and encouraging questioning, rather than finding the right answer.

To theme or not to theme….that is the question.

I think many of us begin our early storytime training days with themes. I did, and themes helped me narrow down my planning. Eventually, themes become limiting. Here’s why:

  • Themes mean you choose books based on theme, not on quality. If you theme for a whole 6-8 week session, say on farms, it can be extremely difficult to find a large number of good books about pigs and sheep. Instead, you can find one great farm book and use it in a non-themed storyime.
  • It makes us too diligent and formal: I don’t know about you, but I need to be creative with my storytimes. When I’m searching for books and rhymes for a specific theme, sometimes I choose a mediocre rhyme because it’s taking forever to find something! What’s worse is when I can’t remember the lyrics when I’m singing, so I’m looking down at the words instead of making eye contact with the kids. Remember that repetition encourages neural connections in the brain, and doing something over and over is fun.
  • Themes don’t engage kids in higher-order thinking skills. Kids are smart. They have the ability to make intricate connections. They are ready for challenge. Rather than telling a group, “We’re learning about owls today,” we can challenge them to ask: how can one book relate to another? What thread is weaved through a storytime without it being a strict “theme?” For example, I love to introduce five animal finger puppets at the end of my storytime, and ask the kids, “Which of these animals did we see today?” I always have one animal that’s in all three books, and one that isn’t in any. That way, they are practicing recall, making connections between the books, and….working together!

Jbrary says it wonderfully in their blog “Storytime Themes vs. Storytime Flow” here.  Like they say, I am not against themes. I think they fit wonderfully for special times like a holiday, a special siblings or grandparents storytime, or fun events like yoga storytime or “Meet a Community Helper” storytime.

So yes, storytime is fun. Sometimes, it’s cute. But it’s definitely not simple. One children’s librarian friend of mine told me, “It’s okay Katie, we aren’t saving people’s lives here.” But I said, “Yes we are! We’re saving them through early literacy!”

One interaction I had with a preschool class proves this point. I read the book Herbert: The True Story of a Brave Sea Dog by Robyn Belton, which is about a dog that goes overboard on a fishing boat and gets lost at sea in a storm. When the fisherman gets home, he tells his son that Herbert is gone. The boy has a gut feeling that Herbert is alive. So, the next day, they go out on the sea to find Herbert. Long story short, he’s alive. He survived swimming 30 hours in the water (true story!).

However, while I was in the middle of the book, I asked the kids to predict what they thought would happen. I expected all of them to say, “Herbert will get saved!” Some did, but one kid said, “I think Herbert’s going to die.” I looked at him and said, “Oh, that could happen.” Well, it didn’t happen and Herbert was okay and the kid was very happy. But after the story, the kid said, “Well, my brother died.” Another kid next to him said, “My dog died before.” And he put his arm around the other boy and they hugged. Everyone started raising their hands saying, “My fish died!” “My cat died!” One girl literally raised her hand and said, “My plant died!” What proceeded was a calm, socio-emotional discussion about death and how hard grieving can be. All while reading a nonfiction book in a storytime.

What a fun job!

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you theme or not-theme?

What are your favorite books and songs right now?

Mine are:


Photo of guest blogger on the topic of storytime
Credit: Illinois Library Association

Today’s guest blogger is Katie Clausen. Katie currently serves as the Coordinator of Early Literacy Services at Gail Borden Public Library. Katie’s past positions include Manager of Children’s Services at Midlothian Public Library and Children’s Services Associate at Oak Park Public Library. She holds a Master of Library & Information Science from Dominican University, a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Simmons College. She currently serves on the Bluestem Award Nominating Committee and the Monarch Award Readers Committee for the Association of Illinois School Library Educators. Katie’s specialties include: early literacy, children’s literature evaluation, play-based learning, and best storytime practices.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

2 comments

  1. Marissa G

    Great blog! Thank you! You’ve put words to ideas many of us have been struggling with expressing for years. It’s so nice to be able to point to this blog post as backup when questioned why we don’t just do another fall theme this year.

  2. kati

    Miss Nina! Will use that sound ASAP. Would love more high-energy, fun, new & interactive songs to drag me out of my rut.

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