Sunday, May 5, 2024

Cinco de Mayo - Family Storytime

Cinco de Mayo storytime, Latino Book Month storytime

I take a break from storytimes in May to clean, organize, and get ready for summer, so I try to make the last one a little special. Last year I did a Kentucky Derby theme, complete with hats and horses, and wanted to do something different this year. I decided to go with a Cinco de Mayo theme to celebrate Mexican-American culture and Latino books month. While I've done this theme before as a virtual program at a previous library, this was this first time I've done it as an in-person program.

I started out by greeting everyone and reminding them this would be the last storytime until the first week of June, and briefly explaining today's storytime was inspired by a special day coming up that some people celebrate called Cinco de Mayo. Then we sang our "Hello" song, followed by our warm-up song for the month, "The Wheels On the Bus".

Next I used a non-fiction book, Cinco de Mayo, by Sharon Katz Cooper to help explain what the Cinco de Mayo holiday is and how it is celebrated. I really would rather have had a book written by someone of Mexican heritage, but I wasn't able to find one (hello, series non-fiction about getting some own-voices authors???). I didn't read from the book, but showed pictures in the book as I explained that "cinco de Mayo" means "5th of May" and that while many people mistakenly believe the holiday celebrates Mexican independence, it actually celebrates a victorious battle against the French in the town of Puebla, Mexico on that date in 1862.

I further explained that in Mexico, it is a minor holiday focused on that battle, but in the United States it has become a much larger celebration of Mexican and Mexican-American heritage and culture, featuring parades and festivals with dancing, music, art, and lots of yummy foods. Since I had planned a piñata craft, but the book didn't show one, I printed out a picture of a traditional one to show them. I told them that in that vein, our stories and activities would be inspired by aspects of Mexican culture and feature Latin authors.

Our first story wasn't necessarily related to Cinco de Mayo or celebrations, but featured something uniquely Mexican, the dramatic performance wrestling knows as the lucha libre! In Lucía the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza and Alyssa Bermudez, the main character loves playing superhero, but becomes upset when the boys say that girls can't be superheroes. Her abuela comes to the rescue with a story about the luchadores of lucha libre and a shiny, silvery cape and mask.

This is a fun read aloud with lots of action, that also provides an important message that girls can also be superheroes, luchadoras, or whatever they want, and they don't have to just be "sugar and spice, and everything nice" all the time. It also shows that you don't have to hide your skills and accomplishments, and that by "removing your mask" you can help inspire and encourage others.

After that we practiced counting in Spanish, and learned the Spanish words for "friend" and "I have" with a simple counting song:

Tengo Diez Amigos
("I Have 10 Friends")

Uno, dos, tres amigos;
(One, two, three friends)

Cuatro, cinco, seis amigos;
(Four, five , six friends)

Siete, ocho, nueve amigos:
(Seven, eight, nine friends)

Tengo diez amigos!
(I have ten friends!)

For our second story I selected Paletero Man! by Lucky Diaz and Micha Player, which is based on the author's song of the same name. Diaz is not only an author, but also a popular Latin Grammy-winning "kindie" musician from the Los Angeles area. This was also a really fun read aloud, with a nice rhythm, repeating elements, and a sprinkling of Spanish words and phrases throughout, which I translated as I read. The story is about a boy who thinks an icy cold paleta (Mexican ice pop) would be the perfect treat on a hot day in Los Angeles.

As he races through the barrio looking for the vendor, Paletero José, he greets several of his neighbors and friends. However, after finally finding the paletero man and ordering his favorite flavor, piña (pineapple), the boy discovers he has lost his money. However, all ends well as the neighbors he passed on his way picked up his dropped money and have brought it to him. Paletero 
José is so touched by their kindness, he declares free paletas for all!  (See trailer below):

After that it was time for our craft, and a special treat - paletas!


We made simple piñatas out of paper bags and crepe streamers. Though it would be more traditional to completely cover the piñata with fringed crepe paper, I knew that would require more time and patience than my group typically has, so I made an example that just had 3-4 rows of fringed paper around the bottom of the bag, and used markers to decorate the top. I showed them the quickest way to fringe the streamers was to cut or tear a piece of the roll, fold it half several times, and then cut about 2/3 across through several layers. On the back side of my example, I showed an even faster and easier method of decorating by just attaching long strips hanging down.

Paper bag piñatas

I gave them the bags, several different colors of crepe streamers, markers, glue, tape, and scissors and let them get to work. Once they were finished, I instructed them to put their bags on a side table, opened, to dry. While the bags were drying, they got to have a special treat and try paletas! I had assorted flavors: mango, lime, coconut, strawberry, and strawberries & cream. I also gave them paper plates to catch drips and have a place to set them down if needed. Most kids chose by color rather than flavor, and almost all seemed happy with their choices; however, one child was not happy with her lime paleta at all and gave it to her dad and chose a less adventurous strawberries & cream one instead.

While they were enjoying their paletas, I filled their piñatas with goodies (fruit gummies, alphabet cookies, slap bracelets, bubbles, squishies, and plastic animals) and closed them up. I instructed them to take the piñatas home and let them dry thoroughly, and break them open later (when their grownups said it was ok) for a special surprise!

How It Went 
This was a super fun storytime for all of us, so much better in person as opposed to the previous virtual version I did a few years ago! I really had fun with the stories and getting to use a little Spanish, which I studied in high school and college, but have mostly forgotten due to not having opportunities to use it early on. I was pleasantly surprised that most, maybe all, of the kids already knew how to count to ten in Spanish, and knew that "amigo" meant friends.

They also surprised me by how well they listened, considering both stories were on the longer side. However, they each were great read-alouds and very relatable. What kid hasn't played superheroes, or enjoyed a refreshing popsicle on a hot day? They really enjoyed getting creative with their piñatas and getting to try the paletas. I envied them, as it was very warm in the program room and I would have loved a cold treat, but alas, I am diabetic and could not indulge.

There was one really funny moment during the reading of Lucía the Luchadora. When I read the the part where the boys tell her that girls can't be superheroes, the little girl that happened to be sitting directly in front of me made a face of pure outrage and disgust that was so dramatic it made me crack up. Such a strong reaction!

For a bonus feature, I found a video of the author of The Paletero Man and his daughter making homemade paletas: 

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Messy Storytime - Preschool


Messy Storytime

Finally, a new storytime theme that I haven't done before! 

I'd been thinking about trying the paper marbling activity using shaving cream for a while, and after doing it for a group of developmentally disabled adults and seeing how easy it was, I decided to incorporate it as part of a "messy" storytime for kids.

We started with our usual "hello" song, followed by this month's warm-up song "The Wheels On the Bus". Then I introduced the topic of messy play and messy art, and lead into our first book with "Are You Ready for a Story?".

I started off with a new-ish book, Oops! by Julie Massy and Pascal Bonenfant. This is a great interactive book that encourages the audience to explore cause and effect, often with funny, unexpected, and/or messy results. 

It's perfect for storytime because it is interactive, has repetition, and is not too text heavy, something that is seemingly harder and harder to find in picture books these days. This is not only a chance to have some silly fun, but also an opportunity to talk about accidents and how everyone makes mistakes.

We followed that with two messy songs, "Icky Sticky Sticky Bubble Gum" by David Landau:

"Icky Sticky Bubble Gum"

Icky, sticky, sticky, sticky bubble gum, 
Bubble gum, bubble gum.
Icky, sticky, sticky, sticky bubble gum
Makes my hands stick to my _____.

And I pull, and pull, and *puuulllll* them away!

And Laurie Berkner's "I'm a Mess":

"I'm a Mess"

I'm a mess, I'm a mess 
I'm a big old messy mess 
From the north to the south 
And the east to the west 
What I am is a really really, really big mess!

I try to get dressed but I make a mess 
I jump in the puddles and can you guess 
 make mud pies when the mud is fresh 
And then UH OH I've made a big mess 

I'm a mess, I'm a mess . . . 

Now eating messy food. You know it's the best 
'Cause no matter what I do I make a big mess 
Get dinner on my jacket; Breakfast on my vest 
Lunch in my socks, UH OH what a mess!

I'm a mess . . .

For our second book, I choose the classic I Ain't Gonna Paint No More! by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow. This is a really fun and funny book about a naughty child who just can't stay out of the paint. They are caught painting all over the walls, ceiling, and floors by their caregiver, who hides the paint in the closet and tells the child "Ya ain't gonna paint no more!", and sends them to take a bath. However, the mischievous child just can't help themself, and gets the paints out and begins painting all over....themself!

The book has a great rhythm for reading aloud (and can be sung as well), using a rhyming scheme to help the audience guess what is being painted next, ending with "I'm such a nut, I'm gonna paint my ____!" This is a really fun book, though I have to confess the improper grammar bothers me, from years of being drilled that "ain't" isn't a word in grade school.

Then we went straight to our messy activity!

Activity - Paper Marbling

Shaving cream paper marbling, messy storytime

I filled the sensory bin with shaving cream (not really full, but a nice thick layer) and squirted drips of washable tempera paint all over the top, then used my fingers to swirl the colors. Next, the kids, with their caregivers' help, pressed a piece of paper down onto the shaving cream, rubbing it to be sure it made contact. [You can also give each participant their own individual tray or foil pan to spray shaving cream on.]

Next, the carefully lifted the paper up and placed it on a tray, then used a squeegee to scrape most of the shaving cream off and followed with a paper towel to get the remaining residue. Then let dry.

While the papers were drying, I invited the kids to play in the remaining shaving cream in the tub, which I thought they would be all over. However, some of the kids didn't want anything to do with it, a couple of others finally at least tried it, and only one child really got into playing in it, eventually blending all the colors into a peachy-beige. One little boy kept going back and forth, dipping his hand in the shaving cream, then going to the bathroom to wash it off, and

The marbled papers really turned out well, and I was surprised at how easy it was and how well it worked. 

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Engaging Those Increasingly Unavailable Tweens - A New Approach


kid librarian, kidbrarian

In the post-pandemic days, I have found that getting school-aged kids to attend library programs is much more challenging that it used to be. Initially, the first six months that we were back to normal in-person programming, numbers were great, but quickly dwindled as everything else got back to normal and there were so many things competing for families' time and attention: school activities, sports, dance, theatre, school clubs, girls scouts, boy scouts, band... Unfortunately, going to library programs is just not very high on their priority list, and trying to get to the library at a certain day and time with any regularity is too difficult.

After spending time and materials on several poorly-attended programs, I decided this just wasn't working and I needed to do something different. I had found that I DID get decent attendance during fall and spring breaks, and other random days off school, so I decided to just focus my traditional programming efforts for the older kids to these times. I found in talking to others online and at conferences and trainings that many others were seeing the same trends and also choosing to focus on school breaks.

But I still kept thinking I needed to do something else; I just wasn't sure what that something else was. Then I saw a conference presentation about a job-shadowing program for teens, and that got the wheels in my head turning... Later, I saw a post in a programming group online about having kids come in to be a "librarian for a day" and remembered how excited the littles got when I took them trick-or-treating through the staff areas at where the public isn't normally allowed. 
I figured since the little kids thought it was so cool to get access to the "inner sanctum" and see the parts of the library no one else gets to see, the older kids would, too. I had a "light bulb" moment and it all came together and I KNEW this was the "something else" I needed to do! 

While I'm not the first to come up with the idea, I have made it my own. I coined the term "Kidbrarian" and asked our graphics person to design a logo for the program. Then I thought about what my goals for the program were, what ages it was for, what the kids who participated would actually do, and what they would gain from the experience. I decided on ages 8-12, figuring 8 would be that youngest that could fully participate and for whom it would be a meaningful experience, and that a true job-shadowing program would be better for the teens (which I planned to try in the fall if this was a success). My primary goals are:

  1. To engage an age group that is becoming increasingly difficult to reach with traditional programming. 
  2. To provide a meaningful experience with flexible scheduling and no long-term commitment.
  3. To allow me to have a more meaningful interaction one-on-one to better cultivate a relationship with them and their families.
  4. To educate people about all the different jobs in the library, so they get a sense of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to get books on the shelf and keep the library running.
  5. Ultimately, to contribute to getting them more invested in the library, so they grow up to be taxpayers and voters who value and support the library.
The next step was to decide what the Kidbrarians would do as part of their experience. I knew I wanted to start with a tour of the library, including behind the scenes, meeting staff and learning briefly about their jobs. They also get an official name badge, just like ours. And I knew I wanted to have them put together a book display, to give them some ownership of the library and its mission, experience talking about books and sharing them. I then take a picture of them with their display to post on our social media. I also came up with a list of additional activities that they could possibly do, depending on time, interest, and ability:
  • design a bookmark
  • help design the scavenger hunt for the next week
  • write a book review -or-
  • record a video book review
  • help prepare materials for a program
  • help during a program
  • suggest ideas for future programs
  • sort a cart of books to be shelved
  • shelve books
My hope is that the kids have an enjoyable, meaningful experience that gives them a sense of pride, accomplishment, and ownership, and will gain confidence in interacting with library staff and talking about books and reading in general, and hopefully grow up to be library supporters and advocates. I decided to schedule them every 2 week; monthly wouldn't allow enough opportunities in a timely manner, but weekly would have just been too much time out of my schedule. Plus doing every other week allows time for their display to stay up a week, and still allow us to do other displays in between.

I had no idea how much time this would take, or how much they would each want to do, so I kept it very flexible. I don't have set days or times, we schedule it for mutually convenient days and times, and it varies depending on their other activities, whether they are homeschooled or in public school, whether they take the bus home, and how far away they live. I initially set loose expectations, that they could do 1 or 2 days, for 1-2 hours each, figuring it would evolve as I saw how things went. I have found that it generally takes a full 2 hours to do the tour, put together a display, and have them help design the sign. Most are content with that, but I have had one so far ask to come for a second day to do some of the other activities (designing the scavenger hunt and a bookmark).

I did a soft roll-out, by putting signs and application forms out at each desk starting on "Take Your Child to the Library Day" in February. It was just coincidental timing, but seemed like a logical day to start. The only "promotion" of the Kidbrarian program was to mention picking up a Kidbrarian application in the post for TYCTTL Day, along with other things they could do that day. I received a few applications that day, and they've continued to trickle in. I do not do interviews or any kind of selection process, but just take them in the order that they applied. I hosted my first Kidbrarian the last week of February, and will be hosting the sixth this week, with 4 more scheduled over the next two months, and 5 pending. 

And how is it going, you ask? It's been great! I've enjoyed it, the kids have enjoyed it, the parents have enjoyed it, and it's gotten great response from the our community as well as from our state library! I've already been asked to present on it at a conference this fall, and several other libraries in the area have expressed interest or copied it, including one I used to work for. I've had kids of all ages in the range (8-12) participate, more girls than boys, but more boys that I'd really expected. Some have been quiet and shy, others much more outgoing; some know exactly what they want to put on their display and how they want them arranged, others need a lot more help. 

I swear if one girl had been over sixteen instead of just 9, I would've hired her on the spot! She was cleaning up toys, directing patrons, helping kids with the scavenger hunt... Not surprisingly, she was the one who came back a second day to do more. Then when she went home and told her older brother about it, he decided to sign up, too! They all really seem to enjoy it, sometimes more than I even realize. A teacher of one of the first Kidbrarians who was super shy told me they were so excited about it, and talking about it at school all day. The one who really got to me though, was the boy who was VERY particular about what he put on his display and how, and then asked me to keep stats for him and let him know the next time he came in how many books off his display checked out 💗. His was pretty successful, with 3 books being checked out before we could even get the sign finished, sending him back to the shelves to get more!

If we were a larger library with more children's staff, I'd really try to do one a week as I've had to pause new applications until I get caught up. But it's just me, so I'll have to keep it to every other week. I've been asked how long the program will run, and I don't foresee a reason to end it as long as there is steady interest; only time will tell. Interestingly enough, while I expected many participants to be library regulars, several are not, which means this program is engaging kids and families that don't usually attend other programs and may not come to the library that often, which is exactly who I want to reach!

Sunday, March 24, 2024

A Day in the Life of a Children's Librarian

This was a busy day with two programs, an interview, business lunch, and management meeting! There's really no such thing as a "typical" day as every day is a little bit different, which is one of the things I love about working in public libraries.

  • 9:00am - Arrive at work, clock in, check e-mail, check desk schedules. Drop by assistant director's office to pick up interview questions for later. Post storytime reminder on Facebook.
  • 9:20-10:30am - Prep for storytime. Set up chairs, got out bubbles, shaker eggs, and speaker. Filled sensory bin with water (along with frogs, fish, ducks and lily pads). Select toys for playtime after storytime. Filled water bottle and made quick trip to restroom.
  • 10:30-11:00am - Toddler Storytime! (co-worker stepped in for playtime so I could go to interview.)
  • 11:00am-12:00pm - Participated in interviewing of candidate for adult services librarian position.
  • 12:00-1:00pm - Took candidate out to lunch with rest of interview panel
  • 1:00-3:00pm - Covered service desk in youth services, during which I checked & responded to e-mail, began selecting books on requested themes to take to daycare later in week, and checked in with staff.
  • 3:00-3:45pm - Met with rest of management team to discuss the candidate we interviewed earlier, and other personnel matters.
  • 3:45-4:00pm - Opened up room and set up for Pokémon Club, walked through library informing potential attendees of location (a change from previous month)
  • 4:00-5:00pm - Pokémon Club
  • 5:00-5:15pm - Cleared out and locked up meeting room, recorded attendance, checked e-mail, and checked in with assistant director before leaving for the day.
And as always, I'm sure there are several quick tasks and short conversations with various staff and/or patrons that I've forgotten to include. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Evidence-Based Summer Reading Program Design

The Inconvenient Truth of Incentivized Reading Programs, Part 2

Image by freepik at

In Part 1 of this series I discussed how summer reading evolved to become the heavily incentivized programs that are so commonplace today, despite the fact that research does not support the effectiveness of using rewards to promote long-term reading habits or gains, and suggests that extrinsic rewards are not only ineffective, but can actually reduce the desired behavior. I also posed some of the beliefs, attitudes, and conflicting priorities that have led to this research being largely ignored as an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth. So, where do we go from here?

The first thing we have to do is start talking about it! Yes, it is very uncomfortable to challenge long-held beliefs and traditions, to question the status quo, and it takes a lot of time to dig into the research to educate ourselves and others (which is why I've shared an annotated bibliography). But if our mission is truly to encourage life-long reading, then we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and fall into the trap of "that's how it's always been done". We need to educate ourselves and have the difficult conversations, look at reading programs through a critical, evidence-based lens. And yes, convincing the powers-that-be will likely be a challenge, but the sooner we start having those conversations and presenting evidence, the sooner we can effect positive change. 

So, lets start with the assumption that our goal really is to promote reading and life-long reading habits. If the typical incentivized reading program doesn't really support that, what do we do? Fortunately, we can also turn to the literature for guidance as to what factors do positively affect reading habits and ability, which generally fall into three categories: (1) self-direction & autonomy, (2) ease of access to, and ease of finding, materials they want to read; and (3) social interaction and collaboration:

  • Choice - The importance of empowering kids with the freedom to make their own reading choices is mentioned repeatedly in the literature. Let them choose what they want to read, validate and show interest in their choices, let them set their own reading goals, let them decide when and how they like to read. Some may like to read a little every day, others may only read 2-3 days a week, but sit and read an entire book, or several books, at one time; reading is not a "one size fits all" practice!
  • Non-Competitive - Reading programs should not be competitive, or have a competitive feel. This may attract your competitive, high-achieving skilled readers (who are going to read regardless), but will alienate those who are not competitive, those who read more slowly, struggling readers, and reluctant readers.
  • Book-Rich Environment - This is mentioned in the literature more in regards to the classroom and home as obviously the library is a book-rich environment. But we need to be sure we are making everyone feel welcome and offering well-curated collections that will attract readers and make it easier to find books they want to read. Also, are there ways we can support book-rich environments at school and at home? Outreach, bookmobiles, etc.
  • Variety - Offer a variety of reading levels, formats, and materials in a variety of genres and topics. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, magazines, audiobooks, digital materials, print materials, etc. This also will make it more likely kids can find something they enjoy reading, are willing to try, and will continue reading. Any and all reading "counts"! Don't limit your reading program to only include certain types of reading material, and don't limit it to only library books! I know we want the circs, but odds are most of the books they read will be library books anyway, so why set a limitation that may make it difficult for some to participate? My first manager used to tell kids they could read the back of cereal boxes if they wanted. Reading is reading! Tracking time rather than books, titles, or page numbers allows for this.
  • Make it Social - Book clubs, group reading times, book-themed programs, lunch bunch, author talks....give kids the chance to see other kids reading and to talk with other kids about their reading.
  • Set an Example - Seeing adults reading and hearing adults talking about their reading and sharing their love of reading.
  • Remove Barriers to Access - Re-examine library policies and procedures to make it easier for kids to have access. Fine forgiveness programs or going fine-free all together, temporarily overriding blocked juvenile/teen accounts for the summer, a "community shelf" of donated books kids without cards can take, making it easier for kids to get library cards, partnering with the schools to issue all kids library cards, bookmobiles and other outreach programs to bring the library to those who can't get to the library, etc. 
  • Remove Barriers to Participation - Re-evaluate your reading program to make it easier for all kids and types of readers to participate. Allow any and all types of reading and reading materials to count. Don't limit reading to library books, don't require a library card to participate or attend programs. Don't require specific titles, formats, or reading every day. If you must track, track by time rather than books, titles, pages, or days of reading. This levels the playing field among ages and abilities, allows for any and all types of reading, and validates all reading choices and habits.
  • Reading-Related Prizes - If you must offer rewards, make them related to reading (or supportive of early literacy skills with young children), no big, expensive flashy grand prizes. Books, bookmarks, e-readers, etc. 
  • Read to Them - Older kids still like to be read to! Be sure to read a variety of materials, genres, fiction, and non-fiction. Incorporate reading aloud to older kids in your programming, and encourage parents to continue reading aloud to older kids.
  • Help Them Find Books They Will Enjoy - Margaret Mackey (2014) asserts that one key difference between successful and unsuccessful readers is the ability to find and select books that they will like, a skill that is not taught in school and only innate to some. Providing finding aids such as shelf labels and signage, themed bibliographies, displays, book reviews, book talks, and instruction on using the online catalog are all ways to make it more likely kids can find books that will interest them.
  • Make Reading Relevant - Tie reading to real life experiences, current trends and interests, and engaging programs and activities that will stimulate curiosity.
  • Creating a Welcoming Environment - Make sure kids, families, and teens feel welcome in your library. Create play areas, cozy seating for families to read together, comfy seating or reading nooks for solitary reading, activities to do while at the library, displays that invite browsing, staff that are welcoming and provide excellent customer service and reader's advisory. The more welcome people are, the more often they will come to the library, the more time they will spend in the library, and the more books they will read in the library and checkout to read at home.
  • Market Collections & Programs - We try, yet it still seems that so many people are unaware of all the library has to offer. Partner with schools, other civic organizations, non-profits, and businesses to get the word out! What works for you will depend on your community. 

What might this look like? There is no "one size fits all", but I will describe the compromise I have come up with that satisfies my need to at least attempt to incorporate what the literature is telling me, and still satisfy the [former] director's need for stats to present to the board and resistance to new ideas (hopefully the next one will be more receptive to trying new things and thinking out of the box).

To start with, since I arrived at this library I have worked to create a welcoming, inviting environment, and I try to create fun, interesting programs for all ages with lots of hands-on, experiential learning to help draw people in, and of course the programming is increased during the summer with a combination of mostly in-house programs with some outside presenters and paid performers. I have displays, try to tie books to programming, starting each elementary program by inviting kids to share about what they had been reading and booktalking 3 new books, or books that relate to the activity we are about to do. And yes, I will bend the rules a bit if that means sending a kid home with a book they wanted.

For the reading challenge, instead of logging minutes, pages, books, or days, I created what I hoped would be more relaxed, fun, non-competitive "Bookopoly" board, with each square containing a prompt for reading or a learning activity that supported program attendance, interacting with library staff, family reading, or early literacy skills (there were also opportunities for free choice). This was for all ages, birth through adult. Participants were encouraged to set their own goals, though I did ask that at least 5 squares be completed (out of a total of 40). They did not have to go in any direction or order, and could pick and choose which squares to do. Every child/kid/teen that signed up got to pick a prize book! What better way to encourage reading that to start them off with a book of their own choosing to keep? When they turned it back in at the end, they got another book, and an entry into a prize drawing. I don't really like prize drawings to be honest, but I felt they were expected. My compromise was to keep them modest ($20-$30 value) and reading or learning related.

I pushed that this was leisure reading and meant to be FUN, not a competition or a chore, and that ALL genres and formats were valid, and that kids should be allowed to choose what they wanted to read. There was no requirement to read only library books or to have a library card to participate. The only stipulation was that grand prizes were limited to those in our service area (our county and surrounding counties) and must be picked up in person (sorry, Aaron), and the child had to be present to pick their own prize book (to encourage free choice, and be sure the child existed). I got a lot of positive feedback, though not as many were turned back in at the end as I'd hoped. I'm basically doing things the same this year, but maybe doing a finale event to encourage returned reading logs. So that's what I am actually doing, for now. 

But, what would I do if I could *really* do whatever I wanted, and had the staff and funding to do so? First off, I would ditch the whole formal reading challenge and reading logs! Are you clutching your pearls? I know it sounds like blasphemy, but I just think they are largely ineffective, people are over them, and no matter how fun and easy we try to make it, it still feels too much like homework when it's required (I would still put out various reading challenges as purely optional activities for those who enjoy them). 

Instead, I would just give books away! No strings attached. Not only at the kickoff at the library, but also at various locations around town where families or kids who might not typically come to the library might be. The park, the splash pad, the health department, the farmers market, low-income housing complexes, community centers (if we had one), etc. I would also like to see a significant summer outreach program in addition to our in-house programs.

If your library has successfully moved away from incentivized reading programs, please share in the comments, or by e-mail at I'd really love to hear what others are doing instead, and how they were able to convince the powers-that-be to try something totally different. Did they give up their focus on stats, or just shift to focusing on other stats, like program attendance? How did staff and the community respond?

Let's make summer reading less about numbers and prizes, and more about kids and reading!

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Inconvenient Truth of Incentivized Reading Programs

So, I've been working on that deeper dive into incentivized reading I kept saying I was going to do, and I have found that there is a plethora of literature on incentivizing desired behaviors and extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations in general and specifically in regards to reading, and even some about summer reading programs in particular. In fact, there is so much research on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation I could work on this for years and not get through it all, but I now feel like I've read more than enough to draw and support informed conclusions about summer reading programs (see Annotated Bibliography).

*Spoiler Alert* - We're doing it wrong

Let me qualify that....we're doing it wrong IF our goal is to encourage reading, and especially if our goal is to create life-long readers. Moreover, this is not new information. Not only does research regarding extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation go back several decades, I discovered that an article reviewing the existing research and making evidence-based recommendations for summer reading program design was published in the top journal for children's librarianship seven years ago, and an opinion piece cautioning against incentivized reading supported with references appeared in the same journal FIFTEEN years ago! And apparently ignored, likely because they didn't fit the narrative librarians want to believe or meet the demand for statistics by administrators and politicians. It is, as Al Gore would say, an inconvenient truth.

Let's back up for a minute... So, just what is our goal for summer reading and other reading programs? Summer reading programs date back as far as 1896, but they rapidly expanded and gained importance after early research seemed to confirm the idea of summer learning loss, often referred to as the "summer slide", and show it was responsible for the increasing achievement gaps between students from upper and lower socioeconomic households (more recent research casting doubts on this notwithstanding). Summer reading programs then gained a sense of urgency and evolved from relatively simple, laid-back programs to be a major focus of public libraries. 

Then the perfect storm of recession, reduced funding, the advent of the internet, and development of new digital media threw public libraries into a fight to continuously prove their relevance, and administrators and bureaucrats relied heavily on statistics to do this. This emphasis on stats is where summer reading programs began to go off the rails, in my opinion. The focus changed from children to numbers as staff became pressured to increase their stats year after year. More programs, more people attending, more kids participating in summer reading....more, more, more. Summer reading became a stressful, exhausting circus and the original goals of fighting the alleged "summer slide", encouraging reading, and creating a life-long love of reading fell by the wayside in the pursuit of numbers.

This focus on numbers over children led to the incentivized reading programs that are the standard today. In order to get kids to participate, prizes were given. To get even more kids participating the next year more prizes were given, then chances at raffles for increasingly expensive, flashy prizes: bicycles, videogames, iPads, e-readers (at least those are related to reading), gift cards, elaborate themed gift or "experience" packages, and more. I once worked for a library that literally paid kids to check out books! In the late 1970s-early 1980s my siblings and I were happy to get a coupon for a free DQ ice cream cone; now some kids are walking away with prizes valued at hundreds of dollars. 

So, what's wrong with this? Anyone who has had basic psychology (or heard enough pop psychology) is familiar with the Skinnerian theory that giving rewards increases a desired behavior, right? It's such a widely held belief that most people take it as fact rather than theory, but the truth is that it's not quite that simple. Yes, rewards may increase the desired behavior---in the short term. But once the reward is removed, the behavior decreases. In order to make long-term, lasting changes in behavior, you have to have a carefully designed, long-term behavior modification program that is designed to gradually transfer extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. And that's not going to happen in an 8-week summer program.

There is an abundance of research going back decades that supports this, but much like the research showing the necessity of phonics instruction was ignored for decades by the educational system, this research has also largely been ignored. To be fair, all research has to be looked at with a critical eye, many are very small studies and there is research that suggests otherwise, but what I've read so far, combined with my own training in behavior modification and observations from a decade of summer reading programs, has me convinced that the typical incentivized summer reading program is not very effective in developing life-long readers. Big flashy prizes and cash payouts motivate more cheating rather than more reading, in my observations.

And what about the articles claiming successful incentivized summer reading programs? That brings us back to the question of what the goal of summer reading really is, what behaviors are we actually wanting to increase? What are we measuring? If the goal is simply a short-term increase in circulation and "participation" stats by getting people to check out books and complete reading logs, then incentives work. But if the goal is to actually increase reading, and *especially* if the goal is for that increase to be long-term, then typical incentivized summer reading programs aren't going to do that. Even more concerning is research that suggests that incentivizing something the person previously did on their own, without incentives, can actually cause the desired behavior to decrease​. The mere offering of a reward for a behavior may lead the subject to infer that the desired behavior must be unpleasant if they need to be bribed to do it. So not only are we NOT really creating a bunch of new lifelong readers, we could be hurting kids that are already readers!

So if there is so much research suggesting short-term, incentivized reading programs are not in the best interest of encouraging life-long reading, why are we still doing them? For many reasons it is not only an inconvenient truth, but an uncomfortable one that many of us, and most of our bosses, just don't want to talk about: 

  1. We've fallen into the trap of "that's the way it's always been done"; we've drunk the Kool-Aid.
  2. Denial - it's not just a river in Egypt. People don't want to know or believe the truth because they don't want to admit what we've always done isn't working, feel powerless to change it, don't want to have to make changes, or don't know how to change; so they'd rather just ignore it.
  3. We tend to create emotional narratives to rationalize it, because we so badly WANT it to work, "if incentives motivate them to even pick up a book, then hopefully something will catch their attention and they will start reading", sounds good, tugs at the heartstrings, but is this really happening enough to warrant continuing the status quo? Do they really keep reading after the summer is over and rewards are gone? Could there not be better ways to facilitate this scenario than flashy prizes?
  4. Admin and stakeholders like numbers, and are VERY resistant to giving up anything that generates statistics! Stats can be useful and have their place, but do not tell the whole story. This is where children's librarians and library administrations can be at odds; we tend to focus on the kids, they tend to focus on the numbers. And I won't lie, I also like numbers and data because they are a concrete way to show the powers-that-be (who generally don't really understand my job and have different priorities) that I'm doing a good job.
  5. It's not really possible to do controlled, long-term studies of reading habits in relation to library summer reading programs to clearly show what works and doesn't work; but measuring short-term concrete behavior such as completion of reading logs is easy
  6. Front-line librarians often don't have a voice in the design of summer reading or authority to make radical changes; these decisions are often far-removed from those who have the most knowledge and expertise, and actually work with the kids.
  7. FEAR! The fear of change, the fear of questioning the status quo, the fear of not having convenient stats to demonstrate our worth, the fear of going against the grain, the fear of less participation. But consider this quote from Suzanne Stauffer in her 2009 article in Children and Libraries (the peer-reviewed ALSC journal):

"If you find yourself thinking, 'If I don't give incentives, no one will come [participate],' ask yourself what that says about the children's real motivation and the program's real effect."

If our goal is truly to promote reading and life-long reading habits, and the typical incentivized reading program doesn't really support that, what do we do? That's a very good question, and one I will attempt to explore in my next postIn the meantime, please see my annotated bibliography (link below) for supporting references:

Thursday, March 7, 2024

A Day in the Life of a Children's Librarian


This was a Monday. I generally do not do programs on Mondays and use them for planning and prep, and easing into the week.

Today we were short-staffed so I covered the service desk in the children's department most of the morning, from 9:30a-1pm. During this time I also:

  • did a walk-thru to be sure shelves were tidy & face-outs on the shelves
  • changed out the weekly scavenger hunt
  • changed out a display
  • took up/down pictures of animals off the floor and wall and the jumping distance labels left from Leap Day
  • set up a table with info for our Peeps diorama contest, with signage and décor to attract attention
  • checked for new purchase requests
  • left the desk for a brief meeting with the director and assistant director
  • looked at a new Indiana Jones version of Monopoly I had just purchased to serve as inspiration for this summer's "Bookopoly" reading challenge (it will go into our circulating collection of games at the end of the summer)
  • checked in with another staff member to see if they could cover the playtime after storytime the next day as I was needed to help interview a candidate for our open adult services librarian position.
  • and probably a few other little things I've forgotten
Lunch roughly from 1:00p-2:00p. 

In the afternoon from 2-5pm:
  • touched base with both part-time teen/tween programmers about their upcoming programs, how things were going, and assigned tasks for the afternoon.
  • emailed daycares to confirm visits for later this week
  • planned the next day's storytime and printed programs
  • discussed candidates we would be interviewing with AD, and likelihood of having to modify the position and re-post 
  • informed AD that one of the daycares had responded that they no longer wanted visits, with no explanation, and discussed how to respond.
Left shortly after 5:00pm. 

I'm sure I've forgotten various minor tasks, brief conversations with staff about various things, time here and there looking up ideas, but that is a "typical" day in a nutshell. I put "typical" in quotes, because there really is no such thing as typical; every day is different! That's one of the things I have always like about working in public libraries; every day is a little bit different.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Supporting STEM Learning in Young Children - Embracing a STEM Mindset


STEM learning for preschoolers and toddlers
Images from freepik at

As many of us know, "STEM" programming for school-aged kids and teens spread from the educational system to libraries a decade or so ago (although science and nature programs have been a part of library program for longer than that), and it should be no surprise that now it has trickled down into programming for preschoolers, toddlers, and even babies!

But, does this mean we are having toddlers do full-on chemistry experiments and microscopy as the images above might suggest? Absolutely not! For one, there is the obvious safety issues, for another many advanced STEM activities are not developmentally appropriate for younger children for other reasons. In fact, you do not have to have separate, official "STEM" programs at all in order to support STEM learning in young children! Many of the things we already do in storytime or other programs for the very young support STEM learning; we may just need to be more intentional about it and adjust our mindset.

STEM for the very young is all about the mindset and approach, and the good news is that children are born scientists! Babies and toddlers are already hard-wired to explore the world around them, to be curious, and to experiment. When a toddler stacks blocks, they are learning about spatial relationships; when they knock them down they are learning about cause and effect. A baby explores their environment using all their senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell. Unfortunately, this natural sense of curiosity and wonder is often stifled rather than encouraged once they start school, where they are expected to conform, play is discouraged, experiential learning is less available, teachers are forced to "teach to the test", and science education often falls by the wayside, which is why it's so important to encourage it now.

Embracing a STEM Mindset

A "STEM mindset" is a growth mindset. It is all about being curious and open to learning. By embracing and modeling a STEM mindset in our approach we are not only supporting and encouraging children's natural sense of wonder and desire to explore, but also *empowering the caregiver* to do so at home. Some characteristics of a STEM mindset are:
  • It's the PROCESS, not the product! Repeat this often, as many caregivers become focused on the product and things turning out or looking "right".
  • "Failure" is an opportunity for learning through critical thinking and problem solving! As Pete the Cat says, "there are no failures, only lessons". Repeat this often as well.
  • Encourage and model curiosity, wonder, and exploration.
  • Question everything! Model asking and exploring What? How? Why? Where? When? questions
  • Let kids do as much themselves as possible! Another mantra to repeat often as caregivers tend to take over in their focus on doing things "right".
  • Make sure you are presenting scientifically accurate information, no matter what kind of program or activity. So no 4- or 8- pointed snowflakes; no polar bears hanging out with penguins!
  • Model making observations and noticing details, colors, shapes, patterns, etc.
  • Activities for young children should be play-based. Play is how young children learn!

STEM elements that can be incorporated into storytime or any other programs, and for any age (also see my previous article specifically on incorporating math literacy):
  • Counting up & down
  • Sorting & grouping
  • Shapes
  • Measuring (rulers, tape measure, measuring cups & spoons)
  • Estimating
  • Graphing
  • Making observations
  • Making predictions
  • Including factual information, introducing non-fiction
  • Asking questions
  • Finding or figuring out the answers
  • Point out scientific process in art, cooking, other activities
  • Stacking, building
    • Blocks; foam, wooden, cardboard
    • Magnatiles
    • Bristle blocks
    • Star builders
    • Bricks
    • Stacking cups
    • Many others
  • Sensory exploration
    • Sensory toys
    • Sand/water tables & toys
    • Sensory bin
    • Nature
  • Open-ended activities
    • Process art
    • Small parts play
  • Incorporate at least one STEM activity into multi-station or "party" programs
  • Include STEM careers in "community helper" days, career fairs

And a few tips for STEM programming in general:
  • Be sure you are highlighting and explaining the STEM principles involved
  • Research in advance to be sure you understand and can present accurate information and explanations
  • Test all activities in advance to be sure they work, look for difficult steps, safety concerns, etc.
  • Basic science is the easiest, most budget friendly, and IMO the most fun.
  • Invest in basic equipment and multi-use items
  • Vinegar & baking soda are your friends!
  • Only change one variable at a time
  • Do your research before buying expensive gadgets, be sure they're appropriate for the intended age & goals, try to share with other libraries or schools
  • Technology is often over-emphasized at the expense of the other three areas, and often most expensive (for more about this, see "STEM is a Four-Letter Word").

Here are a few resources for embracing a STEM mindset and STEM activities specifically in regards to younger children (see part 2 of my "STEM is a Four-Letter Word" series for more STEM resources):
  • Let’s Talk, Read and Sing about STEM! Tips for Infant/Toddler Teachers & Providers, great for tips to pass on to caregivers
  • S.T.E.A.M. for Infants & Toddlers!?! Slide show with info on development & several activities
  • Baby Steps to STEM: Infant and Toddler Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Activities - I HIGHLY recommend this book! Especially good if you do not have a strong background in child development. It provides a solid foundation in understanding learning and brain development, and how to support it with STEM concepts in mind, lists of supplies and materials, advice on modeling wonder, curiosity, & exploration, and more.

    This is followed by many activities, with clearly outlined concepts, learning outcomes, tips, materials, steps, questions to ask/model, vocabulary, ways to expand the activity, and children's books that relate to the activity/concepts. Though it focuses on babies and toddlers, many of the concepts and activities are good (maybe even better) for preschool and primary grades.

I hope this article helps you to be more comfortable and confident with your ability to support STEM learning in general and specifically with young children. I also hope that it empowers you to be able to demonstrate to your superiors, admin, community stakeholders, and caregivers how you already are supporting and will support STEM concepts and learning within the framework of storytime and other programs you already offer so you hopefully will not be pressured to spread yourself even thinner by adding yet another program to your roster! 
[Of course, if you have the time, desire, energy, staffing, and funding to add the occasional preschool STEM play program, go right ahead! Just know that it is not a necessity, and STEM can be supported within existing programs.]

And to close I will quote someone who truly embraces the STEM mindset, followed by photos of young children engaged in developmentally appropriate STEM activities:

"Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" - Ms. Frizzle


STEM activities for young children, STEM for preschool and toddlers
Images by (l to r) freepik, prostooleh, and freepik at