Christmastime is Here!

Paper plate angel by Sarah

Paper plate angel by Sarah

My last Family Storytime of 2013.  It was a cozy one with just two families, so I sat on the floor and shared some longer books than I usual would have, and it was wonderful.  These were the ones I read:

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Little Porcupine’s Christmas by Joseph Slate; illustrated by Felicia Bond (Amazon.com link)

I actually just happened to see this one on display right before storytime, and fell in love with it.  Little Porcupine wants to have a part in the Baby in a Manger play, but the other animals make fun of him, calling him a “Spiky Stick Ball.” His mother comforts him, telling him he is “the light of her life,” and, although he is sad not to be in the play, he runs the lights and manages the stage.  In the middle of the play, everyone suddenly realizes they don’t have a Christmas star, and Little Porcupine saves the day.  Such a sweet story, and it was eagerly snatched up at the end.

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Dragon’s Merry Christmas by Dav Pilkey (Amazon.com link)

My daughter and I love all of the Dragon books.  In four short chapters, Dragon: decorates a Christmas tree (outside his house because he can’t bear to chop it done); makes and devours a candy wreath (only eating the pieces that “fall” off); loses his mittens (and his coat); and buys some Christmas presents for himself.  In the last story, he gives away all of his presents to animals who need them more, and goes to sleep thinking he hears angels singing (they are really the grateful animals singing outside his house).  Lovely collection of stories that are both funny and sweet.  One of the girls checked this one out, and every other Dragon book we had on the shelf.  Storytime win!

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Merry Un-Christmas by Mike Reiss; illustrated by David Catrow (Amazon.com link).

For anyone who ever wished it could be Christmas every day, this book shows that you can really have too much of a good thing.  Noelle lives in Christmas City, where everyday is Christmas, except one: Un-Christmas Day.  Noelle loves Un-Christmas Day, when she doesn’t have to open any presents or eat five kinds of pie.  Best of all, she gets to go to school.  I’ve read this to several different age groups, and they all loved it, especially the second graders.

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Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry (Amazon.com link)

I learned about this one from my friend Kerri’s blog, What Is ML Reading?  Mr. Willowby has a perfect Christmas tree, except that it’s a little too tall.  His butler cuts a bit off the top and gives it to the maid, who uses it as her own Christmas tree, but it’s a bit too tall for her mantel.  So she cuts off the top…  Fun, rhyming story with a treetop that just never seems to run out.  The kids enjoyed this one too.

INSTRUMENT PLAYALONG WITH A CD: Linus and Lucy from A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi (Amazon.com link).  This was so much fun!  Even my coworkers were humming the tune after story time.

CRAFT: Paper Plate Angels

Paper plate angel by Sophia

Paper plate angel by Sophia

Once again, my wonderful coworker, Gail Benjamin, handed down her leftover craft supplies from a holiday program she did the previous weekend.  You can find printable instructions from Enchanted Learning.

Basically, you cut the plate along the lines, and tape or staple it together.  Then the kids draw a face, and decorate it with glitter.  (I put another paper plate underneath to catch the extra glitter). Gail says her daughter made one years ago in preschool, and they still use it to top their Christmas tree.

OTHER BOOKS:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com link)I read this to a second grade class the other day.  I was worried that they would be bored because I know they have all seen the cartoon and the movie a million times, but they were mesmerized.  It’s so much fun to read too.

Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear by Audrey and Don Wood (Amazon.com link)

By the creators of The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear.  In this story, the little mouse is guarding his Christmas presents from the big hungry bear, until he learns the bear has never gotten a present.  Bravely he sets out on his sled in the snow to bring the bear a gift.  The illustrations are adorable.

What are your favorite Christmas books?

Winter Wonderland: Stories about Snow

Q-Tip snowflake by Jonas

Q-Tip snowflake by Jonas

Winter storytimes in the San Francisco Bay Area are always a bit confusing because we never get snow.  At least not here in Pacifica.  A few years ago I drove my son up to La Honda, where there was a patch of snow on the side of the road about the size of a bathmat.  I pulled over, and we had what was probably the world’s tiniest snowball fight.   So, although most of the kids here have probably seen snow somewhere, their idea of Winter is probably a lot different from the idea portrayed in most picture books.

But this week it’s actually been cold here, at least by our standards (I know, I know, it’s hard to complain about our 36 degree weather, when friends in Minnesota are saying that the temperature is going “all the way up to -1!”).   But it felt enough like Winter for me to pull out some books about the season.  Here are the ones I read:

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Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser

Funny story about a squirrel, a hedgehog, and a bear who are waiting for snow.  All they know is that snow is “white, wet, cold, and soft,” and they each set out to find something fitting that description.  Hedgehog finds a toothbrush, and imagines bunches of them falling from the sky.  Squirrel finds a tin can, and bear finds an old, smelly sock.  My daughter loved this story, and it got laughs from the little girl who was the first to show up at storytime (the other families arrived a bit late).  I was sad to discover that this book is out of print, and very expensive even to buy used on Amazon.   If you live in San Mateo County you can check it out from the Peninsula Library System by clicking on the title above.  To search for it from other libraries, try putting your zip code in this search box on WorldCat.

rabbit

Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James and Joseph Bruchac; illustrated by Jeff Newman (Amazon.com link)

One of my favorite picture books from last year.  The story is based on a traditional Iroquois tale about a rabbit who makes it snow in the summer by singing and playing a special song on his drum.  It’s a longish story, but it works well even for preschoolers because of the repeated chant and song.  I shared this with two second grade classes last year, and was pleased to hear them marching through the halls of the school afterwards chanting, “I will make it snow.  Azikanapo!”  It would work well for themes about the seasons or Native American tribes.

Froggy-Gets-Dressed

Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London; illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz (Amazon.com link)

All the Froggy books follow the same basic pattern, but the kids love them.  They anticipate the repeated cry of “FROGGY!” which is great, because the word is always written in big, bold, colorful letters that you can point to (studies have shown that pointing out words on the page is important for helping kids learn to read later on).  The kids love this book in particular because Froggy forgets his pants, his shirt, and, oh yes, his underwear!  Big laughs all around.

milk and cookies

Milk and Cookies by Frank Asch (Amazon.com link)

I hadn’t originally planned to read this one, but it was in my stack, and one of the kids was drawn to the cover.   A young bear who wakes up in the middle of the night at his grandparents thinks he sees his grandfather feeding a dragon in the basement.  This leads him to a terrible nightmare, where a hungry dragon eats all the milk and cookies in the house.  Of course, when he wakes up, he learns the dragon is really his grandfather’s woodstove.    I love all of Asch’s bear stories, and the kids seemed to enjoy this one too.

mooncake

Mooncake by Frank Asch (Amazon.com link)

One day, Bear wonders what the moon tastes like, and decides to build a rocket ship to find out.  But by the time his rocket is built, it is Winter, and he falls asleep in the middle of the countdown.  Waking up in a snowy landscape, he assumes that he has landed on the moon.  There are several Bear and Little Bird books, including Happy Birthday, Moon, Moonbear’s Dream, and Bear Shadow, and I love them all, although I find it helps to make sure the kids understand the underlying principle (shadows, echoes, dreams) before I read the story.  In this case, I asked the kids if they knew what bears did in the Winter, and we talked very briefly about hibernation.   I was surprised that some of the kids remembered me reading it a long time ago, and were excited to hear it again.

SONGS: Five Little Snowmen

There are lots of different version of this song, but I learned this one years ago when I was working at a music school.  I wish I knew who wrote it.  I made a rough recording, so you can hear the tune:  

Five little snowmen standing in a row, (hold up five fingers)
Each with a hat (touch head), and a brightly colored bow (adjust imaginary bowtie).
Five little snowmen dressed up all for show.
Now they are ready,`
Where will they go?

Wait! (hold out hands in a “Stop!” motion) Till the sun shines. (hold up your arms to make a circle over your head)
Wait! Till the sun shines.
Then they will go
Down through the fields
With the melting, melting snow (“melt” all the way down to the floor, then pop up for the next four snowmen).

Mitten Song

I didn’t get to do this song, but it’s an easy one for toddlers and preschoolers.  Here’s the tune:

Thumb in the thumb’s place,
Fingers all together. (Hold up your hand with your four fingers close together and thumb extended)
This is the song
We sing in mitten weather.

INSTRUMENT PLAY ALONG WITH A CD: Frosty the Snowman (sung by Bing Crosby) from the Best of Christmas Cocktails album (Amazon.com link)

CRAFT: Q-Tip Snowflakes 

Q-Tip snowflake by Lily

Q-Tip snowflake by Lily

I got this idea from one of my favorite kids craft websites: Busy Bee Crafts.  I had broken up a number of Q-Tips ahead of time (I found out the hard way that if you try to cut Q-Tips with scissors, they not only hurt your hands, but also shoot across the room like little cotton-tipped missiles.  But they break very easily.  Go figure!)

The idea was for the kids to glue the Q-Tips pieces to blue construction paper in snowflake patterns, and then sprinkle them with glitter.  A funny thing about kids crafts though: they sometimes evolve into something else entirely.   During the instrument time at the end of the storytime, I had scattered paper snowflakes for the kids to pick up and take home.  Several of the kids decided to glue the paper snowflakes onto the construction paper and decorate them with glitter paper instead of making Q-Tip ones.  It’s always fun to see their creativity at work.   Every snowflake was truly unique!

Other easy Winter crafts I’ve done in the past are paper snowflakes (I prepare the folded paper ahead of time, so the kids just get to cut pieces out of it with kids’ scissors and open it up to reveal their snowflake.  Here’s a page of instructions on how to do the folds from Instructables.com).   Mittens are also easy and fun.  You have the kids put their fingers together like they would if they wearing a mitten, and trace the shape of their hands on paper to make mittens.  Then they can color and decorate them, or even cut them out and tape a piece of yarn between them.  Or, for a fun food craft, try these marshmallow snowmen.

OTHER BOOKS:

There were lots of other books I didn’t get to.  Here are just a few:

The Mitten by Jan Brett (Amazon.com link)

The classic story about a boy’s lost mitten, which ends up becoming a shelter from the snow for a bunch of different animals, including a bear!  It’s a brilliant book, because Jan Brett uses the sidebars to tell three different stories at once: the little boy hunting for his mitten; the main story of the animals crowding into the one he lost; and the new animal who will become part of the main story on the next page.  Jan Brett has a wonderful web site, full of activities to accompany each of her books.  For The Mitten, she has masks you can print out, coloring pages, and even an activity where you can glue the different animals onto the mitten (it might be fun to print this out on cardstock, and put magnetic strips on the back of each animal and stick them on a cookie sheet, then have the kids put the animals “in” the mitten.)

Here Comes Jack Frost by Kazuno Kahara (Amazon.com link)

My daughter loves this one.  It’s a fantasy story along the lines of Frosty the Snowman, about a little boy’s adventures with Jack Frost over the course of one fun winter.  Jack Frost tells the boy that he must never mention anything warm in front of him, or he will disappear.   They have a wonderful time together, until the boy finds a snowdrop flower blooming in the snow, and Jack Frost disappears, whispering, “See you next year.”  The white illustrations on blue background are stunning.

Tippy-Tippy-Tippy-Hide! by Candace Fleming; illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Amazon.com link)

In this sequel to Muncha Muncha Muncha, Mr. McGreely is determined not to share his warm house with the three little bunnies.  But the bunnies find their way inside anyway: through the mail slot, down the chimney, and even through the front door.  The kids enjoy the repeated lines, especially: “Tippy-Tippy-Hide!”  And the page where Mr. McGreely wakes up to find “bunny drops” on his pillow always get appreciative “EEWWs!”

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Amazon.com link)

This classic picture book and winner of the 1963 Caldecott Award is such a simple and colorful celebration of the joys of playing in snow, and coming in out of the cold.  Even thinking about it makes me nostalgic for the few snow days I had as a child in Georgia.

The Runaway Giant by Adelaide Holl; illustrated by Mamoru Funai (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Erik Moore

A squirrel, a bear, and a crow, and a rabbit are panicked by reports of a giant in the woods, but decide to team up and scare it away.  The giant turns out to be a snowman, who melts away.   I didn’t know this book, but I found it for free on Open Library, and read it to my daughter, who demanded to hear it again as soon as I finished it.  The story is very similar to A Stranger in the Woods, which features beautiful photographs of forest animals by Carl R. Sams, but I think I like the text of this older story better.

Snow by Uri Shulevitz (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Barbara Bruxvoort

When the first two snowflakes fall, no one believes anything will come of it, but a boy and his dog know that the big snow is coming.  Fun read aloud for any age that captures the hope of a snow day.

 

 

No show

What are your favorite books about winter?

We Are Family!

olivia

Paper doll by Lilyanna

Since it’s the holiday season, I decided to do a storytime about family.  It was a great, big, lively, fun bunch of kids tonight, and a wide mix of ages, so I ended up doing some of the shorter books.  Luckily, they were some of my favorites.  Here they are:

Bedtime for Mommy

Bedtime for Mommy by Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Amazon.com link)

Adorable story about a little girl’s efforts to put her Mommy to bed.  Of course, Mommy asks for five more minutes…and an extra story…and a glass of water.  Both the parents and kids loved this one, and there were several kids asking to check it out at the end.  I love Amy Krouse Rosenthal.  Her book Exclamation Mark (Amazon.com link) is probably my favorite book of the year.

dog smelly

My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks: and Other Funny Family Portraits by Hanoch Piven (Amazon.com link)

Perfect book for storytime or classroom themes about families.  When her teacher asks her to draw a picture of her family, a little girl complains that a picture doesn’t tell the whole story.  Her father is as playful as a spinning top, for example, and her mother is as bright as the brightest light.  So her new pictures feature her dad with a top for a nose, and her mother’s nose as a lightbulb.  This would work great for a lesson on similes, or as the lead-in to a collage project with different objects or magazine pictures.   The kids loved this book too.

pete

Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig (Amazon.com link)

Okay, I do this one a lot, because it works well for almost any age.   When Pete’s dad notices his son looking miserable, he decides to make him into a pizza.  He spreads him on the kitchen table and starts kneading the dough, and stretching it, and whirling it in the air.  Then it’s time for toppings, including tomatoes (they’re really checkers), and cheese (it’s really pieces of paper).  In a lap sit storytime for toddlers or even babies, parents can act out the kneading and stretching and tickling.  For older kids, I like to mention that William Steig wrote the book Shrek (Amazon.com link), and also that they can play this pizza game with their parents, or even with younger siblings.

kissing

No More Kissing by Emma Chichester Clark (Amazon.com link)

Another favorite for both toddlers and older kids.  Momo the monkey hates kissing, especially when people kiss him.  He tells his family he wants “No More Kissing!” but of course, it makes no difference.  Then his baby brother is born, and everybody kisses him.  When Grandma asks him to help his brother stop crying, Momo tries everything, but nothing works until he does the one thing he never thought he’d do.  Sweet, funny book about siblings, and a good one for kids with a new baby in the house.

SONGS:

Brush Your Teeth by Raffi  This is a favorite song of mine.  We all pulled out our finger toothbrushes and I asked the kids what flavor toothpaste they had.  I add in an extra verse that my son invented, “When you wake up in the morning at a quarter to six, and you feel like you’ve been beaten with sticks…”  (Which is exactly how I feel at a quarter to six, although I tend to go for coffee instead of toothpaste.)

B-I-N-G-O  I brought out my dog puppet for this one (he likes to lick the kids faces), and we barked the missing letters.

Silly Pizza Song by Rachel de Azevedo Coleman, from Signing Time volume 3 (Amazon.com link)  We did baby sign when my son was little, and the Signing Time videos were my favorite.  This is a fun song, where the kids get to suggest different toppings for their pizza.

INSTRUMENT PLAYALONG WITH A CD: Who’s That? by Laurie Berkner from her Under a Shady Tree album (Amazon.com link)

CRAFT: My Family Paper Dolls

Paper doll by Jonas (of himself)

Paper doll by Jonas (of himself)

I cut out blank paper dolls from the template provided on the Family Crafts About.com page.  The kids colored the dolls with crayons and glued on different colored pieces of yarn for the hair to make them look like members of their family.  Most of them only got one doll done (a lot of them made themselves or their moms), but they were all adorable.

OTHER BOOKS ABOUT FAMILY:

There were so many books I didn’t get to read at storytime.  Here are just a few:

The Family Book by Todd Parr (Amazon.com link)

I wish I had gotten to this one at the storytime.  It’s a celebration of every kind of family, with the message that every family is unique and special in their own way.  The illustrations are colorful and fun.

The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Stephen Gammell (Amazon.com link)

This book, with its colorful illustrations by Stephen Gammell, captures all the apprehension, chaos, and exuberance and love of a large family gathering.

Five Creatures by Emily Jenkins; illustrated by Tomek Bogacki (Amazon.com link)

A little girl who lives with her parents and two cats counts her family’s traits in a variety of ways.  There are four grownups, and one child; three with orange hair, and two with gray; three who don’t like taking baths; five who loves birds (but not in the same way); etc.  A unique counting book, and a fun way of exploring similarities and differences.

Families by Ann Morris (Amazon.com link)

Lovely book of photographs depicting all different types of families from around the world.

Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers; illustrated by Marla Frazee (Amazon.com link)

For baby lovers everywhere.  This book shows all the day to day experiences of babies of every kind of family and race.  Adorable.

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norman Juster; illustrated by Chris Raschka (Amazon.com link)

A little girl describes all the fun and adventures she has at her Nanny and Poppa’s house.  The story, by Phantom Tollbooth author Norman Juster, is rich with childlike details.  The colorful, abstract illustrations by Chris Raschka depict a happy, multiracial family.  A lovely celebration of grandparents.

Have any other favorite family stories?  Please share them in the comments.

Uke Can Play! Beginning Ukulele for Librarians, Teachers, Parents, and Kids

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There’s a reason I call myself The Loudest Librarian.  My storytimes tend to be a little loud.  One patron even took the time to fill out a comment card complaining, “that librarian’s storytimes could be heard in San Francisco!”  (San Francisco is only about 8 miles away, so that’s not as bad as it sounds).

It’s not so much the reading part that’s loud, although I do encourage the kids to participate as much as I can by having them make animal sounds or chime in on repeated words or phrases in the story.   It’s more that I do a lot of songs.  Often I open the storytime with Raffi’s Shake My Sillies Out, and when we get to the verse, “I’ve got to yawn my sleepies out,” I pretend to fall asleep, the kids yell, “Wake up!” and then I open my eyes in surprise and yell back.  Yes, that’s loud, but it never seems to get old.  For the kids anyway.   I can’t speak for the parents, or that lady at the computer on the other side of the library.

At the end of the storytime, before the craft, I always pull out a box of shakers, drums, and other instruments and we all play along with a song on the CD player.  It’s the kids’ favorite part, and I often get asked, “Is it instrument time yet?”

You might wonder what music and instruments have to do with storytime.  Admittedly, a big justification for me is that the songs sometimes help younger kids, especially toddlers who may have gone off exploring during the book, a chance to refocus and come back in to the group.  If it’s a song or rhyme with motions, like “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” it gives them a chance to move around.   It also gives them a chance to participate, rather than just being passive listeners.

Beyond those pragmatic reasons though, there’s a great deal of research that suggests that music improves reading skills.  Specifically, it helps children recognize and remember words and the sounds that words are made of (phonemes).  This literature review by Jonathan Boldoc from the University of Ottawa cites numerous studies demonstrating that children who participated in a music class where they learned songs and/or played instruments did significantly better on tests of pre-reading skills than children who did not receive the music instruction.  (There have been countless other studies on music education, citing benefits that include stronger language development, higher IQ, better spatial skills, and higher test scores.  Music instruction may even make kids nicer, more helpful, and better at solving problems.  All of which makes you wonder why music is often one of the first subjects to be cut from schools.)

If one of the primary goals of a library storytime is to help kids grow up to be better readers, it makes sense to include songs and rhymes.  Nursery rhymes are especially important.  In fact, Mem Fox, in her book, Reading Magic, states, “Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”  So even if you’re not comfortable singing, you can still have a tremendous impact by getting kids to clap along to Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake or Little Miss Muffet.

For years, I did all of the songs in my storytimes without an accompanying instrument.  I had taken guitar lessons years ago, but I never felt confident about my playing skills, and the guitar itself seemed too big and awkward to manage with all the books and puppets I was bringing to storytime (that said, my boss, Thom Ball, does a fantastic job performing storytimes with his guitar, so I know it can be done).

Then I discovered the ukulele.  The ukulele is small and light, and only has four strings.  The strings are nylon, so they don’t bite into your fingers like the steel strings on an acoustic guitar.  And it’s so easy to learn!  At least for playing simple children’s songs.  Most of the standards like The Wheels on the Bus, and The Itsy Bitsy Spider only require two or three chords.  You can even get by with one chord for Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques.  Ukuleles are also fairly inexpensive.  I got my first one for around $50 at a local music shop. (You don’t want to go too cheap though, or you’ll end up with one that constantly goes out of tune).

Admittedly, it took me a while to work up the nerve to bring my ukulele to storytime.  I was still struggling with chord changes, and I wasn’t sure how it would go over.  But, oh, it was worth it to see the kids’ faces when I brought it out.   They were so excited!   I let them take turns giving it a practice strum, and they were mesmerized.

I don’t even remember what song I played that first time, although it must have been one of the three chord songs, maybe The Alphabet Song or Twinkle Twinkle or Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (it’s embarrassing how many years it took me to realize those all have the same tune).  And yes, I made mistakes, but another nice thing about the ukulele is that it’s a fairly quiet instrument, and mistakes tend to be covered up by your voice, especially if the kids are singing too.

Plus the saving grace about playing for children is that they LOVE mistakes!   You can usually tell a new children’s performer (especially a magician), from one whose had a few years on the library and birthday party circuit.  The new magician may perform a fantastic show that moves seamlessly from one amazing trick to another.  The adults are astounded.  The kids are mildly intrigued.  An experienced children’s performer will spend ten minutes trying to blow up a balloon: stretching it and snapping himself on the hand, dropping it on the floor, letting it go before the end is tied up.  And the kids are howling with laughter.  Mistakes are their own magic. But I’m not even sure my mistakes were noticed.  Several parents came up afterwards to ask me how long I had been playing.  I was embarrassed.  “I only know three chords,” I said.  But it’s so rare for people to see a live music performance of any kind nowadays.  A little goes a long way.

Even today, with a few more chords under my belt, I don’t play my ukulele for every song, or even every storytime.  A lot of songs, like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, have motions that require me to have my hands free.  But I have a small repertoire of favorites I like to play: Old MacDonald, Twinkle Twinkle, When Ducks Get Up in the Morning, No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed (Asheba’s version) and my favorite, Elizabeth Mitchell’s version of Freight Train. Ever since I started playing at storytime, a number of parents and caregivers have told that they’ve gotten their own ukuleles, either for themselves or their kids.  So, even though I know I will never be Jake Shimabukaro or IZ, maybe one of my storytime kids will be.  But in the meantime, I’m having fun.

GETTING STARTED: YOUR FIRST SONG

There are so many videos and resources online that can teach you everything you need to know, step by step, much more clearly than I can.  For example, here’s a very basic video on how to tune your ukulele. The most important thing to learn is how to read chord charts, which are easily found online.  Here’s one from a website called Ukalady.com.   If you have an iPhone, there’s a great app called Guitar Toolkit, which has all the ukulele chords, and also includes a digital tuner and a metronome. Here’s a C chord on a chord chart, and here’s how it looks on the ukulele:

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Imagine that the top of the chart (where the C is) is the end of the fret board, where the tuning pegs are.  The four vertical lines represent the four strings.  The horizontal lines represent the frets, which separate the different notes on each string.  It’s a little confusing, because you have to mentally rotate the chord chart, and imagine it overlaid on the ukulele, with the right side of the chart representing the bottom string.

For the C chord, you’re going to put your finger on the bottom string at the third fret (luckily the third fret has a convenient white dot in the middle, which makes it easy to find).  In order to make chord changes easier, it’s better to use your ring or middle finger, which is going to feel strange at first, but you get used to it.  Then you use your right hand to strum all four strings just over the sound hole. There are lots of ways to strum.  You can curl your fingers loosely, and strum with the nail side of your index, middle, ring and pinkie fingers all together (keeping your hand loose).  Or you can strum with the nail side of your index finger only.  Or you can strum with the fleshy side of your thumb.  Find something that feels natural, and just practice strumming down across the strings, keeping an even rhythm.  

Once you get the hang of this, you are ready to play Row, Row, Row Your Boat.  Here’s what it sounds like:

There you go.  Just one chord.  And it’s a great song for almost any age group.  For babies, you can have them on their parent’s lap, with their parents moving their arms like oars.  For toddlers and older kids, I like to add these two verses: Rock, rock, rock your boat Gently to the shore. And if you see a lion, Don’t forget to roar! (ROAR!!!) Row, row, row your boat Gently down the stream, And if you see an alligator, Don’t forget to scream! (AAAAAAHHHHHH!!) If you want a real challenge for older kids, you can try teaching them how to sing it as a round.

So there you go.  Your first song, which is fun and easy, versatile, and yes, loud! Another one chord song is Are You Sleeping? or Frere Jacques.  For this one, I added an up-strum, by moving my fingers up the bottom strings briefly in between downstrokes.  Here’s what it sounds like:

If you add in one more chord, a G7, you can play The Wheels on the Bus.  Here’s the chord on the chord chart, and what it looks like on the ukulele:

    photo (56)                                                              photo (52)

It’s a little tricky at first to fit all your fingers on the fretboard, and even trickier to switch back and forth between the C and the G7.  It’s good to just practice alternating chords evenly (C   C   G7   G7  C   C  G7  G7) until you get the hang of it.  Then you’re ready for The Wheels on the Bus.  It goes like this:

C                       C                 C                C

The wheels on the bus go round and round

G7                    G7         C                     C

Round and round, round and round.

C                        C            C                    C

The wheels on the bus go round and round

G7             C

All over town.

And here’s what it sounds like:

The Wheels on the Bus is also a fun, versatile song.  You can make the wheels go really fast, or very s-l-o-w, or backwards.  You can have the kids suggest crazy things that might be on the bus: cats, ducks, cell phones, peacocks (but not elephants.  I’m no good at elephant noises).  My favorite is to sing, “The parents on the bus cry, ‘Waah!  Waah!  Waah!” then wait a few seconds for the kids to catch on.

Another two chord song I like with C and G7 is When Ducks Get Up in the Morning.  Here’s how it goes:

C                C                 C       C

When ducks get up in the morning

G7        G7                   C 

They always say, “Good day!”

C               C                C       C

When ducks get up in the morning

G7         G7                  C

They always say, “Good day!”

C            C            C            C

They say, “Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!”

G7          G7                 C

That is what they say.

C             C               C           C

They say, “Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!”

G7          G7               C

That is what they say.

You can have the kids suggest other animals.  One of my coworkers begins her toddler time with this song, at a library where there are lots of stuffed toys.  The kids are usually holding different animals, and those become the animals for the song.  She always ends with “When kids get up in the morning,” and asks the kids what they say.  (It’s usually, “I’m hungry!”)

Once you learn the basics of chord charts, you can play just about anything.  My favorite ukulele book is The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for Better Livin’ by Jim Beloff.  It’s a wonderful collection of songs, including a section of kids songs (Rainbow Connection!), but also songs by the Beatles, Irving Berlin, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, as well as lots of folk music and holiday classics.  The best part is that there’s a chord chart for every song, right at the top of the page.  I love to flip through and play a song at random, and I’ve learned a lot of chords that way.  There’s even a Leap Year edition, with 366 more songs, which is also great.

You can also find an impressive collection of songs with ukulele chord charts for free at DoctorUke.com. Another book I’m enjoying right now is Ukulele Exercises for Dummies.  The text assumes a fair amount of comfort with reading music, although there are audio files provided online to help you understand the exercises.  But it covers a wide range of ukulele skills like different types of strumming patterns, fingerpicking, playing percussively, finger rolls, slides, bends.   It’s fun to just go through a couple of exercises a day.

I hope this is helpful.  If you have any questions, please write them in the comments, and I’ll try my best to find an answer.  If you are a uke player and have suggestions or corrections, please write those in the comments too.  I can use all the help I can get! Happy playing!