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  • Photos by Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Jen McKinney reads an interactive storybook with children during a storytime session at the Tecumseh branch of the Allen County Public Library. “We build readers from the time they were born,” says McKinney, who has worked for the library for more than 15 years.

  • Librarian Dori Graham sings with children during a storytime session at the library’s Georgetown branch. She likens the job to a form of theater.

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Allen County Public Library Tecumseh branch Assistant Manager and Child Librarian Jen McKinney shaking an egg rattle with children attending her Storytelling Time program on Thursday.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Librarian Dori Graham uses a squirrel puppet to sing songs with children during Family Story Time at the Allen County Public Library Georgetown branch on Thursday.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Librarian Dori Graham sings during a storytime session at the Georgetown branch.

  • McKinney, who has always wanted to work with “small people,” says storytime sometimes involves a “lab” where children can touch and feel elements of the story. “It’s a variable experience every day,” she says.

Sunday, October 21, 2018 1:00 am

Instilling a love of reading

Librarians engage kids, make impact during storytime

Kimberly Dupps Truesdell For The Journal Gazette

“The more we get together, together. The more we get together, the happier we'll be.”

Jennifer McKinney holds up two of her fingers the way she always does at the beginning of a storytime at the Tecumseh branch of the Allen County Public Library.

The fingers hug, she says. “Friend is 'hug, hug.'”

She points to her face, smiling big, and waves her hands to show the sign for happiness. Soon, the group will begin to sing the song – the song that begins every storytime.

“Because your friends are my friends, and my friends are your friends. The more we get together, the happier we'll be.”

“All of us start with the same song, all of us end with the same finger play,” says Mary Voors, manager of the Children's Services department. “So that we can frame it nicely. So kids who come in can have the repetition and can have the recognition.”

But while every storytime at the main library downtown begins the same, every librarian has their own style, way of doing things.

And still, it's all with the ultimate goal of instilling a love of reading into the kids – and adults – who enter the doors.

One-woman show

An excited look crosses Dori Graham's face. Her eyes are bright and her smile wide.

In a room at the Georgetown library branch, the children's librarian is standing in front of dozens of toddlers and adults.

“What do I have here?” she says.

The eyes of the children, who range in age from babies to preschoolers, light up as she brings out a fuzzy stuffed squirrel.

“Hop with him,” she says. “Get your hands out like this.”

And so the children – at least those who are old enough to walk – hop to their feet and put their hands out in front of them, eyes fixed on Graham to see what she will do next.

It's near the end of the half-hour storytime on a recent Thursday morning and, for Graham, it's the perfect time to bring a song element to the program.

“The third book is always a singing book because you can mesmerize the crowd,” she says, adding that a crucial element of a library story time is the ability to hold the crowd.

Among her favorites are “Jump!” by Scott M. Fischer and a musical take on “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.” But on this day, she is taking the song “Hop Little Squirrel” and turning it into an interactive story performance.

“It takes a great deal of theater, but it's even different than theater in a way because it's really the only thing you are holding them with is the narrative and your voice,” Graham says. “I think it's a demure form of theater. A one-woman or one-man show, in a way.”

Graham, who has a degree in English literature from IPFW, says she has never had trouble being in front of kids.

One of 10 children, “it's not something I've ever had to push for,” she says.

Growing up, she remembers, she and her siblings would all gather around their mother as she would read aloud.

She so enjoyed listening to her mom read, Graham says, that she would still join her younger siblings for stories at night as a teenager.

“My mom used books as a way to engage us,” Graham says. “She didn't believe in television. To fill all of that time, she had to instill in us a love of books.”

But it was a local elementary school where Graham fell in love, for the first time possibly, with the idea of becoming a librarian and sharing stories with children.

She was still too young to be in school, but her siblings were students, and Graham's mom brought her along.

“In that story, she had (a gourd) that she was talking about and holding and the way that she was telling the story,” she says. “I feel like the entire group was mesmerized by that gourd. She held the room.”

As she stands in front of the room, the squirrel is still in Graham's hands.

“Jump little squirrel, jump little squirrel,” she sings as her feet come off the floor and the squirrel gets closer to the ceiling as she raises her hands.

The sound of little feet thump on the carpeted floor as they jump and sing, taking Graham's lead.

As a storyteller, she wants the kids to be a part of the story.

“We're teaching them to anticipate the next page and be a part of the story,” she says. “The older you get, the more self-regulation you have.”

But as the kids sing and munch and jump, the adult caregivers are there, too. Singing and mimicking Graham.

The storytime, she says, is just as much about the adults as it is the children.

“I'm modeling for parents that they are not bound to the words,” Graham says.

And so the group begins to dance because the squirrel is shaking and shaking looks like dancing – a verbal direction that Graham uses often, decoding vocabulary in the books so that the children understand.

But as the clock winds down, Graham shares that dancing makes her tired.

“Let's head back into our home and get into our beds,” she says.

Graham lies on the floor, her sneaker-clad feet crossed as the squirrel rests on her pink sweater. She yawns, closes her eyes and feigns snoring.

“I forgot I was doing storytime. The end.”

Making an impact

Mary Voors was working at the Allen County Public Library when a young man, as she says, approached her and waved a set of keys at her.

“I'm ready to take you for a drive,” he said.

Voors looked at him quizzically and the young man, a teenage boy, really, began to tell her a story.

He used to go to storytime and listen to Voors read and sing and share. During one particular session, Voors shared a book that incorporated driving and then, as a 3-year-old, he told her that he was going to take her for a drive when he got his license.

And so on that day a few years ago, he was there to fulfill his promise.

“It's funny to think about the impact that you have,” Voors says, adding that the young man still recalled the name of the story. “And that idea of remembering something like that is pretty amazing.”

Voors has worked for the library system for more than 30 years and has spent time in other departments – circulation, public relations – but her love is in children's services.

“I have always enjoyed children's books and the ability to share them with others,” she says. “It's just part of who I am.”

Voors, who counts “Duck! Rabbit!” among her favorite books of late, says she likes working with children of preschool age and in early primary school.

“It sends a dramatic message just because they are in school that you don't stop reading to them,” says Voors, who read to her daughter through middle school.

“Wait. Listen. Did you hear that? I heard duck sounds.”

“That's funny. I distinctly heard rabbit sounds.”

There's always more than one way of looking at things, and in “Duck! Rabbit!”, the reader is trying to decide whether the illustration is a bird or a mammal.

The book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is one both adults and children can enjoy, the type of book that Voors likes to share in a storytime.

Story selection is critical. The books have to be age-appropriate and have the ability to hold the group.

While not necessarily obvious, the librarians who lead storytime are also incorporating five elements – reading, writing, singing, talking and playing – to help build early literacy.

“We want kids to have a mirror and a window,” Voor says. “We want to see themselves reflected in the story. And we want to see through the window into the world. We want them to be able to have an experience.”

Building readers

“If we know a story, we can tell a story,” Jennifer McKinney says. “I'm going to tell you a story. I'm going to tell it to you, but I need your help.”

And so the librarian at the Tecumseh branch brings out a basket with brown-paper-wrapped packages, with the names of little boys and little girls written on them.

The children excitedly reach their hands in to retrieve the one with their names and return to a comfortable seat – or stand – in the room.

There are small log pillows positioned in a semicircle, offering a natural place for the children to rest – not that McKinney expects them to sit for the 30 minutes.

For her, storytime offers the children, who range in age from babies with older siblings to preschoolers, a place to interact.

McKinney says she leads “wild, rollicking, chaotic, zany storytimes,” and as she begins to tell the tale of how she wrote the zoo asking for a pet, all eyes are on her as she asks one of the children to unwrap a package.

“What's in there? Let's see. What is it?” McKinney asks the children.

A giraffe, they call in unison.

But, McKinney says as she raises her hand above her head, “She was too tall.”

“So I sent her back!”

McKinney says she and other librarians use a variety of tools to expand a story time so the children can take the stories in the library into their life, whether it's bringing the packages or creating a story “lab” where the children can touch and feel elements of the story.

“We build readers from the time they were born,” says McKinney, who has worked for the library for more than 15 years. “It's exciting to share that with tiny people.”

McKinney got her start working in libraries in Burbank, California, before moving to Indiana and spending time in Tippecanoe County.

She grew up sharing stories with her family and remembers reading the comics in the newspaper with her father, even when she didn't need him to read them to her.

“I guess I've known I wanted to work with small people ever since I was a small person,” McKinney says.

And though the natural inclination was to go into education, she says that working in the library is where she gets to take what she loves and share it with other people.

A grimace crosses her face as a child hands her a camel. The gift from the zoo? Well, he was too grumpy. The snake was too scaly.

As another gift comes out of the package – this time, a monkey – a little blond boy with delicate blond curls begins to page through “From Head to Toe” by Eric Carle.

“I have storytime nerves before I do (a program),” McKinney says. “You never know exactly what a story time is going to bring you. It's a variable experience every day because of the nature of people.”

But as her presentation of “Dear Zoo” wraps up, all of the wild animals put away, the children begin to clap.