The Great Outdoors! Stories about Adventure

Foam Shape Boat by Shelby

Foam Shape Boat by Shelby

Last week, Ella, one of my regular storytime patrons, asked if she could read a Bob book about Outdoor Adventures at storytime.  So I based last week’s Family Storytime on that theme.  Unfortunately, Ella wasn’t able to come, but I still had fun sharing outdoor adventure books.

louis

The Day Louis Got Eaten by John Fardell (Amazon.com link)

When Louis gets unexpectedly eaten by a Gulper, his sister, Sarah, sets out to rescue him.  Unfortunately, just as she gets close, the Gulper is eaten by a Grabular, who is eaten by an Undersnatch.  Sarah is undaunted.  Pursuing the creatures on a bike that magically transforms to suit the terrain, she saves the day with the help of a hiccup frog.  The whimsical illustrations in this book are always a hit.

gumpy

Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham (Amazon.com link)

Fun, simple story about a man whose boating outing is complicated by all the animals who want to come along.  The kids enjoyed joining in on the animal noises.  This one is also fun for kids to act out.

frogcooper

Frog by Susan Cooper; illustrated by Jane Browne (Amazon.com link)

Sweet story with beautiful illustrations.  When a frog gets trapped in their swimming pool, Little Joe, who can’t swim, watches as his family tries frantically to get it out.  But it is Little Joe who quietly comes to the rescue, and, inspired by Frog, finally learns to swim.

good

That’s Good!  That’s Bad!  by Margery Cuyler; illustrated by David Catrow (Amazon.com link)

While visiting the zoo with his parents, a little boy is carried off by a red balloon to a perilous adventure in the jungle.  Each page reveals a new part of the story followed by a refrain of “That’s good! No, that’s bad!” Or, “That’s bad! No, that’s good!” which the kids quickly learned to repeat.

SONGS:

I wish I had thought to do “Going on a Bear Hunt,” since that’s a kind of interactive adventure all its own.  Instead we sang:

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

I added in these two verses.  This song is super easy on the ukulele, since you can play the whole thing with just a C chord:

Row, row, row 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! AAAAAHHHH!

Five Green and Speckled Frogs

I have a rude toy frog that burps when you put your hand in its mouth.  I passed that around when I sang this song, but it’s just as fun to pretend your hand is the frog’s tongue, and pretend to catch flies on the kids’ heads.  Click on the triangle for the first verse:

Five green and speckled frogs
Sat on a speckled log.
Eating the most delicious bugs! Yum Yum!
One jumped into the pool,
Where it was nice and cool,
Now there are four green speckled frogs!

Four green and speckled frogs…etc.

Going to the Zoo

I do this one on the ukulele too.  Click on the triangle to hear the tune:

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow (C)
Zoo tomorrow, Zoo tomorrow. (G7)
Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow, (C)
And we can stay all day. (C  G7)

CHORUS:
We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!  (F)
How about you, you, you? (C)
You can come too, too, too! (G7)
We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo! (C G7 C)

See the elephants with the long trunk swinging,
Great big ears and a long trunk swinging.
Snuffing up peanuts with the long trunk swinging,
And we can stay all day!

CHORUS

See all the monkeys, they’re scritch, scritch, scratchin’.
Jumping all around and scritch, scritch, scratchin’.
Hanging by the long tails scritch, scritch, scratchin’,
And we can stay all day!

CHORUS

Well, we stayed all day, and I’m getting sleepy,
Sitting in the car getting sleep, sleep, sleepy.
Home already and I’m sleep, sleep, sleepy,
‘Cause we have stayed all day!

We’ve been to the zoo, zoo, zoo!
So have you, you, you!
You came too, too, too!
We’ve been to the zoo, zoo, zoo!

But Mommy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow
Zoo tomorrow, Zoo tomorrow.
Mommy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow,
And we can stay all day!

CHORUS

CRAFT: Foam Shape Boats

Foam Shape Boat by Kiley

Foam Shape Boat by Kiley

I got this simple craft idea from DLTK-kids.com: http://www.dltk-kids.com/crafts/transportation/mhalvesboat.html  I had some colored foam sheets that I used to cut the shapes out, but you could do it just as easily with construction paper or card stock.  I made a mix of colors for the kids to choose from, and gave them markers to decorate if they wanted.  They each made their boats a little differently.

OTHER BOOKS:

So many other books fit this theme.  Here are just a few:

Journey by Aaron Becker (Amazon.com link)

I don’t often “read” wordless books at storytime, but I have shared this one several times and the kids always love it.  A beautifully illustrated story about a lonely girl with a magic red crayon who draws her way into another world to find adventure and a new friend.  Reminiscent of Harold and the Purple Crayon, which would also fit the theme.

Fortunately by Remy Charlip (Amazon.com link)

An older book I love that reminds me of That’s Good! That’s Bad!  This one is about a boy who is trying to get to a surprise party.  Unfortunately, the party is in Florida and he is in New York.  Fortunately, he borrows a plane from a friend.  Unfortunately, the engine explodes.  Fortunately, he has a parachute.  You get the picture.

My Friend Bear by Jez Alborough (Amazon.com link)

The third book in the picture book series about Eddie, his teddy Freddy, and the big bear who lives in the woods.  They are all funny rhyming stories with large colorful illustrations, but this is the sweetest one, where the bear thinks his teddy bear can talk (because Eddie is hiding behind it), and Eddie and the bear end up becoming friends.

What are your favorite picture book adventure stories?

 

 

We Are in a Book: Storytime with Elephant and Piggie

puppets

Paper Bag Gerald and Piggie Puppets by Nina

A few weeks ago, one of my storytime Dads asked if his son could come with his Boy Scout troop for a tour of the library and to read books at storytime (it happened to be the night that one of the Kindergarten girls read a book to the group at the beginning of storytime, and inspired several other kids to want to do the same). We arranged for the troop to come to Family Storytime this week, and I pulled a bunch of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books for them to read.

Elephant and Piggie books are perfect for kids (or adults) to read in pairs, because the text is simple, and usually involves a conversation between the two main characters, Gerald (the elephant) and Piggie (sometimes other characters have a few lines too). The parts are color-coded, making it easy to figure out who is speaking. The stories and illustrations are hilarious, and entertain everyone from toddlers to adults. Plus the kids love looking for the pigeon from Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, who always shows up somewhere on the end pages at the back of the book.

We ended up with six Scouts, who read three books. I made simple pig and elephant noses out of paper and taped them onto the boys’ noses to indicate which part they were reading. In order to keep the rest of the kids engaged, I also made a few cue cards for some of the words or phrases that were repeated a lot in each book, so they could join in on those. The boys did a wonderful job reading, and didn’t seem to have any qualms about having an audience. Some of them even took on different voices for Elephant and Piggie. The hardest part was getting them to remember to hold up each page slowly for the audience to see, but then I’ve seen adults who struggle with that too. Here is what they read:

going

I Am Going! by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link) Gerald is horrified when Piggie says she is going, and begs her to stay, until he finds out she is only going to lunch. This book has a page where Gerald chants, “Why?” and I wrote that word on a cue card that I held up on that page so the other kids could join in.

party

I am Invited to a Party! by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

Piggie is excited to receive an invitation to her very first party. Gerald wonders what kind of party it is: a fancy party? A fancy pool party? A fancy costume pool party? They must come prepared! The cue card I made for this one was the word, “PARTY!” which both characters chant together throughout the book. The kids really liked that.

frogpig

I’m a Frog by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

Gerald is shocked when Piggie says that she is a frog, until she explains she is only pretending. I wrote the word “Ribbit!” on a cue card because Piggie says that throughout the book. There’s also a page where Gerald and Piggie get into an argument consisting solely of: “No I can’t!” and “Yes you can!” I made cue cards for those two phrases too, and the kids enjoyed chanting them back and forth. The adults liked the part where Gerald asks if even grown-ups pretend to be something they’re not, and Piggie says, “All the time,” with a knowing look.

sad

My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

I got to read this one myself, which I was happy about because it was the first Gerald and Piggie book I ever read, and it will always be one of my favorites. When Piggie sees that Gerald is sad, she tries to cheer him up by disguising herself as a cowboy, a clown, and a robot. But Gerald seems sadder than ever. For this one, I made a cue card for Gerald’s repeated, “Ohhh…’s”

SONGS:

Elephants Have Wrinkles

After each verse of this song, I ask the kids where else elephants have wrinkles and we add in a new body part, while singing the song faster and faster. This time the kids suggested teeth (we clicked our teeth together), feet (we stomped our feet), and faces (we patted our cheeks). Click on the triangle for the tune:

Elephants have (pat legs on each syllable)
Wrinkles, Wrinkles, Wrinkles (clap hands on each syllable)
Elephants have (pat legs on each syllable)
Wrinkles (clap hands on each syllable)
Everywhere! (stomp feet on each syllable)
On their nose! Oh-oh! (touch your nose, and mime a trunk)

Repeat

Elephants have wrinkles…

On their legs! On their nose! Oh-oh!

I Bought Me a Rooster

We have a variety of stuffed animals in the children’s area, so I passed those out, and we sang a verse of the song about each one. I play it on the ukulele in C.

C
I bought me a rooster and the rooster pleased me
C G7
I fed my rooster on the bayberry tree
C F
My little rooster goes, “Cock-a-doodle doo!
C F G7 C
Dee Doodle, Dee Doodle, Dee Doodle, Dee Doo!”

No No No No No! I think this song is also called The Argument. It’s basically the tune to Reverie, but you sing, “No, no, no, no, no” all the way through the first half, while shaking your head, then “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” for the second half while nodding. If you have an older group, you can divide them up and have them sing both parts at the same time.

INSTRUMENT PLAYALONG WITH A CD: Old MacDonald Had a Farm by Rufus Thomas, from Sing Along with Putumayo.

CRAFT: Gerald and Piggie Paper Bag Puppets

Gerald Paper Bag Puppet by Chloe

Gerald Paper Bag Puppet by Chloe

Piggie Paper Bag Puppet by Chloe

Piggie Paper Bag Puppet by Chloe

I got this idea and the templates from Three Little Birds: http://threelittlebirdsnorth.blogspot.com/2012/04/elephant-and-piggie-party.html. I copied and pasted the picture of their template into a blank Word file, then printed it out, and made copies. The Gerald one worked out well just on white paper, because it ended up looking gray in the copies. For Piggie, I copied it onto pink paper. I did all the cutting ahead of time, so the kids just had to glue the pieces onto paper bags.

OTHER BOOKS BY MO WILLEMS: Okay, so I have a huge librarian crush on Mo Willems. He’s definitely one of my favorite children’s authors, and although he has an astounding number of books, they are all perfect for storytime. Here are some of my other favorites:

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

Before Trixie has learned to talk, she goes with her Dad to the laundromat along with her beloved stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny. But on the way home, she realizes that Knuffle Bunny is missing. She tries everything she can to tell her Dad, but he just doesn’t understand. Of course, as soon as Trixie’s mom opens the door, she says, “Where’s Knuffle Bunny?” The whole family races back to the laundromat to look. A book that resonates with both kids and parents. I love Trixie’s attempts to communicate, including going boneless (a phenomenon familiar to anyone with a toddler). The illustrations are equally hilarious. Followed by two sequels: Knuffle Bunny Too and Knuffle Bunny Free (this one makes me cry).

City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems; illustrated by Jon J. Muth (Amazon.com link)

A departure from Willems’ usual funny, cartoonish style, featuring paintings by Jon J. Muth. When a city dog visits the country, he meets a frog who teaches him to play frog games. The two have a wonderful time throughout City Dog’s visits in Spring and Summer. By Autumn Country Frog has grown tired, and in Winter, when City Dog comes, he can’t find his friend, but ends up making a new one. A lovely and bittersweet story about the seasons and friendship.

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs as Retold by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

Hilariously dark take on Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In this one, three dinosaurs prepare bowls of chocolate pudding at varying temperatures and go…uh…someplace else, where they are definitely not lying in wait for brazen little girls. The kids love to spot the Pigeon hidden in the cookie jar, and the rejected title ideas on the back, including Goldilocks and the Three Major Networks, Goldilocks and the Three-Foot-Long Hoagies and more.

Cat the Cat, Who is That? by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

Very simple easy reader that introduces Cat the Cat and her friends Fish the Fish, Duck the Duck, Mouse the Mouse. But then she meets someone entirely new: a strange creature who says, “Blargie! Blargie!” This is a fun read-aloud for toddlers, and a great book for beginning readers. Followed by several sequels.

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog by Mo Willems (Amazon.com link)

I like the Pigeon, but I love the clever, manipulative Duckling even more. Pigeon is excited to find a hot dog, until a wistful Duckling who claims to have never tried a hot dog asks him to share. There are lots of great Pigeon books, and a fun iPhone/iPad app as well, which allows kids to create their own Pigeon story and learn how to draw the Pigeon (both my kids love it).

What are your favorite Mo Willems books?

 

 

Oh, the Places We’ll Go! A Celebration of Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss’ Birthday (his 110th, if he were still with us) was on March 2, so a Dr. Seuss storytime was definitely in order for this week.  It’s not as easy as it might sound, because most of his books are too long for the baby/toddler crowd.   But a number of his easy reader books still fit the bill for my Family Storytime.

I’m still in awe of Dr. Seuss.  I don’t think anyone’s ever quite matched his genius for telling compelling stories in memorable rhymed verse using simple language, all with unforgettable characters and artwork.   As a kid, I think I owned only three of his books: The Eye Book; Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose (which is admittedly a bit dark, but I was obsessed with it); and The Cat and the Hat Comes Back.  (Although oddly, not The Cat in the Hat).  I read them each countless times.  The Eye Book was actually the very first book I remember reading on my own.  (It’s also the first book I remember reading that mentioned pink underpants!)

For Family Storytime, I had pulled a wide selection of Seuss books.  I was hoping to get to The Cat and the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham, but the storytime audience that night was large, with a number of younger, wiggly guys, so I stuck to the shorter ones (although oddly, a number of these are not actually illustrated by Dr. Seuss).  The kids loved them all.

I started out the storytime by asking the kids if they knew what Dr. Seuss’ real name was.  Most of them didn’t know, or had forgotten, that it was Theodor Seuss Geisel.  I also like to point out that a lot of his books, especially the beginning readers, were written under the pseudonym Theo LeSeig (in many libraries, these are often shelved under L instead of S, which can make them hard for kids to find).

wacky

Wacky Wednesday by Theo. LeSeig; illustrated by George Booth (Amazon.com link)

This one actually ended up being a bit tricky, because the kids kept popping up and down in front of me in their eagerness to point to the wacky things happening on each page.  Finally, I stood up so they could all see.  In spite of that, they were all mesmerized.  My daughter loves this book, and laughs at every wacky illustration.

octember

Please Try to Remember the First of Octember by Theo. LeSieg; illustrated by Art Cumings (Amazon.com link)

I actually wasn’t familiar with this one until I helped someone find it on the shelf last week.  What a great book!  The narrator promises a boy that he can have absolutely anything he wants…on the first of Octember.  I love that it’s kind of a wish fulfillment book, with money falling from the sky, skateboard TVs, swimming books, giant hammocks, and other fantasies from the mind of Dr. Seuss.  It would make a great lead-in to a drawing/writing assignment for elementary school students: what you ask for on the first of Octember?

eye

The Eye Book by Theo. LeSieg; illustrated by Joe Mathieu (Amazon.com link)

As I mentioned above, this was the first book I remember reading on my own, and I’m pretty sure I can recite the whole thing from memory.  I still consider it one of the best books for beginning readers.  The text is simple, with repeated phrases (“They see a _____,” “They look at ______”).  The rhymes and illustrations help kids decipher the new words.  It’s also a great book for a classroom unit or storytime about the five senses.

foot

The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com link)

A great book for teaching left and right.  I actually had the kids stand up and act it out: standing on their left or right foot, holding their feet up, etc.   It was also the shortest of the books I read, and was the perfect one to end with.  I paired it with The Hokey Pokey the next day for a Toddler Storytime, and it was a hit there as well.

SONGS:

I did several active songs like Shake My Sillies Out and Five Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, to give the little guys a chance to move around.  Then I had the kids grab stuffed animals to dance with for Waltzing with Bears.  This song was written by Dale Marven (not Seamus Kennedy, as I had written originally.  Thanks for Mike for the correction), but based on a song from Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat Songbook called My Uncle Terwilliger Waltzes With Bears.  Here are the lyrics as I remember them, along with the uke chords I used.  Click on the triangle to hear the first verse and chorus:

Waltzing with Bears

G                                               C                          G
My uncle Walter goes waltzing with bears.
D            G
It’s a most unbearable state of affairs.
G                                                                C                          G
Every Saturday night, he creeps down the backstairs,
G             C                  G                                D                     G
Sneaks out of the house and goes waltzing with bears!

CHORUS
G                                             C                        G
He goes wa-wa-wa-wa, waltzing with bears,
D                                                     G
Raggy bears, shaggy bears, baggy bears too.
G                                                             C                         G
There’s nothing on earth Uncle Walter won’t do,
G    C                G                C                    G
So he can go waltzing, wa-wa-wa-waltzing,
G   C                  G                D                       G
So he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears!

I went to his room in the middle of the night.
I tiptoed inside and turned on the light.
But to my surprise there was no one in sight.
I’m sure Uncle Walter goes waltzing at night!

CHORUS

I gave Uncle Walter a new coat to wear,
But when he came home he was covered with hair,
And lately I’ve noticed there’s several new tears,
I’m sure Uncle Walter goes waltzing with bears!

CHORUS

We asked Uncle Walter, “Why won’t you be good?
And do all the things that we say you should?
We know that you’d rather be out in the wood,
We’re afraid that we’ll lose you, lose you for good!”

CHORUS

We begged and we pleaded, “€œOh please won’t you stay!”
And managed to keep him at home for a day,
But the bears all barged in, and they took him away!
Now he’s waltzing with pandas, and he can’t understand us,
And the bears all demand at least one dance a day!

CHORUS

CRAFT: Cat in the Hat Fruit Kebabs

photo (81)

There are a number of variations of this snack ideas online, including some that use grapes, marshmallows or bananas to make the head of the cat.  For mine, I printed this picture from PBSkids.org, then cut out the cat, cutting off his hat.  I taped the picture onto wooden chopsticks for the kids, then gave them bowls of bananas and strawberries to make the hat.  They didn’t last long!  This would be a fun and healthy patterning activity too.

OTHER BOOKS BY DR. SEUSS

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Jeanine Asche

Talk about a reading challenge: this book is full of tongue-twisters that get harder and crazier with each page!

Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Lindsey Tear

Between this book and Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, I get the impression that Dr. Seuss had trouble with unwanted houseguests.  This is a fun one to read aloud.  Lindsey, who recommended it, also mentioned this interesting fact from Wikipedia: “In a July 1974 collaboration with political humorist Art Buchwald, Dr. Seuss took a two-year-old copy of his book, crossed out ‘Marvin K. Mooney’ wherever it occurred and wrote in ‘Richard M. Nixon’. With Dr. Seuss’s consent, Buchwald and his editors reprinted the markup as a newspaper column, published July 30, 1974. Beset by Watergate, U.S. President Nixon resigned ten days later on August 9.”

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Linda Anderson

My son used to demand to hear this one every night for what felt like weeks!  It’s a wild ride through all manner of wacky Dr. Seuss inventions: Yinks and Yops and Zans and Gox and lots and lots of fish.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Linda Anderson and Michelle Rosoff

I still have the copy of this my parents gave me when I graduated high school.   A great read for any age, describing all the ups and downs, frustrations and hopes of growing up.

What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Ria Tajbl

I know this story from the Seuss collection called The Sneetches and Other Stories.  I didn’t realize it had since been published as a separate picture book with glow-in-the-dark ink.  It’s a fun, slightly spooky story about pale green pants “with nobody inside them!”  A good read-aloud for a storytime about emotions and fear.

I Can Lick 30 Tigers Today! and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com link) Recommended by Michael Lambert

I admit I don’t think I’ve ever read this one, but I will have to check it out!  A bold, little version of The Cat in the Hat brags that he can beat 30 tigers, but then reconsiders until the number gets smaller and smaller.  Michael Lambert, who recommended this one, also mentioned that one of the other stories in this collection, King Louie Katz, is a great one for storytime.

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Maria Kurland

Another childhood classic about a wonderful, naughty character.  As a kid, I always wished the Cat in the Hat would pop by my house for a visit, in spite of all the trouble he caused.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla-Sollew by Dr. Seuss (Amazon.com linkRecommended by Thomas Moore

My parents are always telling me “there is no Utopia,” and this book is proof.  When the hero of this book stubs his toe, he decides to move to “the City of Solla Sollew, on the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo, where they never have troubles! At least, very few.”  Until he gets there, and realizes every place has its problems.

What is your favorite Dr. Seuss book and why?

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

photo (59)

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:

photo (54)                                                                   photo (55)

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!