Ci7 Education: The Art of Reading Aloud

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During the “Programming & Partnerships: The Art of Reading Aloud” education session at the seventh annual Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh, bookseller attendees not only learned about how to implement a fun and engaging story time in their stores, but participated in a story time themselves. Booksellers can watch a full video of the session on ABA’s Education Resources page (a BookWeb username and password are required; e-mail info@bookweb.org for login credentials).

At the Thursday, June 27, session, attendees heard from guest speakers Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, Washington, who moderated the session; Jonathan Hamilt of Drag Queen Story Hour NYC, who appeared as Ona Louise; Anastasia McKenna of The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio, Texas; and Angela Whited of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Red Balloon hosts two story times a week, said Whited, who then introduced session attendees to Sheep, a puppet she uses to greet story time participants at her store. Typically, she said, Sheep comes to story time to sing a song, tell a funny story, or provide a segue that helps her to engage participants.

Whited also shares with attendees Red Balloon’s two rules for story time. “Rule number one: we’re going to do our very, very best to stay sitting down on our bottoms,” she said. “Rule number two: we’re going to do our very, very best to stay very, very quiet.”

And because staying still and quiet can be difficult for small children, Whited said that she likes to do a rhyme called “Rollie Pollie” that lets children stretch out their arms and make a little bit of noise.

She added that when choosing a book for story time, she likes ones that have a minimal number of words per page. Books with four sentences per page are far too long, Whited told attendees, but if it has four sentences per two pages, it will probably work.

“Something I’ve encountered a zillion times with authors and with everyone is that they start to read their book aloud, and it’s got so many words, and the people here are two years old, because daytime [participants] who are not in school are less than three,” she said.

Whited read a portion of Jennifer Sattler’s One Red Sock (Sleeping Bear Press, September 2019) to attendees. Following her read-aloud, Tigani noted that one of Whited’s strengths as a performer is that “she paused after page turns; she let us think about what’s coming next. She was using [the book’s] rhyme scheme to help us predict, and then she encouraged us when we got it right.”

Overall, Whited said, booksellers should have fun with their story times. “Engage with the kids and their families, and if it doesn’t start making money for your store right away, don’t worry about it. Keep at it,” she said.

McKenna’s overall focus for her presentation was poetic license. “I’ve been told by children that I didn’t read the words in the book, and for that they all get a gold star,” she said, noting that she responded by introducing children to the concept of poetic license.

She shared with attendees a handout that listed her “Fab 5” visual cues in the books she reads that inform how exactly she’s going to read, including the font, the characters’ faces, and noises or pauses in the text; these alter everything from her facial expressions to her tone of voice. McKenna also encouraged attendees to use poetic license and make whatever they’re reading their own story by adding repetition, songs, and counting, and to engage participants by giving them “jobs,” where they say or do certain things at certain times in the text.

“I always say when I give a presentation to not try to do all of those things at once,” McKenna said. “You have something inside of you already that you can tap into and that you can sprinkle a little bit of extra special on.”

While there’s a lot that booksellers can do and experiment with, Whited urged attendees not to jump right in. “You have to practice,” she said. “My big thing is do not ever try to read cold. If a kid hands me a book...I say, let me look at it, let me practice, I have to be ready.”

“And that’s also saying you’re a professional, you’re not a trained monkey,” she added. “Honor your own talent and make sure you’re prepared.”

Additionally, booksellers should let themselves be vulnerable when they’re performing, McKenna said, as seeing an adult make a mistake while reading can help kids feel more comfortable. “If I mess up the words, I roll with that. [Kids] are learning how to read and it’s so hard...and we’re not always the best at teaching them how to,” she said.

Storyteller Jonathan Hamilt of Drag Queen Story Hour, who appeared as Ona Louise, shared with attendees what the nonprofit’s program looks like. To begin, Louise said, “We like to make sure that all the kids are invited in by the [storyteller] to come sit up close. A lot of shy kids don’t want to come unless they’re told to.”

Then, Louise shared, storytellers will ask participants if they know what a drag queen is. “A drag queen,” she said, “is when you dress up to be your favorite made-up character, so today I’m Ona Louise.”

Louise also walked attendees through a rendition of “Wheels on the Bus” called “Heels on a Drag Queen,” then read Neither by Airlie Anderson (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Said Louise, “We read a lot of books at Drag Queen Story Hour that have characters in them that have they/them pronouns, or we change the pronoun to be more inclusive, to make the characters open up so any child can imagine a character that’s not gendered.”

Drag Queen Story Hour also has a “dragtivity book,” which features handouts that explain what a drag queen is, and activity sheet participants can use to create their own character.

“If you’re brave enough and want to make a statement, especially during June and Pride Month, please host a Drag Queen Story Hour,” Louise said. “We get an amazing turnout. Drag is so important for kids to experience. It points out the silliness of gender norms and this social construct that we’ve created. And it creates a safe place for kids to play and use all the crayons in the coloring box and really explore themselves and not limit them to rigid stereotypes.”

“I grew up in the south in a very religious upbringing and this is what came of it,” she added, “so imagine if I went to a story hour. These would be real diamonds and I’d be the keynote of this conference.”

Tigani shared with attendees that Queen Anne Book Company hosts two 30-minute story times twice per month, and she keeps a spreadsheet of all the books the store uses in its story hour. She also said that Queen Anne will give tips to volunteer storytellers who come in from the local community.

One of these tips, Tigani said, was inspired by a preschool teacher who let her know that some of the volunteers weren’t showing participants the pictures enough, or they were obscuring them by trying to read from the book while showing it at the same time. “Sometimes it’s okay to read to yourself if you don’t remember what comes next and you’re not comfortable with poetic license,” Tigani said. “It’s okay to read it to yourself and then share it around.”

Tigani also noted that stores that add a crafting element to their story times should take into consideration what she calls “pre-cutters,” or people who don’t have fine motor skills because of their age or abilities. “It’s always nice to have something that they can take away, too, even the pre-cutters who can’t color something,” she said, noting that stickers are a great option.

In her readings, Tigani said, she also tries to be as honest with participants as she can. She said that once, she chose to read The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial Books), which is a book she can’t read without tearing up. “I would say to my story time audience, I’m tearing up right now because I’m feeling something strongly, and I wanted to let you know I’m tearing up and that’s okay,” she said.

For the Children’s Institute session, she chose to read Harold Loves His Woolly Hat by Vern Kousky (Schwartz & Wade) to attendees. “I just love the way the illustrations and the words kind of dictate to us how we might enjoy the book together,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of suspense in those page turns, and there’s so much emotion.”

During Tigani’s reading, she stayed standing instead of sitting down, which attendees noted was helpful because she was able to act out what the book’s main character was doing. One attendee suggested that if a storyteller has the space, they might encourage participants to act out the story as well.

Additionally, an attendee noted that Tigani maintained eye contact while reading aloud, but also looked back to the book often, which encourages participants to look at the book and pay attention as well.

If storytellers can’t keep children engaged, the guest speakers added, they should feel comfortable moving on to a different activity. “The art of storytelling is not about finishing the book at all,” Louise said. “It’s about watching everyone read...there’s a message to come out and that’s the most important thing. The kids can go home and buy the book and read it later with their parents or caregivers. Story hours are about conveying a message, not finishing a book cover to cover.”