Booksellers Talk Strategies for Successful Children’s Story Time Events

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A panel of booksellers shared their best tips and tricks for planning engaging story time events during the “Making Story Time Fun and Profitable” session at last month’s Children’s Institute.

The panel, moderated by Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas, featured Clare Doornbos of DIESEL, A Bookstore, with locations in Brentwood, Larkspur, and Oakland, California; Chudney Ross of Books and Cookies in Santa Monica, California; and Amy Oelkers of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Singing is a great way to kick off story time as it settles children down and gets them to focus on the storyteller, Doornbos said, adding that a talent for singing doesn’t matter and YouTube is a good resource for song tunes and lyrics. “What you’re looking for is to give them something reassuring and familiar and to hold their focus. And caregivers, or whoever is at story time, will help you out,” she said.

For all the songs she sings during story time at DIESEL, Doornbos has the children participate through movements or jumping, which she said helps keep them engaged in the song and story time.

“We take it even further than that — we’ll get them up and dancing with the song,” said Ross, who has created a Movers & Shakers story time for the younger set, which uses a song or musical activity in between each book and meaningful transitions to navigate between the two. Books and Cookies also hosts a Musical Story Time, Story Time Play Dates, and Story Time Adventures.

For a 35-minute story time session, Ross spends about 20 minutes planning: thinking about the books to read within a particular theme, the songs to sing, and transitions in between, as well as props to use during songs or stories, such as egg shakers and scarves. “You definitely want to draw out the steps,” she said.

Doornbos, too, spends about 20 minutes preparing for a story time and creates a set list for herself. She recommended that booksellers read the selected book prior to the story time — “That’s a recipe for disaster, to not read it first,” she said — and view it as an opportunity to get to know the new titles in the children’s book department.

Over the course of a half-hour, Doornbos will read five books and sing songs in between. At each event, she likes to include a classic story, an alphabet or number book, and something new and appealing that might intrigue parents. “At the end of the day, it has to be what will work for you and for your store,” she said.

Oelkers, who is one of the substitute storytellers at Red Balloon, stressed the importance of planning ahead. “For people who don’t do it or are maybe nervous about starting it, practicing and preparing is very helpful,” she said. “Once you get your feet wet, it will be a lot easier and a lot more natural.”

Books and Cookies charges $10 per child for each story time, with a 50 percent discount for siblings. Programs run on a set weekly schedule in a dedicated events classroom. The events are all loosely literacy-based but include elements such as yoga, music, and dancing. Classes are capped at 12 children and their caretakers, and the store consistently sees seven to eight children at each event.

DIESEL hosts events of 10 to 15 children on Thursday mornings in the children’s section of the store. Because little else is happening in the store at that time, it doesn’t hurt business for the story time to take over the entire section, Doornbos said. For bookstores without a function room, she recommended using a rug to define the story time area.

DIESEL also hosts a regular pajama story time for which a local author or illustrator dresses up in their pajamas and reads to attendees. “We don’t peg it on a particular picture book, so if you have an author that has done a lot of beautiful work, it doesn’t have to be part of one of these big book tours,” said Doornbos, who usually reaches out directly to the author or their publicist for this type of event.

Red Balloon hosts two story times each week, one for babies and young toddlers and the other for older toddlers and preschoolers. “We’ll target an age group, but it’s really a family story time,” Oelkers said, and the number of attendees can range from six up to 20.

Calling on her earlier experiences as a professional costumed character at the Mall of America, Oelkers offered some best practices for incorporating costumed characters into story time events. At Red Balloon, Oelkers dons costumes four to five times a year for special events, which can attract more than 100 attendees. Many of Red Balloon’s costumes come from Costume Specialists or from the publisher.

The person donning the costume — Oelkers suggested inviting a theater student to play the part — should never be in the costume for more than 30 minutes at a time and should always have an assistant or escort to facilitate the story time and the meet-and-greet. Costumes should be tried on well ahead of time to understand how to assemble and adjust them, and to account for malfunctions. Booksellers should also research the character and develop easy and simple hand movements and standing positions, as a character should never stop moving and should speak only through gestures, not words.

To attract new families to story times, Ross suggested handing out fliers at in-store and offsite events, providing a schedule of activities to nearby hotel concierges, and presenting story time at farmers markets and busy festivals to provide a space for parents and children to have some downtime. “We’re always out and about, hoping to draw those families into the store,” she said.

“Mommy blogs are so important,” stressed Doornbos, noting that local bloggers share their experiences on their blogs and social media and create excellent word-of-mouth publicity. DIESEL also goes to parks and other public spaces to do read-alouds and events, which Doornbos said can really raise awareness. “If you have a great storyteller, share them,” she said.

Doornbos did warn booksellers to “expect that in September, the number of attendees will fall really sharply,” as children return to school. Doing extra marketing in August and September can help ensure the loss isn’t too drastic.

When measuring the success of story time at a bookstore, you have to look at the long-term gains, said Doornbos, such as growing young readers and becoming their trusted resource for books. Story times also build community, both between the bookstore and the families that attend and between the parents and caregivers themselves.

“The word I’ve taken away is ‘personal,’” said Doornbos. “This is your way of getting out from behind the register and sitting with the kids. This is a way to be personal.”