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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

One Step Forward, and Two Steps Back...

Yikes! It's been 6 weeks since my last post, and I'm starting to see why most blogs fizzle out after about 3-5 years....It takes time and creative energy to keep a blog going, and as I move forward in my career and and all the changes life has thrown at me lately, it's hard to find enough of either. 

When I first started this blog six years ago I was only working part-time, which left me plenty of time and energy for blogging, reading, and everything else, and as someone just entering the field I was full of enthusiasm and ideas. Now I'm full-time and too exhausted and screen-fatigued when I get home to do any reading or writing in the evenings, and seem to have hit a bit of a creative wall with programming. I've done so many storytimes in my career that while I still love doing it, I'm not as excited about writing them up and find myself repeating things I've done before more often. Frankly, I'm very underwhelmed by the picture books being published in the last year or so. I've seen nothing new that inspires me lately; the recent publications are often so text heavy and dull, IMHO, or just not suitable for storytime.

And to be perfectly honest, the last year and half have been extremely difficult for me on every level, and I'm sure that's true of everyone. I miss normal. I miss working in a thriving library. I miss my regulars. I miss doing regular programming. Most of all, I miss stability. At the beginning of the summer I was so excited because I could finally start having in-person programming again outdoors, and I really thought we were going to be back to normal, in-person programming again this fall. I started planning things, arranged to start outreach visits with nearby preschool, and then I began hearing that nasty word "Delta", and soon everything changed again.

Now we have had to step back and return to masks being required to be in the library, and programs are encouraged to be outside or reduced number to allow for social distancing inside. I agree with this under the circumstances, but as we are in a very anti-mask population, this means a lot more stress on staff and between that and school starting, a lot fewer families and kids coming in. I'm going to have to continue to have storytimes outside as long as possible, but once it gets too cold I don't know what I'll do. I've discussed it with my storytime crowd, and they told me what I already knew; they are absolutely not interested in virtual programming. Just after our monthly program guide was printed, we found we had to cancel or change a lot of things, which makes it confusing and frustrating for patrons.

All the back-and-forth and constant change is not only stressful for staff, but frustrating for patrons and causes less use of the library and lower program attendance. I'm afraid in the coming months we'll be taking another step back and reducing the number of computers available (for social distancing) and having to reimpose time limits, which is just as contentious to enforce as mask-wearing. I keep finding myself wishing for things to be like they were before and craving stability, for things to stay the same for more than a couple months, but I've come to realize libraries are likely forever changed by this, and it will likely take years to regain any sense of stability and community again. 

So what is your fall programming looking like at this point? Charging ahead with in-person programming? Returning to virtual and kits? Somewhere in between? Something else? 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Summer 2021 - Uncertainty & Difficult Transitions

Summer reading

How is the summer going for you? I am sure there's a wide range in summer programming, with some libraries sticking to virtual programming and take-home kits, some libraries charging full steam ahead and returning to normal pre-pandemic summer programming, and many falling somewhere in between.

As I said in my previous post, our summer has been a somewhat awkward, confusing combination of virtual programming, take-home kits, and in-person programs combined with a last-minute replacement of our already planned summer reading program with a new, completely different one that involves paying kids $100 to check out 10 books, funded by the city & county governments with federal pandemic recovery funds and planned by the marketing department and admin rather than by youth services staff, which made things even more confusing and chaotic. I've already written about my thoughts on summer reading programs and what I think they should and shouldn't be, so I'm only mentioning it here in terms of how it affected my summer programming.

In light of time and staffing constraints compounded by this new SRP and multiple staff vacations and knowing we had already spent well over half of our modest programming budget by May, I decided to pull back from programming for the summer and save my time, effort, and budget for fall, when I expected we would be back to "normal" in-person programs. I planned to rely on the centralized weekly virtual programming and craft and science kits from the main library and my weekly outdoor family storytime, and just supplement these with some very low-key, *cheap*, easy outdoor family activities I billed as "Family Fun" days, scheduled around the twice weekly public school meal deliveries at our location. I planned these to be simple, drop-in, self-directed activities that would not require a staff member to be present the whole time, and had minimal set-up and clean up.

  • Week 1 & 2 - Sidewalk Chalk - I bought a bulk case of sidewalk chalk, and divided it up into ziplock bags with 5 sticks per bag and handed them out and encouraged families to decorate our sidewalks. [I had originally thought I would do storytelling the second week, thinking families would hang around and picnic outside (we have a nice shady lawn with picnic tables) after getting their lunch, but it turned out they were handing out multiple frozen meals this year rather than a single lunch, so people went straight home to put them away, requiring me to move up the time to before the meal delivery and focus only on drop-in activities.]

    Sidewalk chalk art

  • Week 3 - Bubble Party - I had a bubble machine going and set up several trays of solution on the picnic tables with an assortment of wands. I wanted to have music, too, but apparently we do not have a working CD player.

    Bubble Party

  • Week 4 - Ice Painting - I added food coloring and wooden sticks to the water in ice cube trays and froze them to make "ice paints" that would be technically safe to eat since I knew they would inevitably end up in toddler mouths. I put them in zip-lock bags sorted by color, and set them in a cooler half-filled with ice. I put the cooler and a basket of watercolor paper out on a table with a sign explaining the activity and to help themselves. I also strung a line with clothespins for people to hang their paintings to dry."

  • Week 5 - "Giant" Games - This one didn't turn out quite like I expected, as I was borrowing these from the main library without ever seeing them. My old library system had truly giant versions of games that were meant to be played outdoors, and that's what I expected, but what I got were mostly larger-than-normal-but-not-giant games that were intended for indoors, and not the selection I expected. What I ended up with was: large Jenga, checkers, chess, tic-tac-toe, and Trouble. I also put out a couple of packs of sidewalk chalk for those too young to play the games.

    Family Game Day, yard games

  • Week 6 - Challenge Course - Inspired by similar courses other library folks have shared, I drew a course along our sidewalk with chalk that had about a dozen different sections instructing various activities to encourage outdoor play and movement, but of course ending at our front door with the final instruction to "check out a book". Here is a video showing the whole course:

    My course wasn't as pretty as others I've because I don't really have any artistic ability, and drawing with chalk is the most time-consuming (but cheapest and most temporary) method so did not have time for details and background color, but I was pretty pleased with it. It was A LOT of work! It took me almost 2 hours, even with a some help from a teen volunteer, and by the end I was such a sweaty, chalky mess I had to go home and shower and change at lunch. If you have the budget for it, and your powers-that-be are okay with it, I would strongly suggest using marking paint. This is used for marking utilities and can be sprayed upside down and will wash off eventually or with pressure spraying.

  • Week 7 - Water Play - I made sponge "water bombs" (more environmentally friendly than water balloons) for the older kids (cut sponges into 4 strips, 9 strips per water bomb rubberbanded together), and will set up a water table for the younger kids, sensory bin with water beads, "painting" with water on the sidewalk for everyone, and spray bottles to try to make rainbows.

    Water bombs

  • Week 8 - Slushie Science - This probably will require more of my involvement, but I thought it would be worth it. I will provide juice, ice, salt, and zip-lock bags for making "slushies in a bag". Fewer ingredients than ice-cream, more inclusive for those with dairy allergies or lactose intolerance, and no worrying about anything spoiling in the heat.

    Slushie in a bag

  • Week 9 - The Best of - I will probably do one last program the first week of August, with multiple activities, selecting those that were both easy and popular, and maybe give away books if we still have some of the summer giveaways left. Definitely sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and probably one or two of the large games (Jenga, Checkers).

This has been a difficult, disappointing, and frustrating summer in many ways, but being able to have some in-person programs again has been such a relief. In-person storytime in particular has brought back a little bit of the joy I used to have in my pre-pandemic job. It is definitely the highlight of my week, and I finally feel like I have something to look forward to again. I've really enjoyed starting to build relationships with my youngest patrons and their grown-ups. It's so rewarding to see families coming back each week and to see little faces light up when they see me.

Turnout for the "Family Fun" programs has been disappointing, though. I've gotten 2-3 families each time, mabye 4 or 5 for a couple, but that's it. I had hoped to benefit by timing it around the meal deliveries by the public school system, but for various reasons and changes in how they did things, the library did not get any real benefit from that partnership. 

I really, really hoping that the summer of 2022 will truly be back to a normal summer again, with our usual summer reading program, lots of families coming to the library all summer long, programs with paid performers, special in-house programs, more emphasis on reading, and a lot more fun!

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Cats - Family Storytime

cat storytime, kitty storytime, kitten storytime

To be honest, I totally chose this theme in order to show off my kitten felt set that I made last year during the pandemic shutdown when I had plenty of time on my hands. But, they are freakin' adorable, if I do say so myself. 

We started with a hello song, then sang this month's warm-up song, "The Wheels On the Bus":

The Wheels On The Bus

The wheels on the bus go round and round,
Round and round, round and round.
The wheels on the bus go round and round,
All through the town.

Wipers go swish...horn goes beep...doors open & shut...
people go up and down...driver says "go on back"
babies say waaa...mommies & daddies say "I love you"...

After that I brought out our "special guest" to introduce the topic: a cat puppet that had a unique purring sound effect. We talked a little about different kinds of cats, wild versus domestic, big verses little, and the wild cats found in our state (mountain lions and bobcats). Then I explained how a cat "wagging" or swishing its tail means exactly the opposite of when a dog wags its tail. I then explained that cats make a special sound in their throats when they are happy called purring, and let them all hear the purring sound the puppet made. 

Being a big fan of "The Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon", I of course couldn't possible talk about cats without doing Sheldon's favorite soothing song, "Soft Kitty":

Soft Kitty

Soft kitty, warm kitty,
Little ball of fur.
Happy kitty, sleepy kitty,
Purr, purr, purr.

cat storytime
Now we were ready for our first story. Following our lead-in "story song" I read the modern classic, Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by James Dean and Eric Litwin. This is such a great storytime book for many reasons. It has a now-familiar character, text is short and simple, it includes the basic concept of colors, has a lot of repetition, a great blues-y rhythm, and includes a song. On top of all that, it has a great message about not letting the little things that go wrong ruin your day. 

I really like the original four books, but I have to confess the later books written by Dean's wife after he split from Litwin (Dean is a folk artist who made up the character and Litwin is a folk musician who wrote the stories and songs) fall flat for me and just don't have the same magic.

After working on colors with Pete, it was time to break out my flannel board and work on counting with my felt kitten set:

cat storytime, cat flannel board

Five Little Kittens

One little kitten went out to play,
Out in a sunny garden one day.
She had such enormous fun,
She called for another kitten to come.
"Here kitty, kitty!"

[Pat thighs lightly to imitate pitter-pat of kitten running.]


Five little kittens went out to play,
Out in a sunny garden one day.
They had such enormous fun,
They played all day 'til the day was done.

And the mama cat called, "Time to come home, little kittens!"

[Count down as you remove each kitten and it runs home.]

After that, it was time to pretend to be kittens!

If You're a Cat and You Know It

If you're a cat and you know it, say "Meow!"
If you're a cat and you know it, say "Meow!"
If you're a cat and you know it, and you really want to show it,
If you're a cat and you know it, say "Meow!"

lick your paws [just pretend!]....drink your milk...
sharpen your claws...
give a purr...swish your tail...give a hiss...

cat storytime
For our final story I chose Don't Wake Up the Tiger! by Britta Teckentrup. This book is great for keeping the younger or more wiggly kids engaged because it is short and sweet, has simple bold illustrations with bright colors, and is very interactive. The animals in the story have a problem; a sleeping tiger is blocking their path, and they have to get over her without waking her up. Luckily, they are carrying a bunch of brightly colored helium balloon which they use to float over the tiger one by one. 

But, each encounters some trouble, and the reader and audience are prompted to take various actions: blowing the balloon to keep it afloat, singing a lullaby to keep the tiger asleep, rubbing the tiger's tummy... All is well until stork's beak pops a balloon and wakes the tiger up! The audience is sure the tiger is about to eat somebody, only to be surprised when the page is turned to reveal a surprise birthday party for her. We sang "Happy Birthday" and counted candles on the birthday cake to see how old Tiger was.

I ended with announcements and showing them the take-home craft, then we sang our closing song.

Take-Home Craft 
cat craft
I found this cute little bobble-head kitty craft on the "Fireflies & Mudpies" blog, which provides a free printable pattern that can be colored and used directly, or cut out and traced around as a pattern.

I printed the pattern on cardstock as paper just wasn't heavy or stiff enough, and wrote my own directions with my own step-by-step photos. I gave each child one printed pattern set, the sheet of directions with a coloring sheet on the back, a sheet of black construction paper, and two googly-eyes. Two of the kids had to bring their bobble-head kitties to storytime the following week to show me, so I guess they were a hit.

How It Went
I had a rather small group, just three families, for a total of 6 kids and 4 adults, and only one of them had intentionally planned on coming to storytime, the other two families just happened to be at the library at the right time. Though logically I know it was likely due to people planning vacations around the 4th of July, I can't help but be concerned when I see a big drop in attendance (after having 27 two weeks before). I wonder if I will ever stop second-guessing myself when attendance wavers? Does everyone else do this? 

But other than the small turnout, it went very well. I had great participation, and the kids really liked the cat puppet. One little girl even asked if she could say good-bye to my kitty. As always Pete and his white shoes were a big hit with the catchy tune and repetition, but they liked the other book as well, and they enjoyed all the other activities. One of the youngest got a little restless and had trouble staying engaged, but I was able to keep re-focusing her by addressing her by name as I pointed out something in the story or asked a question.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Where Do We Go From Here?


So now that vaccines are available and it seems almost everyone has succumbed to pandemic fatigue and are ready to move on and get back to normal, despite vaccination rates being far below what is needed for herd immunity and the virus continuing to mutate and produce variants that may be even more dangerous, what does that mean for library programming and services? How do we begin the transition back to normal? Is the old normal even possible? How do we balance the desire for a return to normal with concerns for not only our own health, but the health and safety of our youngest patrons who don't even have the option of being vaccinated yet, especially when faced with pressure from parents who don't share those concerns and administrations who want things back to business as usual? 

None of these are easy questions, and I have been wrestling with them for the last few months as I tried to figure out summer programming and begin to plan for fall. Our summer has been a painful, confusing mish-mash of take-home kits, virtual programs, and limited in-person programs. At the time we had to start planning summer programs, we didn't know what the situation would be like, and didn't want to invest in planning the usual big, expensive in-person programs that might have to be canceled, and decided to stick with virtual and kits. That was the right decision at the time, as none of us really expected the mask mandate and other restrictions to be dropped until the fall. 

But much to our surprise, the CDC made their big announcement in May, which put everyone else in a very difficult position. When the state and local governments dropped their mask mandates and other restrictions, we felt we had no choice but to do the same; without the state mandates to fall back on it would be too difficult and potentially dangerous for staff to try to enforce mask-wearing and other restrictions. About this same time, people had been asking for storytime to start again, and I was tired of virtual programming, so I decided to try having in-person storytimes outdoors where we could spread out more and have ventilation over the summer. I also quickly planned some simple drop-in family programs outside, things like sidewalk chalk art, bubble party, giant games, water play, etc.

So far the summer has been a very awkward transition and somewhat of a let-down to the public who was hoping for the usual big, flashy programs. No one is watching the virtual programs, and some of the take-home kits leave much to be desired. However, storytime is doing fairly well, and I am really enjoying finally getting to interact with real live children! Being outside has its challenges: visibility since we're spread out more, road noise from being on a busy street, and the heat, but it is so much better than virtual! My drop-in family activities have had some participation, maybe not as much as I'd like, but at least enough worth doing. Patrons are enjoying finally having library programs again, but they would like more and are clearly ready to get back to normal.

Which brings us to the conundrum of planning for fall. Our patrons seem more than ready to resume attending in-person programs, I would love to get back to normal programs, and upper management wants us to resume regular in-person programming ASAP. But, I am struggling with it because though *I* may be vaccinated and now no longer so concerned about *my* health, children under 12 still can't be vaccinated. When you consider that along with the unfortunate facts we are unlikely to ever reach herd immunity (the vaccination rate in our community is only 30%) and the virus is mutating with new variants such as Delta becoming more prevalent and potentially more dangerous, I can't help but be somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of having a bunch of kids close together indoors in an enclosed space with adults that may not be vaccinated.

Will we go right back to exactly what programming was being done a year and a half ago? Maybe, maybe not. It seems to me that it would be foolish to expect things to just go right back to the way they were in 2019. I think it's a good time to start fresh, re-evaluate things, and assess what the community needs and wants NOW. I also think it will take some time to rebuild, and we aren't going to see the numbers we were seeing before. I do hope we get back to public libraries being a welcoming community center and seeing lots of families coming in, but I also hope maybe we step it back just a little, and stop trying to be everything to everybody, and stop being afraid to have reasonable boundaries and behavior expectations. 

What elements of pandemic programming and services will we retain in some fashion? I  think we need to continue to be more vigilant about hygiene and sanitization than we were before, just as a matter of best practice. I think curbside service maybe here to stay, though I have noticed ours has dropped off considerably. Virtual programming, I don't know. Maybe in some form or fashion, but I for one hope I never have to do virtual storytimes again, though I wouldn't mind virtual booktalks, or quick cute & fun demos or teasers. However, I think for the most part people are done with it here. Take-home kits? No doubt these were a great success, and I was proud of what I was able to put together. But should they continue once regular programming returns? For me, it's simply not possible with our level of staffing and teeny tiny programming budget; it just isn't sustainable. 

Kits are time-consuming, expensive, and generate a lot of plastic waste. Sure, people love free stuff and will take them if available, but I wonder how many of them just ended up in the trash? And do any of the caretakers use them as a learning and bonding activity to do WITH the child as intended, or was it just something to hand to the kid to keep them occupied? I feel take-home kits just don't serve to promote literacy and learning as well, nor do they promote library use or lead to increased library visits (other than to run in and grab the kit) or increased circulation. Take-home kits just don't have the same connected learning without a presenter/facilitator to guide and interact with the kids, nor do they allow staff to build relationships with families in the same way as in-person. But at the same time, they are an option for those who are not able or comfortable attending in-person programs.

I know some feel we should do everything to accommodate everyone, and while that might be ideal, for many of us it just isn't reality. If you have the staffing and budget to do it all, more power to you! I envy your generous budget and adequate staffing! Volunteers, you say? Well, that might help with time, but that doesn't help with money, and have you ever actually worked with volunteers? I've worked with many teen and adult volunteers, and good, capable, dependable volunteers are extremely valuable, but also few and far between. Besides, volunteers should never be accepted as the answer to understaffing.

So where do we go from here? I don't think any of us really quite know for sure, and I think we still have a rather difficult year ahead as we sort it all out and try to regain some sense of normal, even if it's a not quite the same as the old normal, all the while having nagging concerns about the health and safety of ourselves and our patrons. I encourage everyone to take it slow, take baby steps, ease it to it. And as always, don't be afraid to set limits and boundaries, don't be afraid to experiment, and don't be afraid to fail. We are in uncharted territory here, and we are all figuring it out as we go. Don't be too hard on yourselves, and don't be too hard on others who may be doing things a little differently. 

I'd love to hear what your summer is looking like, and what your thoughts, plans, and concerns are for the upcoming fall programming season!

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Polar Bears - Family Storytime

I was first inspired to plan a polar bear theme by Mac Barnett's new book, A Polar Bear In the Snow, but at the last minute decided not to use it because I wasn't sure the pictures would be visible and clear enough to everyone, with us having storytime outdoors and being all spread out.

We started with a "Hello" song, then introductions followed by a warm-up song, "Hello, Everybody". I brought out a non-fiction book to share a few pictures and interesting facts about polar bears and where they live, then led into our first book with our "story song".

polar bear storytime
I started with a silly book guaranteed to get their attention and lots of laughs, Polar Bear's Underwear by the creative team collectively known as Tupera Tupera. Polar Bear fears he has lost his underwear, and his friend Mouse kindly helps him search for them. They find several different pairs of underwear, but none are his. When Polar Bear finally finds his underwear, it turns out they were never really lost at all.

Kids love guessing whether each pair of underwear is Polar Bear's, and if not, who they might belong to, with the patterns of each pair giving a hint as to their owner. For example, the striped underwear belongs to Zebra, the underwear with carrots on them belong to Rabbit (who is wearing them on his head), and the tiny pair with flowers on them belong to Butterfly. This book is a lot of fun, but also encourages critical thinking in making predictions and introduces the concept of camouflage.

Next we did a counting down rhyme, accompanied by clip-art on my magnetic board:

Polar bear counting rhyme

"Five Little Polar Bears"

Five little polar bears, playing near the shore.
One tumbled in, and then there were  (four) .

Four little polar bears, swimming in the sea.
Once chased a seal, and then there were  (three) .

Three little polar bears, what shall we do?
One went swimming and then there were  (two) .

Two little polar bears playing in the sun.
One took a nap and then there was  (one).

One little polar bear, not very old.
Where's my mom? I'm hungry and cold!

Polar bear storytime
Our second book, What If....? Then We.... by Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Fred Koehler, encourages both imaginative and positive thinking. I introduced the book by telling them that asking "what if" questions is not only a great way to learn about things, asking "what if" is also a great way to begin a story using our imagination, just as the two polar bear friends do in this story. Through a series of "shorter than ever possibilities" the two friends propose a potentially negative situation, such as, "What happens if all the words in the universe disappear", and come up with a positive solution "We would invent our own language", and show that friends can help each other face tough or scary situations. 

I followed this with a song about several different kinds of bears, including polar bears, sung to the tune of "Mary Had a Little Lamb":

"Polar Bears"

Polar Bears are soft and white,
Soft and white, soft and white.
Polar bears are soft and white,
And live where it's cold.

Grizzly bears are big and brown,
Big and brown, big and brown.
Grizzly bears are big and brown,
And live in the woods.

Panda bears are white and black,
White and black, white and black.
Panda bears are white and black,
And like to eat bamboo.

Teddy bears are just my size,
Just my size, just my size.
Teddy bears are just the size,
To cuddle with at night.

Polar bear storytime
I finished with a classic, Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Can You Hear? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle. I love this series for the simple, repetitive rhyming text that invites children to join in repeating, and Eric Carle's bright, bold illustrations that invite the children to identify the animals. While Brown Bear, Brown Bear also encourages color recognition and Panda Bear, Panda Bear focuses on actions, Polar Bear, Polar Bear focuses on animal sounds and encourages the reader/audience to imitate them, which helps develop phonological awareness.

After I read the book to them, I mentioned the other two books in the series and showed them another unique trait they all have, which is in addition to reading them aloud, they can also be sung to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"! I didn't sing the whole book, but demonstrated with the first few pages. I explained finding multiple ways to share or explore a favorite book helps children engage in a new way and calls attention to the words and rhythm in a different way, also helping to develop phonological awareness and language.

Polar bear craft, polar bear storytime
I ended by showing them the simple take-home craft, a polar bear finger-puppet make from cardstock circles, googly eyes, a small black pom-pom for the nose, and a white one for the tail. I also let them know about our Bubble Party the next day, and invited them back for storytime next week. Then we said and sang our goodbyes.

How It Went

I was a little concerned that some people wouldn't come back this week due to the heat, as it had been uncomfortably warm even in the shade last week, and when only one family was there just before starting time it seemed my fears were being realized. But, several others soon showed up and a few more arrived a little bit late, so that I ended up with an even larger audience than the previous weeks with a total of 27 people (12 kids & 15 adults). Fortunately, even though the temperature was just as high this week, there was a bit of a breeze so that it was quite comfortable in the shade.

Everyone loved Polar Bear's Underwear and Polar Bear, Polar Bear (which they recognized as being related to the Brown Bear, Brown Bear they were already familiar with), but I don't think they were as engaged with What If....? Then We.... That one might be better for a one-on-one read. The best thing is that everyone stayed for the whole time, except for one toddler who got too fussy, which is a nice change from the strange Saturday storytime phenomenon I used to experience at my old library where half the audience would get up and leave en masse after the first story (because they didn't come specifically for storytime, just happened to be there and had other things to do and places to be). Doing a regular weekly storytime with a regular crowd is much better!

I am so relieved to be doing in-person storytimes again! They are so much more rewarding than doing virtual programs and take-home kits. I really thrive on the interactions with the kids, the audience feedback, and building relationships with the families. It's still just a tiny bit awkward getting back into the swing of things, I feel like my transitions are quite as smooth as they used to be and I keep forgetting to work in my literacy tips, but I think by the end of the summer I'll be back to 100%.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Wolves - Family Storytime

Since the CLSP summer reading theme this year is "Tails and Tales", I am using animal themes for all my storytimes. This week I focused on wolves, and I wanted to avoid the typical "big bad wolf" story that paints wolves in a negative light since conservationists and wildlife biologists are working very hard in our state to re-establish wolf populations and educate people on their necessity for a healthy ecosystem. Just a few days before storytime, I saw a news report that a litter of wild-born wolf pups had been spotted here for the first time in over 80 years. [I am holding storytime outdoors on the lawn for the time being.]

I introduced myself and asked all the kids' names, then started with a "Hello" song, going over expectations, followed by "Hello, Everybody" for a warm-up. I talked a little about wolves, how they almost became extinct in our country, but that while they are a dangerous apex predator they are also important to the ecosystem. I showed them some pictures of grey wolves to show all the color variations besides grey, pack size, and some adorable little pups. Then it was time for our first story, which I led into with "If You're Ready for a Story".

Wolf storytime
Little Wolf's Song by Britta Teckentrup is a sweet story about a little wolf pup who can't yet sing, or as humans would call it, howl. His siblings can all howl and they tease the poor little cub, causing him to wander off during a snow shower, becoming lost. When the moon comes out, Little Wolf finally finds his song, letting out a long, beautiful howl that leads his father to him. 

This story provides opportunities to talk about several important things that kids can relate to: wanting to be able to do things they aren't quite developmentally able to do, teasing and being teased, and what to do if they should be come lost (stay where they are and yell for their parents, just like Little Wolf did). I also was glad to find a story that featured a wolf in a more natural light, rather than being a "Big, Bad Wolf" or being anthropomorphized.

Next we did a "Five Little Wolf Pups" counting rhyme accompanied by clip art on my magnet board:

Wolf storytime, wolf rhyme

Five Little Wolf Pups

Five little wolf pups were playing in the sun.
The first one saw a rabbit, and he began to run.

The second one saw a butterfly, and he began to race.
The third one saw a squirrel, and he began to chase.

The fourth one tried to catch his tail, and he went round and round.
The fifth one was so quiet, he never made a sound.

We followed that with a song that let us move around a little and pretend to be wolves:

If You're a Wolf and You Know It

If you're a wolf and you know it, howl at the moon!
If you're a wolf and you know it, howl at the moon!
If you're a wolf and you know it, then your howl will surely show it.
If you're a wolf and you know it, howl at the moon.

If you're a wolf and you know it, growl at night....

If you're a wolf and you know it, scratch your fleas....

If you're a wolf and you know it, do all three....

Wolf storytime
Unfortunately, the only other wolf story I could find in our collection that showed wolves in a natural and positive way that wasn't too long was also about a little pup having trouble learning to howl (a new one by Joseph Bruchac with lovely art), so I had no choice but to use a story with anthropomorphized animals and fell back on one of my favorites, Wolf's Coming by Joe Kulka. 

I love this story, how it builds suspense with the urgent warnings of "Wolf's coming!" and dark illustrations, leading the audience to think the animals are running away in fear that Wolf is going to eat them, but then ends with the wonderful surprise twist that they are actually throwing Wolf a surprise birthday party!

Of course, we then had to sing "Happy Birthday" to Wolf, and count the candles on his cake to see how old he was.

Then I showed them the materials in the take-home craft kit and examples of what they would make. The packet included a sheet of interesting wolf facts, a color-cut-and-fold wolf, and the materials for a paper bag puppet. Then we closed with a good-bye song, announcements, and I thanked them for coming.

How It Went

I was very happy to see my audience had grown from 10 people the week before to 18 people this time, though 3 did leave shortly after we began due to an older child that really didn't want to be there. Everyone else stuck through until the end, despite the near 100 degree heat! Though we were in the shade and the humidity is very low here, it was somewhat uncomfortable, so I was impressed the rest stuck it out.

Everything went well, most of the kids were really engaged and seemed to enjoy everything. One of the little ones wandered a little, but of course that's to be expected and perfectly okay as long as they aren't bothering anyone else, in the way of the book, or headed toward the road or parking lot. And, as proof that toddlers are paying attention even when they seem not to be, his mother later told me that he kept saying "wolf" over and over the rest of the day.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Movement Family Storytime - IRL!

This week was a momentous occasion - after more than 15 months, I was finally able to do a real storytime, in person, with REAL LIVE KIDS! 

My last regular storytime was on February 22, 2020. That seems like a lifetime ago, so much has changed since then. It was a Yeti-themed storytime that included a hunt to find little stuffed yetis and was so much fun. Little did we know that day how our world was about to change. Within 3 weeks the library shut down and didn't reopen for several months, during which time I finished my MLIS but lost my job, along with 100 other part-time employees. My life was turned upside down as I was forced into a desperate job hunt, resulting in relocating across the country where I had to quickly adapt to a new world of virtual programming, take-home kits, and curbside service.

Though caregivers and kids really liked the take-home kits, and I was proud of what I was able to come up with and put together, I found them incredibly time-consuming and expensive, much more so than in-person programming. I found virtual programming to be very unsatisfying without the face-to-face interactions, and with little to no engagement in the virtual environment it didn't seem as if anyone was really watching and felt rather pointless. But, I figured doing virtual storytimes at least kept me in practice.

Finally, this summer I felt like it was time to start transitioning back to normal programming. I had been vaccinated, state and local restrictions were lifted, and the library I worked for dropped all restrictions as well, including masks. But, since children still cannot get the vaccine I was not quite ready to have them crowded together in a closed room and opted to plan on having storytime outdoors. We have a nice greenspace in front of the library with large shade trees that makes a very nice spot for storytime, aside from some road noise.

Since it would be the first storytime in a very long time for some, and the first ever for others, and no one would be used to sitting and listening quietly I decided an active storytime would be best for the first one and focused on books that would lots of opportunities for kids to move around and act things out.

I started by introducing myself and thanking them for coming and telling them how happy I was that we were finally able to start having storytime together again. We sang a quick "Hello" song, followed by a warm-up song that had some actions and identifying body parts ("Hello Everybody"), then led to the first book by singing "If You're Ready for a Story".

Movement storytime
For the first book I chose one of my favorite movement books, Can You Make a Scary Face? by Jan Thomas. Though the adults might get a little annoyed by all the stand up-sit down silliness as the lady bug leads the audience in a game of pretending, the kids always love it. This story has wiggling, dancing, pretending, and more. 

I also love Jan Thomas's illustration style. Her illustrations are simple, big, bold, and bright with heavy black outlines that work really well for storytime and for younger kids in general.

I followed that with a nice wiggly bug/animal themed song:

Can You Move Like Me?

Can you wiggle like a worm?
Can you squiggle can you squirm?

Can you flutter, can you fly,
Like a gentle butterfly?

Can you crawl upon the ground,
Like a beetle that is round?
Can you move like me?

Can you flip? Can you flop?
Can you give a little hop?

Can you slither like a snake?
Can you give a little shake?

Can you dance like a bee
That is buzzing 'round a tree?

Can you move like me?

Movement storytime
Next was another favorite movement book, Everybunny Dance by Ellie Sandall. This is such a fun book that allows the kids to dance, play pretend instruments, and sing along with all the bunnies, until a fox shows up and the bunnies have to run and hide. 

But, as it turns out, the fox enjoys dancing, singing, and making music as much as the bunnies, but he is very lonely. In the end they all dance and play together, with one group of bunnies forming a line and presumably doing the "Bunny Hop" dance.

Of course after that we had to dance the Bunny Hop ourselves!

I finished with a quieter activity, a bunny counting rhyme accompanied by a flannel board:

Five Little Bunnies

One little bunny, wondering what to do,
another bunny came along, then there were two.

Two little bunnies, hopping like me (Hop)
Another bunny came along, then there were three.

Three little bunnies, jumping around outdoors,
Another bunny joined them and then there were four.

Four little bunnies, so fluffy and alive,
Another bunny joined them, then there were five.

Five little bunnies, ready for some fun,
Hopped away in the warm, spring sun.

I decided to leave it at two books for the first storytime. Always better to leave them wanting more, right? I thanked them for coming, passed out a take-home "craft" packet with a printable on cardstock to color and cut out to make a bunny ear headband, a fox and bunny coloring sheet, and a ladybug counting activity sheet, then we sang a good-bye song.

How It Went

I had four families show up, for a total of 4 moms and 6 kids ranging in age from 2 to 6, which I was very happy with after being afraid no one would show. I'm hoping it will grow a little over time; I think 12-15 kids is about the perfect size.

Everything went well, and all the kids participated and seemed to have a good time, and I can't wait for the next one! I know the take-home craft was a bit lame, but I wanted to keep it simple since I had no idea how many kids to expect and I had no time due to being understaffed and overwhelmed with the beginning of a chaotic summer reading program (that I had no part in planning). 

Also, I must admit, I don't care for storytime crafts. It's so hard to come up with something simple enough for the younger kids to do in a relatively short time that isn't totally lame, the parents often take over, and they typically involve little creativity. I'd prefer just to have an after-storytime activity or play time and save arts and crafts for a separate program, but this community seems to really want crafts. I hope I can slowly wean them away from them.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Announcement RE: E-mail Subscriptions

Unfortunately, Feedburner will no longer support the e-mail subscription service this blog has used after June 2021.

What this means is that if you have previously subscribed to the automated e-mails of new content from this blog, this will be the last month you will receive them.

I am looking into alternatives, but it may take a while since I am in the middle of a very chaotic summer reading program! I welcome any suggestions.

In the meantime, you can also keep up with new content by following my Facebook page at

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

True Confessions...


So, I have something to confess that might be shocking to some, though I am sure there are those who are secretly in agreement with me. Now hold on to your cardigans folks, but the truth is.... I hate summer reading! 

I know that must seem downright blasphemous coming from a children's librarian who is dedicated to promoting literacy and lifelong reading, but it's true. Ok, maybe not 100% true; I guess it's really more of a love-hate relationship. I do love seeing all the kids and families in the library more often during the summer, catching up with former storytime regulars who are now in elementary school, talking books with teens, and doing fun programs, and I am very passionate about promoting reading and lifelong learning. However, that mission seems to have gotten lost in the stressful circus that summer reading programs have become, and that is what I truly hate. 

Summer reading programs were started in order to fight the supposed "summer slide". Aside from recent studies and re-examination of the original research casting doubt on whether the summer slide actually exists, promoting reading as mental exercise to keep the brain active over the summer is certainly a laudable goal. However, we seem to have completely lost sight of that original goal. I fondly remember the summer reading program at my local library. We made a weekly trip to the library where I checked out a huge stack of books that wouldn't quite last me until the next trip. I faithfully recorded the titles I read, and at the end exchanged my list for a coupon for a free ice cream cone from Dairy Queen and I was happy. It was simple, low-key, and effective. The focus was on celebrating the joy of reading; the worlds, adventures, and information we could find in a book, not prizes, not numbers, not publicity.

These days the mission of promoting reading has been lost in the pursuit of numbers. Every year we push for greater numbers, which we hope to get by being bigger and better than the year before. More programs, more publicity, more prizes, more money.....more, more, more. I've seen this lead to very un-healthy competition among staff as administration subtly pitted locations against each other, trying to outdo each other for numbers of participants. Those in the branches with extremely high numbers often patted themselves on the back and looked down at other locations, forgetting that much of their "success" was simply due to the different demographics of the respective locations. But yet, these numbers led to prejudices that extended well-beyond a little "friendly" summer competition and affected hiring decisions and career advancement for many staff.

In the endless chase for ever increasing numbers, staff are frequently pushed to the breaking point by the push for more programs, bigger programs, flashier, sexier programs, without the needed staffing and budgets to do so. This is simply not sustainable and leads to excess stress, anxiety, and ultimately, burnout; every year people leave youth services or public librarianship altogether for this reason. In our never-ending pursuit of ever increasing numbers we offer bigger and bigger prizes, everything from tablets, e-readers, and gift cards to cold hard cash. While this may lead to more "participation" in terms of signing up or turning in reading logs, does it actually lead to more reading? Or just more cheating? I have definitely observed the latter. And more importantly, does it really do anything to promote lifelong reading? There is research that suggests incentivized reading does not promote lifelong reading, and may in fact be counter-productive, and I believe this is true based on my own observations. 

So what would I do for summer reading if it were completely up to me, no worrying about numbers and focusing only on the kids and the mission to promote lifelong reading? Here are my "Do's and Don'ts" for an ideal summer reading program:

  • DO put as many books into the hands of as many kids as possible! Give books away for them to keep, make it as easy as possible to check out materials by removing barriers.
  • DO outreach and more outreach! Visit day camps and daycares, especially those with children who are less likely to ever visit the library. Give away books, talk about books, do fun programs with them. 
  • DO fun programs for all ages, but a reasonable amount relative to staffing, and keep most of them relatively simple.
  • DO have your summer program designed by librarians, with input from ALL staff that will be responsible for implementing it.
  • DO stay focused on the mission of promoting reading.
  • DO encourage free-choice and making reading FUN!
  • DO be clear on your goals and how success will be measured.
  • DO have a clear plan in place, with clear procedures and rules, well in advance and stick to it. Give staff plenty of time to ask questions and understand everything about the plan.

  • DON'T let your program be designed by politicians, marketing people, business people or others who are not professionally trained in child development, literacy, and reading motivation.
  • DON'T lose sight of the mission in the chase for numbers, publicity, or personal ambitions.
  • DON'T push so much programming that it becomes a circus and no one can keep up with what's going on and everyone becomes completely exhausted and burned out.
  • DON'T ignore valid concerns from your staff, then leave them to deal with the mess.
  • DON'T literally pay kids for checking out books and tell them it's their "summer job". SRP is supposed to promote the idea that reading is fun, enjoyable, and useful, not reinforce the idea that it's a chore.
  • DON'T make it up as you go along. Have a clear mission, a well-thought out plan for execution, and clear rules/criteria for participation and "winning" well in advance, and don't change the rules once the program has already started.

Now, I am a realist and I do understand that numbers are an easy, convenient, and tangible way to show board members and taxpayers what we do; I love data and stats as much as the next person, probably more if truth be told. But numbers are only part of the story, they aren't everything, and by becoming so obsessed with numbers we have crept further and further away from our mission and created miserable conditions for the front-line staff. I think it's time to say enough is enough, and re-focus our attentions on the mission of promoting literacy and learning, and allow staff to have less stress, more job satisfaction, and a reasonable work-life balance. 

Unfortunately, until library boards and administrations start to value and appreciate staff, recognize their experience and expertise, and seek and consider their input, change will be difficult at best. But we can try! Summer reading should be enjoyable for everyone, not something to be dreaded and suffered through. In the meantime, I will try to focus on the positive, that more families are coming in to the library so I'll at least have a chance to engage them, promote reading, and develop relationships.

Anyone else feel the same? Care to try to convince me the circus is necessary or at all beneficial? Anyone have a different experience? Please share in the comments below!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Cryptography - Hybrid STEM Program

STEM programs for kids, cryptography for kids

For May's STEM program I decided to repeat a program I'd previously done in-person ("Spy School") with some tweaking to adapt it to a take-home kit plus video format, focusing only on the hidden and coded messages part and re-branding it as a Cryptography program. I chose this program because I knew it would be a little easier and less time-consuming to prep and a fairly short and quick video to record since I was going to be gone a week for vacation, and preparing for the summer was going to be hectic.

This program was intended for ages 6-12, and as the other STEM programs I've done lately was a hybrid program, with a take-home kit of supplies coupled with a video presentation. 

Materials Provided In Kit

  • instructional brochure with general info, how to access the video, brief instructions for the activities, thought questions, where to find more info, and book suggestions.
  • white crayon
  • baking soda
  • grape juice
  • dixie cups
  • cotton swabs
  • DIY decoder
  • brad fastener
  • invisible ink pen
  • substitution code practice sheets
  • Pigpen Cipher practice sheet
  • Greek square practice sheet
  • final challenge worksheet

Additional Materials Needed

  • watercolor paints or washable marker (provided in supplemental, one-time family craft supply kit if needed)
  • paper
  • water
  • paintbrushes
  • milk
  • hot iron (must have adult assistance)
  • ironing board

Activity #1 - Hidden Messages
  1. Wax Resist - write a message with a white crayon, then color over it with watercolor paint or a water-soluble marker to reveal the message due to the hydrophobic properties of wax.

    hidden messages, cryptography, STEM programs for kids, hidden message with was resistance

  2. Baking Soda - mix a tablespoon of baking soda with 1 to 2 tablespoons of warm water to make a saturated slurry. Use a cotton swab to write a message with this solution. Let dry, then reveal the hidden message by painting over with grape juice, which is acidic. The pigment in grape juice in pH sensitive and changes color in the presence of the baking soda.

    Hidden messages for kids, cryptography for kids, STEM activities for kids, hidden message with baking soda

  3. Milk - Write a message with a swab dipped in milk and let dry. Have an adult iron it with a very hot, dry iron to reveal the message using heat. This scorches the sugars and protein in the milk, turning the message tan-brown so it is visible. [The clich├ęd movie trick of using lemon juice and heating over a light bulb or simply by breathing on it does NOT work!]

    Hidden messages for kids, cryptography for kids, STEM activities for kids, hidden message with milk

  4. Invisible UV Reflective Ink - I splurged a little and bought these cool "spy pens" that have a UV-reflective ink that is completely invisible in normal light. The pens come with a tiny UV light to reveal the message.

Activity #2 - Secret Codes 

For each code I gave them a sheet that explained how the code works and gave a one or two word example. Then they were asked to encode a few different words as practice, and decode a short message.
  1. Simple Substitution - This can be done several ways, but I gave them the simplest way as an example, numbering the letters of the alphabet starting with A as 1. Then you substitute the corresponding numbers for the letters, then vice versa to decode. I also showed how a number substitution would allow messaged to be hidden as math homework.

  2. DIY Decoder - I borrowed this simple DIY decoder wheel activity from "All for the Boys". I furnished it printed on cardstock, and they would simply have to cut out the three circles and assemble them centered on top of each other, and fasten with the included brad. This provides a quick and easy way to do multiple alphabet substitution codes.

  3. Greek Square Code - This is a more complicated number substitution code that assigns a 2-digit number to each letter of the alphabet using a 5x5 chart ("I" and "J" share a spot). The letters are then indicated by a pair of number coordinates, the number of the row first, then the number of the column. So the letter "A" is indicated by the number 11 (1st row, 1st column), and the letter "Z" is indicated by the number 55 (5th row, 5th column).

  4. Pigpen Cipher - This is my favorite, but a little tricky at first, and reportedly dates back to the Crusades. The letters are placed into a series of grids, with and without dots, and it is the lines of the grid around each letter that is used to substitute for the letter. The resulting coded messages make me think of alien hieroglyphics.

Activity #3 - Ultimate Challenge 

For the challenge, I gave them a coded message that when decoded would tell them how to reveal the hidden message, which would also have to be decoded.

These were all done using codes and techniques covered, so they had everything needed to complete the challenge. I wrote the first message with an alphabet substitution code using the DIY decoder wheel, and gave them the hint that "A=D". When decoded, the first message says "ultraviolet light". This lets them know to use the UV light on their spy pens to reveal the hidden message I had written in UV reflective invisible ink using one of the pens. The hidden message was encoded using the Pigpen Cipher, and when decoded says "summer reading starts June first".

Hidden messages for kids, cryptography for kids, STEM activities for kids
(From left, under normal lighting, normal lighting plus UV light, and UV light only)

I closed by encouraging the audience to further explore the subjects of cryptography and espionage, and showed of few book suggestions, including an excellent book on the subject of codes and cyphers that I used in preparing for this program originally, 
Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janecszko (2004), as well as a book about Sioux code-talkers from WWII, a non-fiction book about the tools and techniques of espionage, the biography of a spy, and a fiction series (there was a more complete list in the included instructional brochure, as well).

How It Went

This worked really well for take & make kit, and was really inexpensive except for the spy pens. I wish I'd had the time and creative energy to make the messages they decoded a little more fun and somehow build on each other, but I was really pressed for time.

I was tempted to make one of the messages say "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine", but I figured few people would get the reference to poor Ralphie's disappointing coded message from the Little Orphan Annie radio show in the classic film A Christmas Story.

This will likely be the last take-home kit I do, at least for a while. The youth services department at the main library is doing centralized programming for the summer that will include a weekly animal program that is more "science-y" (as well as weekly storytime craft kits), so I am taking a break from planning take-home kits and focusing on outdoor, in-person programming for the summer, with the hope we will be able to return to normal indoor programming in the fall. 

I may still occasionally do a take-home kit, or package any leftover supplies from in-person programs as take-home kits, but they won't be as elaborate as what I've done during the pandemic.