Thursday, August 28, 2014

5 Hints for Planning Themed Story Times

Themes are a great way to organize a story time, keep variety in your repertoire, and draw in audiences. I don’t believe every story time should have a theme, but sometimes it’s fun to bring together like elements in one session. Here are some hints for maintaining high quality in a themed story time.
  • Choose a theme based on available materials.
    Planning a themed story time is similar to selecting a research topic. Before you begin, you’ll want to know if there are enough quality materials related to your selected theme. You never want to choose something to share in story time based only on the fact that it fits your theme. If you wouldn’t ordinarily read that book, sing that song, or chant that rhyme in a regular story time, then you shouldn’t do so simply to fill a themed session. 
  • Keep it general.
    To avoid painting yourself into a corner and forcing yourself to use poorly written materials, it’s best to stick with general themes. If you can’t find enough books about trucks, try vehicles with wheels. If you’re still not satisfied with what’s available, consider focusing on all modes of transportation. Every book fits some theme if you think broadly enough, and the more general the theme, the better the selection of quality books and activities. 
  • Don’t become a slave to the theme.
    Even after you’ve chosen a theme and found a great set of materials to use, there is still no reason that every single activity in the story time has to adhere to the theme. I’ve done story times where the books share a common thread, but the fingerplays, action rhymes and songs are unrelated. I’ve also done story times where the first half of story time is themed and the second half is a collection of unrelated items. Sometimes you will have a complete roster of great activities on the same topic, but it’s okay if that’s not the norm. 
  • It’s okay to keep the theme to yourself.
    In my experience, themes are most useful to the story time presenter and not as important to the children. I went through a phase where all my story times in a given week were on the same theme. This was so that I could systematically request books from other branches all at once, get everything out of them that I could and then send them back. On rare occasions, I told my audiences what a story time session was going to focus on, but as a general rule, I didn’t bother. Sometimes kids would notice a connection and point it out, but otherwise, they were just interested in hearing what I had to share, regardless of the subject. The themes were for me, and sometimes only discernible by me. 
  • Themes are not for everyone.
    My core belief about story time has always been that every presenter should do what works best for him or her. For some people, themed story times provide needed boundaries and structure; for others, they may be too restrictive. There is nothing inherently wrong with story times centered on themes, just as there is nothing wrong with selecting a variety of unrelated materials and sharing them in a logical order. The important thing is to choose well-written books, kid-friendly songs, and rhymes with strong rhythm and wise word choice.
You can browse my themed story times here.

Do you use themes at story time? Why or why not? What are some of your favorites? Please share in comments!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

10 Tips for Evaluating Picture Books

Evaluating picture books is an important part of a children's librarian's work, and at least a small part of the lives of anyone who works with or has children. Below are ten of the strategies I use to determine a picture book's quality. I wrote the list from a librarian's point of view, but many of the points listed can be applied to blog reviews, personal library purchases, and classroom use.
  • Listen to the language.
    A truly great picture book will flow smoothly, with no clunky rhymes, confusing transitions, or awkward sentence structures. Most picture books are intended to be read aloud, either one-on-one or in a group, so reading the book aloud, even just to yourself, should give you a good idea of its quality.
  • “Read” the illustrations.
    A picture book is nothing without pictures! Take some time to really explore the illustrations separate from the text. Look for those little details that children will linger over as their caregivers read to them. Pay attention to the way the illustrator portrays characters and setting based on the cues given by the author. The illustrations should enrich, not detract from, the author’s work.
  • Observe cooperation between words and pictures.
    In a successful picture book, the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. There will be details in the illustrations that are not directly mentioned in the text, and vice versa. In the ideal situation, the pictures are just as important as the words and the story’s meaning is dependent upon both elements.
  • Imagine the intended audience.
    Some picture books are for adults, others for teens and tweens, and still others for beginning readers, or babies. Figuring out who a book is geared toward can help you decide how to think about it as you consider its strengths and weaknesses. If the book doesn’t work for a preschooler, think about a group for which it might be more developmentally appropriate and imagine how they might respond. 
  • Reflect on all the possible uses of the book.
    Many books are intended for story time, but many others are not. Be careful not to dismiss a well-written book simply because it doesn’t suit the purpose you have in mind. If you can’t share the book in story time as is, brainstorm ways to adapt it to a more crowd-friendly format, such as a flannel board or puppet show. If it’s just not a story time book, suggest it to individual readers, either in a reader’s advisory transaction or through a display. Ranganathan’s third law, every book its reader, requires us to consider the many possible readers of a book, and not just whether or not we like it or can use it ourselves. 
  • Eliminate “cute” from your vocabulary.
    Some books are cute. There is no question. I want to cuddle the animals in Zooborns, and there is nothing more adorable than the illustrations in the Stella Batts books. Cuteness, however, says nothing about quality. Other words to drop from your repertoire include interesting, neat, fun, and nice. Instead, use meaningful terms that describe the book’s focus and function. 
  • Keep an eye out for errors and stereotypes.
    Many older books - even some considered classics - are plagued by stereotypical language. Try to be aware of these issues before promoting a book heavily or using it in a program. Also consider weeding - or at least putting into storage - books with outdated or inaccurate information. (The worst offenders right now are books like So You Want to be President? the older editions of which state that there has never been a president of color, and any space book where Pluto is identified as a planet.)
  • Consider the design.
    A book’s design often contributes to its reader’s enjoyment. Notice how the author uses page turns to create drama and suspense. Pay attention to how the illustrator works with the book’s gutter (the place in the center of the book where the pages come together.) Books also sometimes include important information on the end papers, front cover, title page, and back cover, all of which contribute to the book's overall effect.
  • Compare to canon.
    It can be difficult to evaluate a picture book in a vacuum, but you really don’t have to. Become familiar with the classics and the award winners to give yourself a strong foundation in what is already in the canon. Then, when you evaluate a new book, you have context. By comparing a book to others of high quality, it becomes easier to see its strengths and flaws, and also to figure out which readers might like it best.
  • Look beyond your personal preferences.
    Do I like this book?
    and Is this book any good? are two different questions. I like certain types and genres of books, but that doesn’t mean those titles are the only quality literature available. Using the criteria on this list you should be able to take an objective inventory of a book’s strengths and weaknesses that will help you decide whether a particular picture book is successful separate from whether or not you personally enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cybils 2014 Call for Judges

This year, I am the chair of the Easy Reader and Early Chapter Book category of the Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards). If you blog about children's or YA literature, you can apply to judge in my category - or any of the other Cybils categories - starting today, August 18.  

Cybils also has a brand-new website, where you can read FAQs, see the finalists and winners from last year, and find out more about the team of organizers, as well as the specific duties of judges. The application period will end on September 1, and judging panels will be announced on September 15. Nominations for titles to be considered for the awards will open on October 1.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mommy Librarian's Story Time Secret #3: Preview Your Story Time Books

First I was a children’s librarian. Then I became a mom. As I attend story times with my daughter, I have started to make a list of hints that might be helpful to story time performers and/or story time attendees. Today’s hint is for story time performers: make sure you read your story time books before sharing them with an audience!

While it can be tempting to simply pull any book from the shelf and read it at story time, it's generally not a good idea to do so. Here's why:
  • Books that look like great story time books at first glance can sometimes turn out to be terrible read-alouds. There are many picture books whose rhyme schemes start out strong, for example, and then derail terribly in the latter half of the stories. There are also a number of books out there with surprise endings. It's a Book is a wonderful book, but I wouldn't want to discover the word "jackass" on the final page for the first time in a public read-through.
  • It's hard to ad-lib or skip pages in a story you're not familiar with. When a story time crowd gets restless, it's great to know a book well enough that you can easily shorten the story, or change the words slightly to move things along and get onto the next activity.
  • When reading to preschoolers, in particular, it's great to be able to encourage them to make predictions about the story. It's difficult to point out clues that hint toward the ending when you don't know yourself where the story is going!
  • Reading aloud an unfamiliar text makes you that much more likely to stumble over words and make mistakes. It's much easier to engage an audience when you know a book well enough to read it with confidence.
I grabbed a book off the shelf without reading it for this story time, and vowed never to do it again. Do you have a similar story? Share in comments! Also check out my list of guidelines for choosing story time books.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reflections on Library Service to Teachers

Summer has just flown by! School starts here at the end of this month, so I thought it was a great time to reflect on library service to teachers. In my experience, successful interactions with teachers (including school librarians) depends upon communication, simplification, flexibility, and collaboration. Here are some practical suggestions for each of these categories.


  • Contact individual teachers or your school’s library media specialist to find out about upcoming events, assignments, and research projects.
  • Offer to present about library services and register teachers for library cards at a staff development day. 
  • Provide an introductory packet to be distributed to teachers when they register for library cards.
  • Add a page for educators to your library’s website with information about what you can offer them and links to resources they will find most useful.

Simplification- Saving the Time of the Reader Teacher

  • Make it a policy that you will pull books from the shelves for teachers who give you advance notice of their needs.
  • Resolve scheduling problems by setting aside specific time slots that are available only for class visits.
  • Join teachers in the stacks to help them look for materials. (Don’t assume it’s enough just to point them in the right direction!)
  • Develop a streamlined process for issuing library cards to entire classes at once.


  • Provide special library cards for educators with extended loan periods and increased borrowing limits.
  • Allow for the possibility that students might lose or damage books and try to give teachers the benefit of the doubt when charging them for lost or damaged items. (My last library allowed educators to lose up to 10 items without charging which I think was wonderfully generous.)
  • Be willing to host class visits in your library, or to visit classes off-site depending on the needs of a particular teacher. (In my experience, preschools especially appreciate it when you can come to them during the winter months. It takes forever to get all those little bodies into coats and mittens!)
  • Consider allowing teachers to have several “dummy” cards to assist with in-class database instruction. (I was asked to do this once, and my manager forbade me from going through with it, which created some ill will with the requesting teacher.)


  • Work together to teach research skills in special instructional sessions (with the school librarian or an individual teacher).
  • Invite teachers and school librarians to evening and weekend events at the library, and encourage them to invite their students as well.
  • Partner with a teacher, school librarian, or even a whole school to host a literacy festival or other large-scale event. 
  • Be a presence at school events, such as book fairs, career days, sports events, fairs, and anything else where local businesses are invited to participate. 
How do you serve teachers at your library? Share your success stories in comments.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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