Adventures of a First Time Storytimer

I did my first storytime in December 2021 right before my library went on a winter programming break. I was still a library assistant, in the middle of finishing my last papers of grad school, and had no idea that a few weeks later I would be hired as a full-time librarian.

I themed my storytime around being scared/being brave because I was a little nervous about doing my first storytime (and we had a big crowd) and I thought it would make a good connection for the kids. It was pretty successful and I was looking forward to doing more in-person storytimes after I was hired, and then my third day on the job we pivoted to virtual programs for January, February, and March.

Virtual storytime is not an easy way to learn your storytime style. I experimented with physical books and ebooks, tried out different songs and rhymes, but ultimately struggled to feel like I ever got my feet under me.

Luckily, at the beginning of April, we returned to in-person storytimes and had in-person storytimes for two months. We’re on a short programming break before we begin our summer reading program, so it feels like a great time to reflect on my first adventure into storytime. If you’re interested in other things I’ve written about librarianship a few other times if you’re interested, check out: So I Guess I’m a Game Librarian or My First Month’s as a Children’s Librarian.

ChoOsing Books

Pre-Covid (and before I worked at the library), my library’s storytimes were in a smaller programming room. When we resumed in-person programs, storytime was moved to our library’s largest space to accommodate as many patrons as possible for storytime while still trying to keep a somewhat COVID friendly environment.

This room and the spacing we tried to keep made sharing physical books really hard, so we used the projector to display ebooks. This made it easier for all of our patrons to see the illustrations in the book, but if you’ve ever spent anytime looking for picturebook ebooks, you’ll know that it can be hard to find quality picturebook ebooks.

There are some quality picturebook ebooks out there but there are many great read-aloud picturebooks that aren’t available as ebooks or are just terribly formatted and not good for actually sharing.

When I took Library Programs and Services for Children in fall 2020, we spent a lot of time talking about what makes a good read-aloud book. While this differs depending on the age you’re aiming for (baby/toddlers or preschoolers), things like interactivity, clear illustrations, and books with both familiar and challenging vocabulary are important.

However, rather than picking books based solely off their read-aloud potential, I’ve been picking books based more on what’s available as an e-book which isn’t as satisfying as feeling like you’ve found the perfect book for your storytime

Another problem my co-facilitator (we each do storytime every other week) and I have been having is picking books that are the right length. While our storytime is technically a 0-5 storytime, our audience tends to be closer to 1 -3 with the occasional preschool aged child. Because of this, we’ve been leaning towards shorter books either in length or in word-count. One of the things that I’m looking forward to about the fall is that we’ll likely be offering more regular storytimes so we can begin to separate our storytimes by ages again (pre-covid my library offered separate weekly storytimes for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers)

Some of my favorite storytime books have been:

The Downside of Technology

Speaking of ebooks, one of the issues of storytime as it stands as I’ve been starting out is the struggle with technology. For some reason, my coworker and I have the hardest time getting our laptop to connect to the projector. While this is no big deal when we have plenty of set-up time pre-storytime, if we’re cut short on prep time in any way it can be a lot more stressful.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally very lightly trod on our very very long HDMI cord and that slight jostling disconnected the laptop from the projector on the second page of the first story. Thank goodness my coworker pivoted very quickly while I frantically plugged and unplugged everything to fix the problem.

We’ve also been playing a few songs on Spotify connected to a bluetooth speaker because our sound system doesn’t allow for easy switching between the computer, the headset microphone we’re using, and a CD.

Of course the time between connecting to the speaker and getting ready to Shake Your Sillies Out is just long enough to disconnect the phone from the speaker for some reason.

You just can’t beat Raffi, so it’s great to be able to play music out loud, but man, technology just isn’t always the easiest (more on what technological problems have taught me later in this post).

Theme or No Theme

One of the things I’ve been experimenting with is deciding if I like to theme my storytimes or not. The theme for my first ever storytime worked really well and I got to read cute books like Chris Haughton’s Don’t Worry Little Crab and Jan Thomas’s The The Doghouse (you can’t go wrong with a Jan Thomas book) and I’ve done a few other fun storytimes with themes like Winter and going outdoors in the spring.

However, a few of my favorite storytimes have been those that flow a little more organically in the planning. I did a storytime during February that was loosely based around Black History Month so I only used books with Black authors and/or illustrators and we talked about what black history month means, but I picked thematic rhymes and songs for each book rather than making every finger play, rhyme, and song fit one central theme.

For example, we read Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and then did a few space themed songs and fingerplays but then transitioned to Christian Robinson’s You Matter which led us to singing “The Wheels on the Bus” because there is a scene in that book featuring a bus and things that you see out of windows. I did a similar style for a Women’s History Month storytime and I like letting it flow a little bit more organically from book to activities rather than feeling like every single thing you do in a storytime has to be connected to one theme.

I think there’s certainly space for both approaches and I’ll probably keep doing a mixture of both, but I think it can be great to pick books and songs without some of the pressure of needing to fit a theme and I hope as I get more comfortable doing storytimes I’m able to move away from themes more. But right now, themes are a great guiding principle.

REpitition Legitimizes

One of the biggest lessons that I’ve had to learn is that it’s totally okay to repeat things. In fact, it’s better to repeat things. Kids learn really well through repetition and caregivers appreciate it when you use some of the same songs and rhymes from week to week because they can learn the words and actions better and do them along with you!

We always do this with our Hello Song and our Goodbye Song, but I’m getting more comfortable doing the same fingerplay or song week to week. It’s great to be able to offer caregivers and children some repetition and it makes planning easier to be able to have a few standard inclusions that you know you’ll use every week

My Favorite REsources

Planning storytime isn’t something that should be done in a vacuum. There are so many great resources out there and I’ve been trying to use them to my advantage.

Like just about everyone, I love Jbrary. While they don’t update much these days, this blog run by two Canadian children’s librarians has a huge archive of songs and fingerplays and videos for many of them to help you learn the actions and the tunes before using them. Some of my favorite articles on their blog are their rundowns of some of the best read aloud picturebooks every year.

King County Library System’s Tell me a Story archive is something I really enjoy using when I’m looking for something to fit a particular theme and I want to be able to search by that theme. I found some of my favorites there like a version of “I’m a Little Teapot” called “I’m a Little Snowman” and a springtime version of “Wheels on the Bus” called “Springtime is Here.”

Flannelboards are one of the things that I’m most hesitant about using still, but I love Storytime Katie to look at her many flannelboards. This blog is also really good for finding a wide variety of themes and books and songs for those themes so you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. Katie doesn’t update a ton, but there’s still a big archive

And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my great coworkers. I work with some wonderful librarians who I ask for thoughts and feedback about my storytimes and who I love to observe doing storytime and picking up tricks from them. One of my favorite things that I’ve gotten from a coworker is an extra verse for “If You’re Happy and You Know It” which works super well to lead into a story:

“If you’re ready for a story take a seat

If you’re ready for a story take a seat

Clap your hands and stomp your feet

Make your hands all nice and neat

If you’re ready for a story take a seat”

Things I’ve Learned

I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned while starting out in storytime is that it’s okay not to be perfect. I had high hopes for my storytime skills based on my background in public speaking, but facilitating the early literacy skills of kids isn’t quite the same as giving speech to a college educated audience. While things like projection, energy, and speaking clearly are still important, it’s just as important to get on your audience’s level, break out of the story or the activity to practice counting, ask questions, and explain something.

You have to just go with the flow (something that carries over from Impromptu Speaking at least) and sometimes that means adding in an extra repetition of a finger play, cutting a story, or skipping a song. I’ve got a long way to go in terms of slowing down and leaving space in a storytime rather than feeling like I need to rush to fit everything in, but I can’t wait.

Things I hope to try

We’re doing outdoor storytime all summer so I’ll get a chance to work and practice with big books (for the uninitiated, these are huge versions of picture books), but when we return to in-person storytimes in the fall there are a few things that I hope to try.

  1. Flannel Boards. I’ve done a few flannel boards but I really want the chance to do flannelboards with a preschool audience who I can invite up to help me move the pieces and decide what to do with them in some math-based flannel boards. I haven’t done this yet because we don’t have a dedicated preschool storytime so my audience is a little young and because we’re still really trying to encourage distancing. For example, I desperately want to make a flannel board of Susie Ghahremani’s Stack the Cats and then let kids help me count and stack the cats.
  2. Older Kid Storytime: I absolutely adore the fractured fairytale picture books that Bethan Woollvin writes and illustrates. I hope to do a storytime for school aged kids with those books and we can talk about fractured fairy tales and why we retell fairy tales so much.
  3. Baby time. I’m not sure which storytimes I’ll get to tackle in the fall, but I want to try a baby lap-sit storytime. Picking books and activities for storytime like this is way different than an all-ages storytime and I want a chance to try that out.

If you’re new at storytime, what are some of the things that you’ve learned while starting out? If you’re a storytime old hat, what do you think new librarians should know about storytime? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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