August 2004

Michael Farrelly

library rakehell

Story Time

Story time

I love children. No, I am not going to go the usual sarcastic route and say, “with salt and a little touch of paprika they are quite tasty." I sincerely love working with kids. Recently in my pursuit of a new librarian position, I was asked to prepare a story time. Now, I have only been a degreed professional librarian for about a year and before that, I was relegated to the very lower rungs of library work; I had never really done a story time before. I am a natural born storyteller. The Irish gift of gab is in my genes, my grandfather was a writer and my father was capable of spinning shinola into sunshine on the spot, but still I was a bit nervous about sitting in front of a group of 3 to 6 year-olds. Some of the great librarian storytellers I’ve known over the years, and just to give credit where it is due most of those storytellers never got any fancy schmancy library science degree, always focused on some key areas when prepping for a story time.

Attention Span

Having worked with kids for a while, I thought that the attention span of a tsetse fly is longer by a country mile than that of a small child. From the womb on out children are simply bombarded with stimuli that make it nearly impossible to get them to sit still for 30 to 45 minutes and listen to a story. That is what I thought, but then I discovered the magic words: audience participation. Each of the books I chose had some element of audience participation. The first book Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is wonderful at getting kids involved since the entire book is essentially a desperate pigeon begging the reader to ride the bus. Kids yell “NO!” repeatedly at each plaintive pigeon plea. It can be funny when some kids say, “Well, maybe if he’s really careful” only to be talked out of it by his or her fellows. This kind of involvement keeps them in the palm of your proverbial hand. However, I do fear somewhere deep down I was laying the groundwork for odious “screen-talking” at a more advanced age.

Funny Voices

I love to do funny voices. I have a repertoire that includes the demon voice from “The Exorcist," Kermit the Frog and any number of variations on British and Irish accents. In my storytime, I did a passable Brooklyn accent for the story I Stink which chronicles the smelly adventures of a New York garbage truck. Funny voices and accents aren’t always appropriate and should never be used if they make the story less understandable. For instance, if I was doing the Brooklyn accent for a joke among friends I might slide my words together a bit (“HowUdoin?”) but with kids you want to be clear and precise with your words. I remember my theatre class exercises from high school where we would over pronounce words while doing various accents. Besides simply being understood an accent should also enhance a story rather than simply provide a distraction.

Talking over your laughs

Kids are going to be boisterous. They’re going to laugh and comment and have all kinds of fun. That’s the point really. If they sat there motionless and filed out like zombies, it would make for a great Village of the Damned kind of scene, but not a good story time. The key here is balancing their enthusiasm and your commitment to keep telling the story. Being sidetracked into little conversations is actually kind of fun. When I was reading Bark, George, a story where a puppy makes every animal sound except the normal bark, a girl stopped to tell me about how her doggie couldn’t bark right either. However, her dog hadn’t swallowed a cow, a pig and a duck like the puppy in the story, she told me adamantly. If you just smile and say, “That’s nice,” you’ll sound just like you’re blowing them off. Kids respect someone who listens to them a lot more than someone who seems to be simply pushing an activity on them. Just have fun, laugh at their stories and take remember you’re reading to them and not at them.

Picking the Right Books

Don’t just look at the reading level on the book to figure out if it’s a good story for your audience. If you’re dealing with younger children, you may want to choose a shorter book with clearer, less detailed pictures. Don’t go for fad books at all. For example, celebrity authors are all the rage now (Madonna, John Lithgow and even Jay Leno being some examples) and by en large their books are complete garbage. Much like adult literature, popularity rarely equates to quality. Bucking that trend are Jamie Lee Curtis’s books, which are beautifully illustrated and elegantly written. Once you’ve selected a book you will want to practice reading it alone, perhaps even into a tape recorder just to get the feel of how long the story is an any tricky areas, long slow passages or strange rhyme schemes like in the Madeline books.

The beautiful thing about telling a story to children is that afterward they’ve not only been exposed to a great story and are excited about reading but you’re also energized as well. With all multimedia mindstorms swirling around kids these days it’s amazing to entertain children with nothing more than words, pictures and your voice.