“Three year olds? They are so adorable! With their chubby little limbs and limited vocabulary, they must be the cutest group to read to!”
Wrong, hypothetical person/volunteer. You are dead wrong.
Like babies, three year olds are still under the distinct impression they are the center of the universe. Unlike babies, they are aware enough of other people that this notion is constantly being challenged. When you put twenty little egocentric children into the same room, universes tend to collide. Some kids take this in stride, and I imagine they will one day be well-adjusted adults. Other kids take this as a direct assault to their world view and do their best to remain the center of their own universe; usually by stealing whatever crayons they want or shrieking they want to read another story. If you’re not able to keep it under control, another big bang is bound to occur.
This is where I come in. I am a professional child wrangler when it comes to storytimes, and I am here to help you achieve the status of sassy storyteller through some important rules and the use of my favorite picture books.
Rule #1: Don’t Panic
Of course stolen from Douglas Adams and his amazing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I use this as a mantra during storytime. Breathe deeply and repeat the words. Because this is not a room full of reasonable adults. This is a room full of completely illogical, manipulative, and adorable little shits. Bad things will happen. So when that one kid decides he wants to pull up your skirt to see if you’re wearing training pants too, don’t panic. You lean down, look him in the eye, and tell him there are invisible dragons that live in the library and they eat little boys who pull up skirts. Or sometimes a simple no will suffice, but I like to be creative.
Rule #2: Set Boundaries
I favor loosely structured gatherings and events, as I am an extremely laid back gal. Thinking I could apply this to storytime, I at first did not have any rules. Who wants rules at storytime? I’m too fun and cool for rules, I’m Miss Kelly! How naïve I was. The parents would sit at the back of the room and gossip about divorces and swim meets. The kids would be running around, screaming and taking off random articles of clothing. I would be on the floor, attempting to read while four kids crowded around me, ensuring no one else could see. It was sheer anarchy, and I brought down the hammer very quickly.
So enforce the rules that matter. Everyone has to be sitting on their bums, tushes, hineys – whatever word works for you. The parents can speak softly, but if they interfere with storytime, they have to leave the room. Remember, you are in charge!
Rule #3: Don’t Let the Censors Get You Down
Obviously, you should not read Go the Fuck to Sleep at storytime. Despite being really, REALLY tempted to do so. On the other end, don’t let the parents dictate what you can read. Your kid doesn’t celebrate Halloween because it’s “Satan’s holiday?” Well too effing bad, don’t come to storytime in October.
Rule #4: Don’t be BORING (to put it nicely, little kids are people. Treat them that way.)
Do you like sitting in a meeting and being forced to listen to someone read in a monotone, with no inflection or excitement? Hell no. Well, little kids don’t like that either. And if you’re not keeping their attention, they are going to fidget and make noises and interrupt you with stories about their pet gerbils. Because they have deemed it allowable for you to read to them, so you better not disappoint. Read fun books, with big, colorful pages. If you aren’t used to reading aloud, pick stories that rhyme. You fall into a natural cadence, and the kids notice. Despite being terrible, egotistical little monsters, they actually want to listen to the stories. So make it fun for them! Make them want to read.
Book selection guidelines
There are an overwhelming number of picture books from which to choose. So you think, “oh god – I will just go for some classic Dr. Seuss.” Wrong again, hypothetical person! You may not remember this, but all of his books are like 50 pages. Not exactly conducive to group storytime. By the time you finished, they would either be asleep or shoving crayons up their wee nostrils. Go for shorter books, like 20 pages. Not too simple, as they are able to follow more complex narratives. Small books also don’t work, despite how cute or appropriate the topic. If the kids cannot see the illustrations, they will be harassing the other children faster than you can say “hands off!” The following are some of my go-to books and authors:
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (or anything by him, actually!)
These are some of the most interactive and fun books you can read to kids. Basically, there is a pigeon who wants to do something impulsive (like drive a bus or get a puppy). He is told no and spends the entire book trying to cajole the reader into letting him get his way. If he does not achieve this, he yells and stomps around and is a general brat. Sounds like some kids we know? That’s the fun of it, as the kids answer the pigeon, the adults laugh at the dramatic irony of it all. *Bonus points* – you can use a funny voice for the pigeon.
Boris and Bella by Carolyn Crimi and Gris Grimly
Best Halloween book for kids EVER. With names like Boris Kleanitoff and Bella Lagrossi, it’s a book after my own old-horror-movie loving heart. And the story is adorable – two monsters who fight end up falling in love over their mutual dislike of other monsters while at a party. The illustrations are also freaking cool. The adults like this one almost as much as the kids!
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
A penguin shows up at a boy’s door, and he thinks it must be lost. They go on an adventure to find its home, but end up becoming friends. It’s super sweet without the sentimental nonsense you find in other picture books. It generates genuine emotion among the kids, which is hard to do. Jeffers is also the illustrator, and he does a stellar job. The images are whimsical, but the kids still relate to them.
Bounce by Doreen Cronin
Though she is more famous for Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, this is my favorite Doreen Cronin book. It gets the kids to bounce around like various animals and people. Whether it’s a bunny or kangaroo or a ballerina, the kids always come up with great interpretations. Like ballerinas – I didn’t know they madly hopped up and down, shrieking with joy, but that’s how some kids see it. Essentially this has everything I look for in a picture book – it’s colorful, it rhymes, let’s the kids use their imaginations, and they get to run around the library like wildebeests. I couldn’t ask for more.
Now at this point, I may have convinced you to never, ever volunteer to do a storytime. Don’t worry – I’ve got you covered. If someone is forcing you to do it, again – don’t panic. Calmly state you would be glad to do it, if only you get to choose your topic. When the person asks you what it is, say “Parents who eat their young.” You’ll never be asked to do storytime again.
Stay sassy, my friends!