Storytime. Reading stories. It sounds deceptively simple. In fact they take skill and preparation to run, and here I take my headscarf off to all the library staff who run them week in, week out, with such energy and spirit. I’ve taken Roshan to storytime at Central Library regularly over the past few years, but it’s quite another thing seen from the other side, and I’ve learnt a lot in doing them. If you’re a writer asked to do a storytime session and you’ve never done one before, here’s what I learnt this summer:
Firstly: an ice breaker is always good. I didn’t have one for my first session and it was confusing and abrupt for the children when I just started reading. Storytimes always involve waiting around with small children at the beginning, who become restless and distracted by the time things actually begin. All the time you, the reader, have been sitting there, and suddenly they’re expected to focus on you? Why? If you do singing or moving together, suddenly the whole energy of the room changes. If the storytime is a sentence, it needs punctuation to flow properly, and the ice breaker is the capital letter that signals the very start.
Inject lots of energy, expression, enthusiasm and movement into tyour first activity! The more you put in as a performer at the very beginning, the more children will respond in kind. Heaping praise and learning children’s names (if the group is small enough) really helps establish a bond and connection. So praising the best impressions/efforts is really important at this early stage of the session.
When it’s time to settle and read: change your tone and position. Sit from standing, make your voice calmer and lower (it doesn’t have to be so all the way through, just right at the beginning). It is time to listen, and be quiet and enjoy the story. (In punctuation terms, this acts as a comma).
It’s helpful to learn most of the stories beforehand if possible, mostly because in storytimes, you have to read the text from above, and it’s upside down! I did not realise this until I started my first session but it’s pretty obvious now I look back on it. Knowing the texts well also means you can put in extra emphasis, expression and performativity into the readings too.
Make sure, too, that everyone has a chance to see each page. With big groups I had to move the book in a kind of semi circle to make sure all the children at the sides could see all the pictures.
Interactivity in the readings is important. Break up the reading with relevant questions as one kind of interaction – I asked things like “If the tiger came to your house yesterday, what would he have had for tea?” and “What would you order in a cafe?” Using a story sack or puppets is also great (though I found it hard enough to read upside down and turn pages let alone sacrifice a limb for a puppet, so opted for the story sack).
Be flexible and respond to things within the session: if children want to talk about what they had for dinner, listen and engage with them about it! Then gently bring the conversation back to the story, and resume. I also found managing the attention of large groups throughout a session quite challenging. It’s much easier to connect and keep a small group focused on stories, but with a large group, children start to wander off or do their own thing after a while. That’s ok. I focused on connecting with the kids who were still sitting and listening, and some of the others came back of their own accord.
Children respond to feedback and praise in storytimes, just as anywhere else. When they got things out of the story sack, when they answered my questions, I thanked them and praised them for doing really well. The poitn of storytimes is to make libraries a positive, safe space for children, a place they connect to feelings of fun and happiness so that books also become fun and positive things by extension. During the craft activities, I went round and asked children what they were doing, helped those who were struggling and praised effort and creativity. I had my iPad and I took photos of finished work, which they then looked at, and I think it gave a great sense of pride and satisfaction.
A breakaway, bonus activity is useful to build in for “quick crafters”: I designed a treasure hunt to raise awareness of the upcoming themed storytimes, but it came in really handy as an extra activity on the theme that children could do if they had finished their craft (this was particularly welcomed by parents of multiple children, if one had finished but the other hadn’t). It took the children away from the crafting space, too, and enabling a staggered clearing up and a space for other children or latecomers to join in on the craft.
You need to signal the end of the reading session. Just as you need the capital letter, you also need a full stop. Tidying up the story sack/books, thanking the children for helping you read the book, a round of applause – some kind of punctuation is needed to end the readings, otherwise children might expect another story and feel confused when being ushered towards tables for a craft activity.
Storytimes are really valuable elements of the lives of our libraries and really encourage young children to love books and find libraries inclusive, welcoming spaces. It’s brilliant as a writer to be able to do them too – you understand what works in terms of picture book stories in a whole new way: sentence structure, what kinds of things are funny, dramatic, or even boring. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to do them this summer.