December 03, 2015
When I was a young child, my mom took my sisters and me to the public library every week. She let us choose the books we wanted—however many we wanted. If I decided to read the same book over and over, she let me. The librarian never said things like: “You can’t have that many books,” or: “That book is too hard for you,” or: “You’ve checked out that book every week for a month. Let’s choose something else.” What a good librarian she was!
Later my love of literature would lead me to teach in a high-school classroom. When I decided I could save the world through the library, I changed career paths. My most memorable years as a librarian were spent in a Title I elementary school. My students lived in housing projects. All were on free lunch. Despite my love of children’s books, I was completely unprepared for book selection, classroom management during storytime, and the baggage those kids would bring to school.
For my first preschool storytime, I selected a classic—Amelia Bedelia. I remembered, as a kid, laughing and laughing in anticipation of the silly mistakes she made. “The children will love her,” I thought. Wrong. The children were confused. Terribly confused. It didn’t take long for me to realize I hadn’t matched the book to the correct age group. It just wasn’t funny to preschoolers. “Why would she do that?” was written all over their faces. So I said what any good librarian would say: “Look at the time, children. We will have to finish our story another day.” I closed the book and later shared it with second grade. They thought it was hilarious, laughing before I even turned the page. Right book. Right audience. What a difference a few years makes.
Selecting literature for appropriate age groups isn’t a magical skill. Preschoolers enjoy books with bright colors and familiar things. Repetitive text or predictable sequence keeps them involved in the plot. Concept books such as alphabet or counting books are often hits with young listeners. Wordless books allow them to create their own stories. Early literacy is all about building language skills. Talking about what they see in the illustrations is half the battle.
Young children also love the repetition of reading the same story. Cries of, “Read it again! Read it again!” help you know that you’ve selected the just-right book. I had a kindergartener who checked out Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Closet every week for months. He couldn’t read all the words, but he could tell the story like a pro. Eventually he moved on to Apples and Pumpkins by Anne Rockwell. Allowing readers a choice works at any age.
As you select books for the young, look for books that make them laugh. Anything by Mo Willems will work. Classics by Dr. Seuss bring all the elements your preschool listeners can enjoy—repetition, prediction, and memorable characters. The colors and themes in Eric Carle’s works are classics for a reason. Donald Crews, Byron Barton, Nancy Tafuri, and Anne Rockwell are masters of simple text and pictures that encourage participation and frequently prompt requests for rereading.
As you sift through dozens of reviews, booklists, and media, consider your audience. As I evaluated the collection I had inherited in my new elementary position, I realized that although my population was one-hundred-percent African American, there were relatively few books in the library that included characters of color. My search for good literature needed to include some diversity, a topic as important today as it was back in 1995.
Look at your collection. Is it diverse? Is your community represented in your collection? Can the children relate to the topics? While I was a district librarian San Diego I once bought several hundred copies of a book about a drive-thru car wash. There were no drive-thru car washes in that part of Southern California. Though the picture book had the brilliant colors and onomatopoeic words that young readers often enjoy, my audience’s prior knowledge of the subject was nonexistent and those books became a hard sell.
Out of Control
In addition to making wiser book selections, my storytime management skills needed an overhaul. Children were wild. Even if I read a perfectly appropriate book, I lost so much time “making them behave” that the joy of storytime was gone.
Then I read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School. My management skills were transformed. I learned the difference between rules and procedures. Rules have consequences. Procedures require practice, not punishment. If a student runs when he’s not supposed to, he practices walking instead of being yelled at for running. Eventually he learns to walk and not run. When I applied that philosophy to my programming, I learned that by teaching library behavior first, I was able to waste less time policing my listeners.
The kids I taught dealt with real-world problems. Many of them didn’t have their own beds to sleep in. A large number came to school hungry. Violence and abuse were in their homes, not just on their television screens. The library or classroom could either be their refuge or just another place where there were too many rules. Creating an environment where they felt welcome made it easier for them to participate. Take your audience’s backstory into account. It’s hard to listen when you’re hungry. It may be difficult to relate to a character when you have no prior knowledge of his or her world.
Tips for Successful Listening
Allow squirmy kids to sit in the back where they are less distracting
Provide paper and drawing materials for kids who need to keep their hands busy
Make your storytimes interactive with science experiments
Teach them rhymes, songs, and tongue twisters
Make sure everyone can see the book, using technology if necessary
Make sure everyone can hear, amplifying your voice when possible
Allow time for listeners to talk in small groups or partner to share their stories
You’re Not Alone
Selecting books and using them with your preschoolers is not as hard as you might think. First of all, you don’t have to do it alone. Selecting from winners of awards such as Caldecott and Coretta Scott King is one way. School Library Journal posted Top 100 Picture Books, though like Amelia Bedelia, some may need to wait until later. A search at The Horn Book reveals apps, titles, and authors for the non-reading set.
Let them wiggle. Offer a variety of topics and activities that enrich the literacy experience. Let them pick. Allow them to de-select if it’s not a fit. Allow them to check out as many books as they want. Let them read the same book over and over. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even create another librarian.
PARRAVANO, Martha. Rumpeta-ing through Reading: Picture Books for the Very Young.The Horn Book. October 5, 2015.
SUN, Carolyn. Selecting Children’s Books: A Reader’s Advisory by ‘The Horn Book’ Editors | Fostering Lifelong Learners 2014. School Library Journal. September 26, 2014.
TOMLIN, Carolyn R. Factors to Consider When Choosing Preschool Books. Early Childhood News. Accessed 11/19/2015.
FREEMAN Judy and Caroline Feller Bauer. The Handbook for Storytime Programs. 596p. ALA editions. 2015. ISBN 9780838912652.
This article originally appeared in The Horn Book’s December 2015 e-newsletter What Makes a Good Preschool Book?