Friday, June 26, 2009

making babies, making readers

This week’s guest is Pamela Groves, a youth services librarian for the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey. Also an essayist and novelist, Pamela shares her love of reading by fostering literacy in the youngest among us.

Want to meet some great characters? Come to infant or toddler storytime at your local public library! When last have you quacked like Duck or gobbled like Turkey or snickered gleefully as Itsy Bitsy gets washed down the spout again and again? Wouldn’t you have wanted a lamb just like Mary’s little one? Or a pocket-less bear named Corduroy?

If you’ve never attended a baby or toddler storytime, go, even if you have to steal a baby to get in. They are unique gatherings, sorted by age—newborns, infants, toddlers, preschool—accompanied by their caregivers, who come together weekly to listen to age-appropriate stories, sing songs, chant nursery rhymes, and play with puppets. The librarian knows not only the rhymes and songs, but also the importance of using words to promote mental development and the acquisition of language. He or she is conducting the storytime as a fun activity for all, while teaching and modeling critical family literacy skills.

The goal is to show parents and caregivers --often older brothers and sisters-- what they can do to help their children become aware of and comfortable with books and language. Often we think that children will learn literacy skills in school, but these skills develop long before children enter school.

Here’s how I see it: What does every writer want? What does every writer need? Readers, of course! As a Youth service librarian I am in the reader-making business. People make babies (I helped make two beauties, myself) and if the baby and family are lucky enough to have someone like me in their life from birth, they will benefit greatly because my job is to help get them ready to read. This is the philosophy that forms the foundation for a new undertaking in my home country – creating a storytime project in rural Jamaica.

When Mama or Papa can’t read (Jamaica has a high illiteracy rate) how do they help their child? Storytimes help to counteract intergenerational illiteracy, and offer a wonderful opportunity for partnership as all ages come together to experiment with words and language. It is easier to learn when you are actively involved; therefore “fun” is at the heart of family storytimes. And just like when one writes, a storytime shows rather than tells how much fun and joy there is in reading and rhyming.

On my last trip to Jamaica I did a family storytime for all ages in a cute little fishing village on the south coast. The Coast is made up of a series of small fishing villages with silky grey volcanic sand and fossilized rock. There, the wind (Jamaicans diminutively call it a “breeze”) is an almost constant companion; you either make it your friend or you’ll find yourself grumbling a lot. It’s only a part-timer resident though...which is good because it can start to feel like you’re being bounced, battered and dried out. I can still remember feeling sand behind my eyeballs. At my age one doesn’t welcome dryness easily, no matter where it appears.

Before leaving the U.S. I spent hours scouring Amazon and my library’s shelves to find characters that would appeal to rural Jamaican children in general and the children I would be reading to in particular. So, who traveled with me to Jamaica – risking confiscation because if you can believe it, the Jamaican government recently instated a tax on people bringing in books?? (I confess I didn’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth at Customs…)

I had to take at least one trickster tale: Anansi’s Party Time by Eric A. Kimmel: a hilarious story of wit and wisdom in both Anansi and Turtle. Big Friends by Margery Cuyler: Set in the wide expanse of Eastern Africa, two giants meet at their respective campsites and become great friends. Every household, with or without a child, should own I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont, Hush Little Baby, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, and Itsy Bitsy Spider by Iza Trapani.

I love picture books that can be sung – singing engages everyone and being able to have a book open brings the words on a page, music and images together beautifully. Other titles were Duck Soup by Jackie Urbanovic, Dear Zoo, a clever pop-up by Rod Campbell, and Nanta’s Lion by Suse MacDonald, set in Africa where what the lion Nanta cannot find appears by the end of the book through clever diecuts. Aesop’s fable The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind was perfect for the windy village.

The books were a whopping success. I had everyone engaged in call and response, singing, answering questions and a lot of laughter. What the books had in common was their universality. They were darned good stories with universal themes and, most importantly, universal characters. The audience of about two dozen, (half adult, one elderly, a couple teens and one infant) most of whom had never left their village could still relate to Itsy Bitsy’s perseverance, or Angelina’s sadness at leaving home.

I invite you to sit in on storytime and meet Little Angelina who has moved to the Big Apple from Jamaica and misses her island home until she finds a way to make Manhattan island her island in the sun. VIDEO

Yes, I write --and love it-- but I must tell you that making readers is a bit like making babies: A helluva lot of fun and always rewarding.


Unknown said...

How very cool. :) And what a lovely post. Thanks for coming to guest blog!! :)

Lisa in lecture mode here: Just a reminder to everyone that even locally kids need books. My county collects books to give to low-income kids when their families come in for other services. And our local Borders frequently has discounted children's books at the register, I buy one and then they deliver them to local shelters.

pamela said...

Thanks, Lisa... It was fun to be your guest!

Yes, children everywhere need books.... but just a note of caution: not just any books! There is much junk out there, so take a bit of time to choose carefully. Check with me if you need suggestions :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

Take it from me, Pamela has the best suggestions! For books, that is...and a lot of other things, too. Hey, Pam, you could start an on-line advice service...;-)
LOVE the link, BTW. So fun to see you in action!

Martha Flynn said...

You are totally an inspiration! But when I get hauled in for stealing a baby to get into a toddler reading time, I'm taking you down with me. :)

Pamela said...

Heh...Heh...!! I'll be right by your side!

Sophie Littlefield said...

God bless you, Pamela! You are my hero today. I have such great memories of toting my own little scuppers around to the local libraries. And it worked - they still love to read....