Saturday 1 September 2018

AMONG THE ANKLE BITERS by Penny Dolan. Or How I Learned about Library Storytimes.

Earlier this year, I started helping out with Storytimes at my local library.  As an ex-primary teacher and then a visiting author, I’m used to talking to children in semi-public places.  

However, when facing the small people known among the Visiting Trade
as the ANKLE BITERS and KNEE HUGGERS brigade, 
the rules are slightly different. . .

There they sit there, around the library carpet: an audience composed of several wide-eyed, wobbling toddlers, a quantity of  independent-minded two-year olds and, with luck, some enthusiastically vocal three year olds, along with their range of "extras": their new-born baby siblings and all the assorted mums, dads, grandparents, carers, child-minders and more who come along.

This isn’t a quiet-and-cosy, sit-in-the-corner-reading kind of session. Storytimes involve lots of cheerful singing and actions, a bit of storytelling - with or without books – along with relevant animal toys, puppets and suchlike, plus what might be called a large amount of expressive mime (or, as some might say, showing-off) from the leader.

The long Storytime half-hour (or so) also includes an obligatory rhythmic interlude, involving a large boxful of small percussion instruments that can be merrily jangled, bashed and squabbled over. There may, occasionally, be a bubbling bubble-machine or a giving-out of stickers & colouring sheets and other delights. 

Moreover, all of this has to take place at a pace that is brisk, calm and confident enough to take the little ones – and the big ones - along with you, even while you feel like a low-budget children’s tv presenter with a big, wide smile. “Storytime!"

Now, despite all my earlier experience, I have had to learn new skills and re-learn others so here, for your own education and interest, are some of my recent realisations:

One: Knowing what you now don’t know. 
You may believe your brain worn away by years of children’s songs. You may imagine that those words are permanently inscribed on the inside of your skull. This is not true. Yes, you can join in with a nursery sing-song but leading a song alone is a very different matter. All but the first lines may well have faded if you don't have very young children around.

You are, in addition, likely to muddle one tune with another, or forget quite how that song resolves its ending, e.g. what did happen after the last little duck went swimming away, over the hills and far away etc. How exactly did they get back and through whom? 
Variants exist, but which one is needed? And which brain-worm should you ignore? I have had to do quite a lot of unseen relearning and rehearsing when alone, and I always keeping a crib-card list of all the maybe-not-so familiar songs to hand when I'm "live”.

Two: Keeping the focus when “Aaaagh!” happens. . . 
You may also find that knowing which precise number of little spotted frogs one is singing about fades somewhat when you spot sturdy Billy about to crash into fragile little Rose just in front of your eyes and action is needed.  When I lose my place, I ask the audience, smiling widely, and/or to begin again at a number chosen with almost-papal confidence.
Three:  So, today I’ll be reading from . .  . ? 
Discovering books that are good for reading aloud – repeat, aloud - for these youngest children is not as easy as you’d imagine. Most picture books are made for close interaction, with lots of pointing at the page, responding to a single child’s reactions, and the books generally take place (and are plotted) within a very close relationship too. 

Finding a book you’re happy with using for a Storytime may take up more time than you think, despite the number of picture books available. Moreover – and sorry, dear writer - the book may need to be transformed into told, acted-out story to make sense. Luckily, this task can be seen as useful story-writing research and one quickly learns to spot weak or boring plot-points.

Four:  Look at this interesting thing - or “what I see is mine!”
The good thing about using objects and props is they can both help one remember a particular story or song and give the audience something on which to focus their attention. The less good thing is that, unlike Reception classes, these youngest children are very tactile. Some will grab at anything on offer so I now watch for any hands coming. If the item will come to no harm, I let the adult know I’ll collect it back in afterwards. If not, I place the prop back somewhere out of reach.

Early on, I learned to consider prop materials too. I brought in four bright wooden dice to demonstrated the colours in a song. I began and suddenly saw, as two small speedy paws reached out, my blocks about to become wonderfully throw-able missiles Phew! Thank goodness I saw that before it happened! Ever since, I point out the colours on t-shirts or items around the library and choose song colours accordingly – and we now sing about spots and stripes as well as primary colours for that particular song.

Five: “We like knowing what we know”.   
Or, in other words, gender equality hasn’t reached the canon of nursery songs yet, although I do fight back during Wheels on the Bus when I can. "The mummies on the bus go "Chatter chatter chatter." Pah! However, the familiar, cultural versions are what these little children know they know, so one has to go gently with any innovations.
Besides, there’s a whole history within those nursery lines.
Who, from among these tiny children, will actually have jumped up and down in the hay on the back of a tractor
Who will have wound up a bobbin
Who will have seen ordinary people riding horses as a means of everyday transport: gallop, gallop, gallop? 
Or big ships sailing on Alley-Ohs anywhere? 
Or come across a farm still as mixed as Old Macdonald’s, ee-i-oh? 
To my mind, these songs create an agreeable sort of time-warp, helping all children to know more about past cultures.  
Please note: I’m very happy to bring in other songs when I have found them and know some, but for now . . .

Six: A different audience or not?  
The grown-ups in the audiences at Storytimes are mostly like the teachers and library staff that authors meet on school visits. While most join in enthusiastically and in a kindly, helpful way, some will be ready to correct your amusing variation on a familiar rhyme, or choose better stories, or even chat or scan their phone-screens. 

Just focus on the session, I tell myself. Don’t worry if the children wander around and about too much either, as long as they are safe – and that the Storytime helper is over there blocking that suddenly-opened library door. Besides, once the Storytime itself is over, these free sessions offer a relaxed time and space for any new mums or carers and their children to start making new friends, and that surely is a good thing at what can be a lonely time.

Seven: Ready or not . .
I put off volunteering for these Storytime sessions for quite a while as I wasn’t sure if the preparation, learning and revision would be worth the loss of writing time.
I’d like to report that, in general, leading these Library Storytimes certainly is worth it because:
 - I’m keeping my public “persona” and performance voice alive at a time when there are fewer school visits around to keep this bit of me in good condition.
- I’m remembering past skills and material as well as widening my repertoire for working with Nursery and Early Years children.
- I’m enjoying assessing a range of picture books for possible read-aloud qualities. (See point three, above.)
- I’m pottering about among my pens, pencils and art materials once again and that makes me very happy.
- I’m moving about much more instead of being stuck at my desk. Everything involved with the sessions including carting books and props about and shifting light book-boxes makes, with care, a very good physical workout.
- I’m meeting and working with all the other Storytime helpers and library staff, and so avoiding any writing recluse syndrome.
- And, finally, I am now finding Storytimes much easier and more enjoyable, even when things don’t go perfectly to plan.
In fact, I was told by the librarians that it doesn’t matter if you aren’t perfect at Storytime, because the sessions are intended to get new parents sharing the books, rhymes and stories with their children themselves. Perhaps my less-than-musical singing could even inspire those listening grown-ups to do better? 

All I need to do is keep the Storytime rolling along. 
 Are you ready? All together now?
“Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes  . . .”

Penny Dolan


Joan Lennon said...

I feel as if I've been right there with you! (I also feel as if I need a lie-down!) That's a wonderful thing you're doing, Penny!

catdownunder said...

I absolutely must tell the local children's library staff to read this!

Sue Purkiss said...

Your sessions sound wonderful - but you've put me off volunteering for our local storytime! Definitely can't muster all those skills!

Susan Price said...

I second Joan and Sue Purkiss!
Penny, may your papal confidence increase. It is a wonderful thing you're doing but it would drive me mad.

Penny Dolan said...

My surprise has been that, despite lots of successful experience with EYFS classes & groups in schools - yes, honestly! - storytelling with these little ones is almost whole other way of working. Any story has to be "translated" in the reading or telling so that the children can understand what you are on about. Joining-in gestures, noises and sounds have to be fitted in.

And you have to stay alert! You start a happy gang of little ones marching around - but must watch out in case some sudden crawler doesn't get trampled. Or adding interest by using cardboard animals on sticks also means you need to watch out for eyes and injuries - and so on. And that's without any "art of the storyteller" involved. :-)

However, I'm aware that any parents of young ones are probably smirking and scoffing at my ineptness over their morning coffee. Respect to you!

Ann Turnbull said...

Good on you, Penny, for undertaking this worthwhile work with families. I couldn't do it! Mind you, when I was still undertaking school visits it was the youngest ones I liked best - though not that young. These would have been 4-5 year olds. I didn't attempt a talk, just read my stories to them, and they would gradually bottom-shuffle closer and closer to me until the ones at the front were sitting on my feet.

Regarding the mummies on the bus: I travel on the local buses a lot, and it's still the mummies that clamber on with the tots and pushchairs, and they still chatter chatter. If daddy was on the bus with the little ones it might mean he was out of work and possibly, though not necessarily, that she was working.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Phew! Just reading your account makes me want a lie down and a biscuit!
So many children love singing and doing 'wind the bobbin up' - its the bit they remember most and I've never thought about it before - must ask them what they think it means !

Penny Dolan said...

Even slightly older children are much easier for Story Sessions, so don't let this account of the "babies" put you off the idea, Sue Purkiss.

Anne, I like working with young children too, very much, but have had to take on a new level of observation and understanding with these tinies. Alas, the Mums that chatter chatter are followed by the Daddies on the Bus, who go "Don't do that!Don't do that!" (One could write a whole thesis on this stuff.) I was delighted when I found a wonderful book about The Animals on the Bus so last time I made a big thing of all the various jungle animals roaring, chattering and flapping about.

Lynda, I'd be interested to know what they say! I have been looking for a wooden bobbin from one of the old mills to take along to show them. Cotton reels are now just tiny cardboard spools and big, wooden reels seem unobtainable, even in the world-famous "Duttons for Buttons" shop nearby.

And what, Sue Price, makes you think I haven't been driven mad? :-)

Thanks for all your comments.

Ann Turnbull said...

I am distraught at the news about cotton reels, though I did fear they would be long gone. I'm making some new cotton curtains for my office, hand-sewing as I no longer have a sewing machine, and I'm on my last reel of cotton! Most of the 'cotton' threads in my sewing box are polyester. Cotton reels have SO many uses, besides dispensing cotton thread :(

Enid Richemont said...

Oh Penny, I love your 'papal confidence'! Fancy adopting the white robes and pope-mobile some time soon?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Penny your energy exhausted me even before I was half way through! Kept asking myself WHY is she doing this and then your full explanation came and I realised you're a better person than many of us writers. Well done! You are sharing a love of words and song that begins very early in a child's development and unless kindled by people with your energy, no writer would have an audience. Keep up the great sessions! We are all in awe!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Penny, this is a delight! I’ve always admired children’s librarians for their skills in doing this sort of thing. I have spoken to a group of little ones once, but only in a bookshop, when I realised they were way too young for me to read a bit from my children’s history of crime and instead had to tell them about the “very naughty nana, not like YOUR nana!” (afternoon tea murderer Caroline Grills. They loved it!). Never story time, though! A real new learning experience and I take my hat off to you!

Cotton reels? I think I may have a few somewhere in my craft box... When I was a child of five or so, we lived in an old Victorian cottage next door to a vacant lot with nectarine trees on it. It belonged to a local knitware factory which dumped its empty cones from wool there. Pollution, yes, but for a five year old, a wonderful bounty of play objects!