The Giving Tree

I’ve written a few songs inspired by children’s books, mostly because it helps me understand my feelings about them, and why certain books have stuck with me. For years I’ve wanted to write one based on Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, but I never found a melody I liked until now.

As a kid, I was mildly obsessed with The Giving Tree, probably because on some level it disturbed me. On the surface, it’s a simple love story about a boy and a tree. Except, as with many of Silverstein’s poems and books, he takes the premise to a grotesque extreme, until the tree is left a limbless stump, and the boy a stooped and desolate old man.

I’ve heard the book described as a Christian parable, an allegory about parenthood, a metaphor about environmental devastation, and a commentary on society’s expectations of women. I can see arguments for all of these possibilities, but what did Silverstein intend for it to be? Is the tree supposed to be a role model? If so, she seems to get the bad end of the deal. Is it a cautionary tale about giving too much? Or taking too much? Or is it just a bittersweet story about unconditional love?

In any case, reflecting on the book as an adult, I wanted to give a voice to the tree. I ended up making her bitter but also empowered.

I am the Giving Tree,
I once loved a boy
Who said he loved me.

I gave him my leaves
To make him a crown.
I lifted him up,
But he just cut me down.

Is this really love,
And is this really living?
His constantly taking,
My constant forgiving.

He took the best of me,
For his wants and his needs,
And his restless misery.

And then he abandoned me
With nothing but dreams
Of what I used to be.

Is this really love
And is this really living?
His constantly taking,
My constant forgiving.

Waiting silent in the snow,
With a tiny seed
Of hope I can regrow.

And that new life will come again,
This time for me
Not for some old broken man.

I will be all I can.
I won’t twist my life
Into someone else’s plan.
Because this isn’t love
And this isn’t living,
And I can be loving
Without always giving,
And I can be faithful
While still being free
And I am forgiving me.
And I can be faithful
While still being free

And I am forgiving me.

What is your take on The Giving Tree? How would you give voice to those characters? And what books troubled you as a child? Please reply in the comments.

A Song for Calvin and Hobbes

The Hobbes I made for one of my kids years ago. It’s based on this Instructables pattern, which is pretty easy to follow.

I’ve written other posts about how grateful I am for comic books, which motivated both of my own kids to start reading on their own. Since then, graphic novels, the extended version of comic books, have really taken off. We have whole sections of the library dedicated to them, both fiction and nonfiction, and geared for every age group. My daughter’s own bookshelf is overflowing with the rebooted Babysitter’s Club series, and books by Raina Telgemeier and Svetlana Chmakova. And lately my husband has been reading the science fiction graphic novel series Aldebaran in French, as a fun way to learn new French vocabulary. (The ESL book club I co-lead is planning to read a graphic novel soon for the same reason. It’s a great way to learn common idioms and spoken language, without a lot of overwhelming descriptive text).

But in addition to graphic novels, we have an enormous collection of comic strip books, including Garfield, Fox Trot, and Baby Blues. These are books that my kids both pored over as they learned to read, and still can’t bear to part with. My tween still happily brings them along for car rides, and laughs just as hard at them as she did when she was 8 or 9. Among them are most of the Calvin and Hobbes books, which my husband and I bought for ourselves as adults, and which we love every bit as much as our kids do.

There’s something so timeless and universal about Calvin and Hobbes. It’s humbling to read the strips as an adult (and especially as a parent), because Bill Watterson shines such a painfully bright light on how dull the world of grown-ups can be, compared to the limitless and ever-questioning world of childhood, with all of its many terrors, injustices, and adventures.

So I wrote this song in honor of Calvin and Hobbes. I hope you enjoy it.

Me and the Tiger

We pack every day,

With questions and battles,

Adventures and play.





And all of of the grown-ups

They can’t understand,

That life’s so much more

Than the routines they’ve planned.



They just see a toy

And they think it’s pretend.

They don’t know the magic

You find with a friend.





But me and the Tiger

We make our own rules,

Our world’s more than homework,

And bedtime, and schools.


And when we don’t like things,

We simply defy them,

Or build new inventions

To transmogrify them.


My Mom and Dad think

That it’s all in my head,

They can’t see the monster

That’s under my bed.


But I will sleep soundly,

My best friend beside me,

To laugh with, and argue,

And comfort, and guide me


Through all the adventures

And wonders we’ll see,

When a new day arrives

For my Tiger and me.


What books do you and your family treasure? Please let me know in the comments.

Uke Can Play (Virtually)

Musician Julie Stepanek, who offers a variety of ukulele programs online

One of the many casualties of the pandemic was my drop-in ukulele class for adults, which I held on the first Monday evening of each month at the Sanchez Library. We had a small, but dedicated group of regulars, who were always welcoming of newcomers, even though it meant going back to playing the one and two chord songs they had played so many times before. I always looked forward to seeing and playing with them, and I thought about them a lot during the early days of the shut-down. Our library system was still in the process of figuring out how to offer virtual programs, with storytimes being the first priority, but I wished there were a way to offer a virtual ukulele class.

So I was thrilled to see a Facebook post from the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts (the place where I had my first library job) about a virtual ukulele play-along. I tried it out, and was immediately hooked.

The instructor, Julie Stepanek, led the play-along over Zoom, with Powerpoint slides that clearly displayed the song lyrics and chord charts for each song. Since playing or singing in sync over Zoom is difficult, all of the participants were muted. The beauty of this was that you really felt like you were playing with a group, and you were, but nobody could hear any mistakes that you or anyone else were making. You could even turn off your video. It was a wonderful way to make music with people, with absolutely no pressure, and I learned so many new songs that soon became favorites. Even now, when I hear those songs, they instantly bring me back to those eerie early days of the pandemic, and how it felt to be isolated with my family in my own house, while sharing this musical experience with people on the other side of the country.

At the time, Julie was actually offering free play-alongs every day of the week, and twice on Sundays, and I started tuning in whenever I could. I emailed all of the regulars from my own ukulele group, and soon there they were on the Zoom with me. It was funny to be connected with them online via a program from Massachusetts, when we were all just miles away from each other in our houses in Pacifica, California, but it was so great to see and play with them again. As our libraries reopened for curbside pick-up and other services, I could only attend occasionally, but whenever I did, my regulars were still there, having a great time.

We recently booked Julie for a series of ukulele workshops for the San Mateo County Library system, and she has done a wonderful job of guiding our participants through all of the basics of playing: tuning, reading a chord chart, understanding tablature, basic chord progressions, and standard strumming patterns. Patrons can borrow ukuleles from our libraries so it was natural fit for our library system, and the response has been very enthusiastic. One participant wrote “Great opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and even better to be able to borrow one too! Fantastic.”

I don’t usually write plugs for performers, but I wanted to write a post about this program because I had never considered the benefits of teaching ukulele (or any other instrument) over Zoom. It really makes a lot of sense. One of the greatest hesitations many people have about taking music lessons (especially in a group setting), is having to perform or sing in front of others, but this format takes all of that stress away. Even a virtual play-along, like the ones that Julie still offers weekly out of libraries in Massachusetts and Connecticut, allows new players to learn at their own pace. They might start out only playing the C chords, and then add in others as they get more used to them, but they still get the thrill of playing and singing with a group, which is addictive!

If you’d like to check out one of Julie’s classes, either to learn ukulele yourself, attend a play-along, get an idea of how to lead music lessons online, or book her for a program, you can visit her web site at: https://calamine.com/ukulele She also has a YouTube video of Absolute Basics for ukulele, and some other tutorials.

Have you attended or hosted any virtual programs this past year that you thought were especially impactful? Please share them in the comments below.

Library Lessons from the Pandemic

Two staff members from the San Carlos Library demonstrating social distancing with book carts.

Yesterday, as I sat on the floor of our empty library, stuffing handfuls of pom-poms into paper bags to go out on our curbside table for Art Break Day, I found myself thinking back to the events of a year ago, when I first became aware that “the virus” was about to have a serious impact on my life, and my job.

At the time, we were just starting to cancel library programs with large audiences, like storytimes, along with visits to schools and preschools. Since those made up most of my job, that was already a shocking change, but then the whole world (or at least the whole Bay Area) shut down on March 13, and my whole profession was transformed almost overnight.

What is a Librarian Without a Library?

Although popular culture has librarians armed with angry shushing fingers, forever stationed at large wooden desks guarding giant rooms of books, for years the bulk of my job has taken place outside of the library building. Before the pandemic, I was visiting 11 to 12 preschool classes a month, to perform storytimes for kids who couldn’t ordinarily come to the ones at the branch. I also led book clubs at several different middle schools, and played and sang songs at a rehabilitation center for seniors, where one of my coworkers regularly brought books and movies for patients. My coworkers all performed similar outreach services, bringing library materials to our local Senior Center, leading science classes after school at the Boys and Girls club, and leading book clubs at the County juvenile hall. So having our library buildings closed due to the new health order was not as jarring as you might think.

What was jarring was not having books. Not physical ones anyway. While we had several wonderful e-book collections, including Overdrive, Axis 360, and Hoopla, a lot of our patrons had never used them. The library staff from all 12 of our branches were reorganized into different types of services, including live tech help (one-on-one appointments offered over Zoom), email reference, text reference, and a Customer Care line that operated like a call center, but over Zoom phone. The volume of calls, texts, and emails from all over the county was overwhelming at first, and the vast majority of questions were about how to access e-books, and e-audiobooks. This was especially challenging, given that there might be an issue with their library account (expired card, forgotten PIN), the particular e-book database (Overdrive, Hoopla, etc.), their device (smartphone, iPad, Kindle, PC), or their Internet.

For the first time, I had to learn how to use e-books for storytime, and how to read them on Zoom, which was another new challenge. But we quickly discovered that physical books did not show up as well on the camera as reading an e-book on Share Screen (one mom actually said that it was the first time her son had ever really been able to see the pictures in a book at storytime, since usually the kids sit several feet away). The problem was that searching through e-book collections for picture books is a whole lot slower than flipping through a stack of physical books. Plus, with everyone suddenly relying on our databases, it was also hard to find e-books that weren’t already checked out. I quickly came to love Hoopla, for the simple reason that everything on it is always available.

What is a Librarian Without Library Patrons?

What was even more jarring than not having books was not seeing people. Although books were what first drew me into my first library job in college, what has kept me in libraries are the human connections: talking to patrons about new books they enjoyed; helping people apply for jobs online; seeing parents who met at storytime sharing advice and tips on local preschools with other families; watching middle schoolers patiently teaching second graders how to play Super Smash Bros. at our Afterschool Hangout; singing with adults in our Ukulele Play-Alongs; hearing the kids at the preschools I visited yell “the libarium is here!” All of that was suddenly gone.

Helping with the new reference services helped some, especially talking to people on the Zoom phone, where sometimes I’d even take a call from one of our regulars. For the first time, I also got to know and (virtually) work with staff from all of the libraries in our system, which are scattered over a very large area. But pre-recording storytimes (which we relied on until we found ways to offer interactive programs for kids that didn’t violate COPPA rules) was depressing. I even started asking local families on Facebook if anyone wanted a shout-out for their kids in the video, just so I could feel like I was talking to actual kids instead of just my bedroom wall. (An unexpected plus was that over the summer my daughter started helping me with storytimes and other video programs, and we both had a wonderful time).

Once we did work out the legalities and technical challenges of offering virtual programs, they became an unexpected joy. Although I still miss my in-person storytimes and preschool visits, and can’t wait to get back to doing those, it’s been fun to have the chance to interact with kids in their own homes, where they delight in showing off their favorite toys or their pets. And I love my two virtual book clubs, which allow me to “meet” people from all over the Bay Area, and even outside of our county. Several of the adults in the ESL Book Club have said that they hope these types of programs continue, since several of them have young children or other commitments that make it hard to attend library programs in person. Many of them also regularly attend our weekly English Conversation Clubs, giving them the chance to practice their English and meet other people in a very low-pressure environment. In addition, our library system has been able to offer webinars featuring authors and illustrators we never could have afforded to bring to our libraries in person, and to open their presentations to audiences of 1,000 people (well beyond the capacity of any of our buildings).

The ability to offer interactive programs remotely also allows us to provide short, personalized experiences, like mock job interviews, personalized resume assistance, and personalized tech help, valuable experiences that people can easy fit into their schedules because they don’t have to leave home. We can also offer programs outside of our normal operating hours, like the High Low Movie Club, an 8pm program where patrons could watch either a “high brow” or “low brow” movie together online and share their thoughts. It’s been amazing to see all of the different experiences my coworkers from across our library system have used this new format to bring entertainment, interaction, and valuable life skills to our patrons.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Among the many disparities brought to light by the pandemic, the one that I felt most acutely in terms of my job was the tremendous gap in what services were available to people with high-speed Internet and computer access versus those without. For years, our libraries had been circulating laptop combos and Internet hotspots, which people could check out for a week at a time on a first-come, first-serve basis. But the public computers and laptops in our libraries buildings were still in constant demand, and many of our patrons relied on them for all of the services the world now expects you to access via the Internet. That includes job applications, forms to apply for government benefits, and even applications for low-income housing! Knowing we had only a limited supply of laptop combos and hotspots, our library administration decided to give the ones we had to local agencies who could hopefully get them into the hands of the families who needed them most, especially students.

But I still worried about our regular Internet patrons, who were now completely cut off. We tried to direct them to services offering Internet access at a reduced cost, but most of them had strict guidelines about who was eligible. In the meantime, with our buildings closed, and all of our services being announced online, we had no way of even communicating with many of our patrons to let them know when we started offering walk-up service, where they could ask for books and DVDs at the library door, or about the free lunches and snacks provided for low-income families at one of our libraries. Now, with most people relying on the Internet to find and schedule appointments to get the vaccine, it’s even clearer how much of an impact the digital divide can have on a person’s health.

The Future of Libraries

As our libraries prepare to reopen in person (possibly sometime in April), I can’t help but wonder what impact the past year will have on our services going forward. I hope that we can continue offering virtual programs, for people who aren’t able to come to the library in person, and to provide opportunities to “meet” authors and other presenters from around the world. But I also hope that eventually people who can visit our buildings will come back to rediscover the human connections and sense of community that I still miss from before the pandemic. And I hope our libraries can find new ways to help bridge the digital divide, both by offering more opportunities to borrow computers and hotspots, along with services to help them learn how to use them, but also by finding new and creative ways to reach people who may not know about our services, and bringing the library to them.

What have you learned from the past year, and what changes, if any, do you hope will continue? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Virtual Book Clubs (For Kids, and Adult ESL Learners)

This past year has brought unimaginable changes to almost every aspect of my job, especially library programs. Although the interactive virtual storytimes over Zoom at least allow me to see and hear the kids I’m reading to, it’s definitely not the same as being in the same room with them. I also miss my Family Book Club, comprised of a small group of kids in grades 3-5, along with their parents. We would meet once a month to discuss a book, while eating a snack related whatever we were reading (carrots for Anne of Green Gables, Lemon Jello for Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, etc).

But the switch to virtual programming has had a few bright spots. Lately, I’ve been working with another librarian on a virtual book club for kids in grades 3-5, and one wonderful feature of that is that I get to discuss books with kids from all over the county. I also was asked to help lead an ESL (English as a Second Language) book club for adults, and that has been an entirely new, but extremely rewarding adventure. Here’s a brief overview of both of those programs.

VIRTUAL BOOK CLUB FOR KIDS

As I mentioned above, the book club I’m involved in is for kids in grades 3-5. We meet once a month over Zoom to discuss a particular book.

Most of the books we are using are available on Hoopla (https://www.hoopladigital.com). I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never actually used Hoopla before the pandemic, and now it is my favorite library e-resource. The beauty of it is that, unlike our other e-book collections, everything is always available for checkout, so you don’t have to worry about not having enough copies. It’s also wonderfully easy to use, and offers a broad range of titles, including a large selection of graphic novels.

For our first book club meeting, we discussed From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, a novel about a 12 year-old girl who receives a letter from her father in prison, and learns that he might be innocent. It’s a remarkable book that deftly touches on racial bias in the criminal justice system, but also highlights the efforts of the Innocence Project, offering hope for positive change. Although Zoe’s quest to discover the truth about her father’s conviction is the main focus of the book, Zoe herself is a relatable, multi-faceted character, who is trying to invent a recipe to audition for a kids’ baking show, navigate changing middle school friendships, and develop a relationship with the father she never knew. Our book discussion touched on all of these topics, although the kids’ favorite question was coming up with their own original cupcake recipe (one mom emailed me to say that her son had been reluctant to participate in the first meeting, but not only did he love the book, he was also inspired to bake his own cupcakes).

One beauty of meeting online is that it’s so easy to share other types of media, including an interview with the author, the Innocence Project web site, videos of the many songs referenced in the story, and a recipe for Froot Loop cupcakes. There are a lot of great resources on the author’s web site: http://www.janaemarks.com/, including discussion questions. And meeting over Zoom also gives shyer kids a chance to share their thoughts in the chat (although we ended up changing the chat settings so that all of their comments go only to me, which cut down on some of the chat hijinks).

Other books we are reading are The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, and Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan.

It’s been exciting to discuss books with a whole new group of kids, and to hear about the books they are currently enjoying. If you have any questions about running a virtual book club, or any book recommendations, please let me know in the comments.

ESL BOOK CLUB FOR ADULTS

I have to admit, when I was asked to help with this program, I was a little intimidated, having no idea what to expect. The program had sprung out of an English Conversation Club that our library system had been offering for several months, and a lot of the initial planning was done by library staff who had been reassigned to other projects (part of the ever-changing landscape of this past year).

Unlike a regular book club, where you lead a discussion of a book everyone has read in advance, ESL Book Clubs usually involve reading the book aloud together. Choosing a book for this type of group is especially challenging. Luckily, one of my coworkers had come up with three “Rapid Reads” titles on Hoopla for our participants to vote on at our first meeting. They ended up choosing the book Tiny House, Big Fix by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, a short novel about a single mother facing eviction from her rental house, who decides to build a tiny house of her own.

We originally intended to meet every other week to see how things went, but have since moved to weekly meetings. So far, we usually have a small group (around 6 participants), which we divide into breakout rooms so everyone has more chances to read aloud. Our participants are all fairly fluent English speakers, who can follow the basic plot of the book without difficulty, but we stop after each page to discuss any questions about vocabulary or idioms. It’s often challenging to explain words and phrases on the spot, but I love these discussions, because they really bring home the craziness of the English language. In our first meeting, there were a number of questions about contractions, like I’d and we’d, and I ended up explaining that the words I’ll, isle, and aisle all mean completely different things, even though they sound exactly the same.

As with the kids’ book club, we have been using books available on Hoopla, which are easy to share on the screen during the meetings. Hoopla also allows you to adjust the size and style of the font, which makes it great for older readers, and also to click on individual words to see the definition.

After we finished the first book (Tiny House, Big Fix), I was hard-pressed to find something that would work as well for our group. I looked through lots of collections of short stories and essays, but the writing was usually too challenging. I did suggest the book War Dances by Sherman Alexie, a collection of short stories and poems, along with the children’s novel in verse, Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai, and a Rapid Reads mystery called The Spider Bites by Medora Style. In the end though, the group voted to read another book by Gail Anderson-Dargatz called No Return Address, which one of the members raved about. We also had a member request that we read news articles, so I’m hoping to figure out a way to incorporate those into our meetings as well.

I actually wrote to Gail Dargatz-Anderson to let her know how much my group is enjoying her books. I told her that her novels were the perfect blend of a relatable story with a clear, readable text, and just enough common colloquialisms and modern lingo to challenge our participants and help them pick up new conversational phrases. She was grateful for the feedback, especially because books like Tiny House, Big Fix are part of a recent initiative in Canada to provide books for adult literacy learners that look and read like commercial bestsellers. She said they are a challenge to write, and I can see why!

Anyway, although I was nervous about taking on the responsibility of running the ESL Book Club, it’s one of my new favorite parts of my job. I am so impressed by the participants, who are already so much more fluent in English than I will ever be in another language, and who are brave enough to jump in and read aloud with strangers once a week, asking questions about the words they don’t know. It’s been humbling and inspiring, and I’ve learned a lot.

If you have any questions about running an ESL Book Club, or any tips or experiences you would like to share, I would love to read about them in the comments.

Shhh! Librarian Secrets

Our jobs are not as quiet as you think…

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Last week, I was asked to represent the library at a local middle school career fair. I was excited to have an opportunity to talk about my job, which people tend to have a lot of misconceptions about. In typical librarian fashion, I even made a handout.

The problem was the kids didn’t even come to my table, except for the few who hoped to score a free pen. It didn’t help that I was right in front of two police officers and a mother-daughter auto mechanic team. Yeah, I wouldn’t have chosen my table either.

Since I didn’t get to answer any questions at the career fair, here are some I wish I had been asked:

Do you read books all day? I wish. Seriously. Other than picture books, which I read constantly to prepare for storytimes, and middle grade books, which I have to read for the three book clubs I run, the only time I get to read for myself is at 3am when I have insomnia. So, while I do sometimes read books all night, I don’t get to sit at a quiet desk and read books by the hour, while shushing anyone who happens to speak above a whisper.

Do you shush people? Never! Actually, that’s not entirely true. When I do storytimes, I sometimes ask the kids to “make the sound of a waterfall.” But technically, they are shushing themselves.

What DO you do all day, since you’re not reading or shushing people? Ever so many things. This week, I have: read to three classes of second and third graders; taught a drop-in ukulele class for adults (in the library!); performed storytimes at three preschools and an infant daycare; led two book club meetings (one for middle schoolers, and one for parents and kids); taught a parenting class on the importance of talking, reading, and singing with your baby; and led two library storytimes (one for babies, and one for all ages). And it’s only Wednesday. When I am at the desk, I am mostly planning storytimes, in between helping patrons find books, or helping them find information on the Internet, print resumes or tax forms, fill out job applications, or download an ebook or audiobook. I should also mention that I am only part time, so some of my coworkers do a whole lot more.

5. What do you like about being a public librarian? The endless variety. Because I work with the public, especially kids, every day is completely new and different. When I’m at the library, I literally never know who is going to walk through the door of the library, or what questions or needs they will have. I get to work with people of all ages, from babies to seniors, and as libraries have evolved into centers of lifelong learning, all of the jobs in the library have evolved too. I have coworkers who lead or organize classes on painting, gardening, and cooking, as well as science workshops for kids, 3D printing classes, mental health programs, and community discussions on important local issues. We all also do a lot of outreach, bringing library services like storytimes, books, Internet instruction, and music, to local daycares, youth detention facilities, schools, senior facilities, and even beaches.

Also, showing up at a preschool and being mobbed by a bunch of four year-olds screaming, “The liberium is here!” is pretty awesome too.

6. What is the most challenging part of your job? Although working with the public does bring all of the variety I mentioned above, some of that variety includes some difficult personalities and behaviors. The vast majority of our patrons are wonderful (some of them even bring us cookies!), but occasionally we work with people who are struggling with mental illness (although most of these are more frightened than frightening), or people who are frustrated and wanting to lash out, or people who are just abusive and mean, or creepy. Very rarely, we even have to call the police.

Oh, and also, there’s the weeding, the real dirty little secret of libraries, especially small ones: we simply don’t have enough room on the shelves for every book, so some of them have to go. Some days, I can channel my inner Marie Kondo and callously pull dozens of books that are out-of-date, disgusting, or haven’t been checked out (much less sparked joy) since the last century. But I’ll admit that in the past, I have secretly checked out a book I liked, just to increase its circulation numbers and save it from execution.

Are libraries dying out? Not at all. They are evolving. Libraries have always been places where the information and media of the day is housed and shared, whether that be in the form of papyrus scrolls, like the lost Library of Alexandria (sigh), or downloadable ebooks and Internet hotspots (yes, we circulate those, as well as laptops).

The traditional idea of libraries as an equalizer, where people of all backgrounds and income levels can access resources for education and advancement, is still true. It’s just that now the resources include computers and high speed Internet. Even though a man once literally scoffed at me for saying that not everyone has Internet access in their home, our library computers are always occupied. And we are in the tech-saturated Bay Area. In rural areas, libraries are often the only place where people have access to high speed Internet. The FCC recently claimed that 24.7 million Americans live where broadband is unavailable. An independent study by Microsoft concluded that number was closer to 163 million. Yet, in a world where most job listings and applications are online (not to mention resources and tools for homework, and applications for affordable housing and federal benefits), not having access to the Internet can have a huge impact on your life.

Luckily, libraries around the country are working hard to bridge the gap between the digital haves and have-nots. They are also giving people the ability to check out more than ever before: tools, and ukuleles, and video games; prom dresses, cooking utensils, toys, and Halloween costumes. Many libraries let you borrow e-books and audiobooks, or print tickets to museums, without even leaving your house.

It’s an exciting time to be a librarian, and I’m thrilled to be along for the ride.

True Confessions: Why I Hate Arranging Forced Book Marriages

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There’s a sad but predictable ritual I go through at least once a week at the library. It usually goes like this: a parent (usually a mom) drags a kid to my desk and says, “Can you recommend some books for my child?”

Usually the kid in question is staring fixedly at the floor.  I try to be cheerful. “What kinds of books do you like?” I’ll ask. Or “What’s a book you enjoyed recently?”

The kid usually gives me a deer-in-the-headlights look, as if he’s never heard of a book before, much less read one. The mom will often supply an answer, “You liked that Percy Jackson book, remember?” The kid will nod obediently. And then we’ll all trudge over to the shelves, where I’ll do my best to talk up several other books that might appeal to a Percy Jackson fan.

Usually the kid will show little interest in any of my recommendations. He never signed up for this embarrassing public matchmaking service, and even though he liked Percy Jackson, none of these books ARE Percy Jackson. They may have shiny covers and nice personalities, but they are all total strangers and so am I.

On the rare occasion that a book does catch the poor kid’s fancy, often his mom will disapprove. “I’d rather he read a ‘real book,'” she’ll say, pursing her lips at the graphic novel I just put in his hands. Or, “That one looks too easy.”

One time, I managed to hook a boy with a nonfiction book about a zoo veterinarian, only to have his mom say, “I think he’d prefer a novel.” Another time, a mom told me she wanted her daughter to “fall in love with a book,” then spent the next twenty minutes criticizing every book her daughter opened, while yelling “Hurry up!” and “You can only take one!” I’ve never actually hit someone over the head with a library book before, but I can’t say I’ve never been tempted.

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE recommending books to people, especially kids. But it’s a very different situation when a child or a teen comes to me of their own volition to ask for a suggestion. Those usually lead to amazing conversations: their faces light up as they share their favorite reading adventures, and they eagerly accept my shiny new books as if I had just handed them a big box of chocolates.

Arranged book marriages, on the other hand, are a depressing enterprise for everyone involved. That’s why I was thrilled to hear Young Adult author Kwame Alexander say in a recent interview, “Books are like amusement parks, and sometimes you gotta let kids choose the rides.” Although he admitted his own daughter threw that quote back at him when he tried to dictate her reading choices on vacation. (You can read the full story here: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/06/28/kwame-alexander-summer-reading)

I get it: I have two kids of my own, and I want them to love books the same way that I love them, and even to love the same books that I do.  For the most part, they do, although I have more luck with the books I read aloud to them.  Otherwise, my only hope is to keep bringing books home and leaving them in places where they might be discovered (I find that the backseat of the car is one of the best locations for a bored kid to meet a lonely but fascinating library book).

And that’s my main advice to parents of reluctant readers (or even avid readers who are caught in that mourning period between series): please, yes, ask librarians, teachers, friends, and book lovers of all kinds for recommendations, but do it on your own.  Then bring two or three books home and leave them–no pressure–for your kids to stumble upon, open, and hopefully, if all goes well, find a match. Or ask them if they’ve heard of any books they might be interested in.

Above all, let your kids choose the ride. When I was in library school, I did a survey of kids who read above grade level to see if there were any trends in the kinds of books they read. The only thing they had in common: they all read voraciously, both above and below their reading level.  They might read Tolkien one day, and Dr. Seuss the next.  Being a book lover does not mean that you only read challenging, educational books. And encouraging your child to love books means letting them choose what books to love, even if those books seem silly or gross or “too easy,” or if they just want to read the same one over and over again.

Also, embrace other reading experiences. One of the best new publishing trends is the boom in graphic novels and audiobooks. Not only are graphic novels and comic books more appealing and less intimidating for many reluctant readers, they often feature harder, less familiar vocabulary than regular books, while providing illustrations to help kids decipher the new words.  And studies on the science of reading have concluded that listening to a book on audio involves most of the same processes in the brain as physically reading it.

For some kids, ebooks are less daunting: they can adjust the font-size and easily look up unfamiliar words.  They are also perfect for reading late at night without having to turn the light on, or hunt for where you left off (I became a Kindle convert as an adult when I developed chronic insomnia).

And, the number one piece of parenting advice I will offer (while usually forgetting to follow it myself) is stay calmSadly, nagging and obsessing over how much or what your kids reads is probably going to put reading in the same category as liver and turnips: something they know may be good for them, but they’ll never choose it voluntarily. Your best bet, after leaving books lying temptingly around the house, is to curl up with a good book yourself and just relax.

 

 

 

In the Night Kitchen: A Storytime in Honor of Maurice Sendak

Today, Friday, June 10, would have been Maurice Sendak’s 88th birthday.  So this week I did an all-Sendak storytime.

Here is what we read:

wild

Where the Wild Things Are

Of course, I had to include the story of Max and his adventures as King of All Wild Things. I was surprised by how many of the kids hadn’t read this book yet, but they were mesmerized.  They especially enjoyed roaring and gnashing their teeth like wild things, and the silly chant I threw in for the “wild rumpus” pages (something like, “Ung-ga-da, ding-ga-da, ding-ga-da.”  I made it up as I went along).  My copy was immediately snatched up.

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Pierre

I remember the day my son’s teacher read this to the class in Kindergarten (unbeknownst to me), and how he came home saying, “I don’t care!” in reply to everything I said, until I could totally understand why Pierre’s parents left him alone in a neighborhood where hungry lions occasionally wander through.  For a long time this was my son’s favorite book.  The kids at storytime loved it too, eagerly chiming in on all the “I don’t cares!”  A couple of them looked shocked when Pierre (still insisting he doesn’t care) got eaten by the lion, then relieved when he emerged again intact.  But they were all clamoring to check it out in the end.

outside

Outside Over There

This story has always reminded me of the movie Labyrinth, although I’ve never actually checked to see if there’s a connection.  It’s the story of Ida, who is left in charge of her baby sister, but fails to see the goblins sneaking in through the window to steal the baby away, and leaving a baby made of ice in her place.  Ida has to use her wits and her wonderhorn to rescue her sister from becoming a goblin bride Outside Over There.  There is something so wonderfully bizarre and otherworldly about this book.  It makes me think of the old collection of Andersen’s fairy tales I used to read over and over, feeling equally disturbed and fascinated.  My storytime group was equally entranced, and there were quite a few hands reaching for it when it was over.

night kitchen

In the Night Kitchen

This was one of my favorite books as a kid: the story of Mickey, who falls out of bed into the night kitchen, and is nearly baked in a cake by the enormous bakers who cook there.  Instead he builds a plane out of bread dough and flies into the Milky Way to find the missing ingredient: milk!  I was wondering if anyone would comment on Mickey’s nudity, but no one did (I don’t remember noticing it when I was a kid either).  A couple of kids were arguing over who would get to check this one out too.

SONGS:

There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

I have an old lady puppet that the kids love to “feed.”  I do have her “die” at the end, but then we take her to the hospital and revive and pump her stomach, which always gets a laugh.

Home Again

I wrote this song a few months ago.  It’s based on several Sendak books, including Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and We are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy.

Home Again
Darling, when you feel afraid,
For you can plainly see,
The world is full of monsters
Who look just like you and me.

Just jump aboard your tiny boat
Follow the falling star.
And sail away through night and day,
To where the wild things are.

And you will dance and then
Let the wild rumpus begin.
But I will love you best of all
When you come home again.

And darling, when the goblins come,
And no one seems to care,
Climb out your bedroom window
Into outside over there.

Bring your horn, and play a jig,
And charm them with a song.
They’ll set you free, and you will soon be
Home where you belong.

And you will dance and then,
Let the wild rumpus begin.
But I will love you best of all,
When you come home again.

When the moon is in a fit,
And you are in the dumps,
Lost in the rye with one black eye,
And diamonds are all trumps.

I will come and buy you bread,
One loaf or maybe two.
And I will bring you up
Cause happy endings can come true.

And we will dance and then,
Let the wild rumpus begin.
And I will love you best of all
Until the very end.

CRAFT: Wild Thing Feet

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Wild Thing Feet by Evie

I stole this craft idea from AlphaMom.com: http://alphamom.com/family-fun/activities/where-the-wild-things-are-monster-activities-for-kids/

I precut the feet (in a variety of sizes to accommodate different kids), then gave them supplies to decorate them.

What are your favorite Maurice Sendak books?

 

 

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: Picture Books about Big Machines

It’s been a while since I’ve done a write-up about a storytime, but I just did two with a construction equipment theme that were both a lot of fun.  The first was a family storytime, for a wide variety of ages. The second was a preschool storytime, although most of the kids were actually under the age of 3.

Here are the books I read for both:

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Go! Go! Go! STOP by Charise Mericle Harper

I liked this one so much, I actually read it for Musical Storytime as well.  Little Green knows only one word, “GO!”  When he shouts it out to the busy machines working on the new bridge, it motivates them to work faster and faster.  But then things get out of control.  Luckily, just then, Little Red rolls into town and shouts the only word he knows, “STOP!”  It takes a while for Little Green and Little Red to figure out how to work together, but when they do, they help the machines get the bridge built.  There are lots of opportunities for the kids to shout (and whisper), “GO!” and “STOP!” throughout the book, which they loved.  It also provides a great way to model to parents how to use prominent repeated words in the text to help kids make the connection between print and spoken words.  This would work really well for a color theme as well.

bulldozer

Bulldozer’s Big Day by Candace Fleming; illustrated by Eric Rohmann

Bulldozer is so excited about inviting his friends to his party.  But each time he rolls up to a big machine he knows and ask them what day it is, they answer that it is a scooping day, a mixing day, a scraping day, or whatever kind of day it usually is when they are working.  Bulldozer is sad, until the crane announces that it’s a “lifting day,” and lifts up an enormous birthday cake.  Fun book for kids to try to name each type of big machine, and demonstrate what each one does.  This would also work for a birthday theme.

build.jpg

Build, Dogs, Build by James Horvath

A crew of dogs tear down an old building and construct a new one from beginning to end.  LOTS of different types of construction equipment in this one, and funny details hidden in the colorful illustrations.  The kids especially enjoyed looking for Jinx the cat on each page.  Great for both dog fans and construction lovers.

construction

The Construction Crew by Lynn Meltzer by Carrie Eko-Burgess

Another picture book that follows the construction of a house from beginning to end, with rhyming text that asks kids, “What do we need?” for each step of the process, starting with the wrecking ball to tear down the old building and ending with the moving truck to help the new family move in.  Even the adults loved this one.

crane

What Can a Crane Pick Up? by Rececca Kai Dotlich; illustrated by Mike Lowery

I did this one for Musical Storytime as well.  It’s a rhyming book that describes all of the many things a crane can lift, including multiple trucks, a submarine, library books, another crane, boxes of underwear, and even you!  Quirky and fun.

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I’m Dirty  by Kate and Jim McMullan

Another book by the team behind I Stink, this book introduces a mud-loving backhoe who cleans up a lot full of garbage and abandoned junk, counting what he picks up as he goes: including four cat-clawed couches, and two tossed-out toilet seats.  The kids enjoyed “eww”-ing at the pictures of trash and mud.

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20 Big Trucks in the Middle of the Street by Mike Lee; illustrated by Kurt Cyrus

Cute counting book about an ice cream truck that breaks down in the middle of the street, causing a traffic jam of big trucks.  No one knows what to do, until the boy narrating the story suggests that the crane truck can save the day.  The kids liked the big truck illustrations, and of course, any book with ice cream is always a hit.

SONGS:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Traffic Light

I did this one to go along with Go! Go! Go! Stop! to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Traffic Light,
Twinkle, Twinkle, Traffic Light,
Shining on the corner bright.
Red means STOP! (hold out hands in “STOP” motion)
Green means GO! (run in place fast)
Yellow means YOU’D BETTER GO SLOW! (run in place slowly)
Twinkle, Twinkle, Traffic Light,
Shining on the corner bright.

Bouncing Up and Down in My Little Red Wagon

This is a great song for babies on up.  Older kids like coming up with silly “tools” to fix the wagon, like a pickle or a rhinoceros.  The ukulele chords alternate between C and G7, so it is very easy to play too:

Bouncing up and down in my little red wagon.
Bouncing up and down in my little red wagon.
Bouncing up and down in my little red wagon.
Won’t you be my darlin’.

One wheel’s off and the axle’s broken… (lean to one side)

Joey’s going to fix it with his hammer…

Bouncing up and down in my little red wagon…

Repeat, asking kids who would like to fix the wagon, and what tool they would use.

CRAFT:

07-22-Crane-Craft

Sadly, it was too crazy on Wednesday night for me to get a picture of the kids’ finished crafts, but I did my own version of this Crane Craft I found from the DeKalb Public Library. Instead of popsicle sticks, I cut up drinking straws, and had the kids thread a piece of yarn through them to attach to the arm of their crane.  It was a bit tricky for the toddlers, who needed their parents’ help, but they all seemed to enjoy it.

 

HANDOUT

Our library system encourages librarians to create a handout for storytimes, listing all of the books and songs, as well as literacy tips for parents.  I don’t usually do one for my Family Storytimes, since I often have to adjust my book selections on the fly depending on what age kids show up.  But here is the handout I used this week for Preschool Storytime: May 25 Pre K Storytime (Larsen, Ashley)

 

Kid Picks

Since I’m always trying to find new books for storytime, I often test out new titles on my own kids.  My son, at 11, mostly wants to read books on his own now, although my husband and I still read aloud to him at bedtime when he’s not caught up in a novel (right now, my husband is reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy with him. I am anxious for them to finish, because then I will get to share The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

My six year-old daughter has a love/hate relationship with having a librarian mom.  On the one hand, she loves books, so she likes when I bring them home.  On the other hand, she’s always been dismayed that she can’t keep them all.  With both of my kids, I have been guilty of returning books to the library before they were ready to part with them, so I understand why she gets upset.  Occasionally she’ll become so attached to a particular book that  I’ll buy her a copy of her own.  That was the case with her latest favorite, Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson.

gaston

My daughter loves everything about this book: the illustrations (which she talks about at length), the story, the whole package.  She asks for it at bedtime every night.  She brings it in the car to read for herself.  She lies on her bed and pores over every page.  Rarely has she fallen so hard for a book.

And I get it.  It’s a great book.  I think I picked it up originally because it was on a list of the best picture books of 2014.   It’s about a family of puppies: Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La, and Gaston.  They are all adorable, except Gaston does not look like his poodle siblings.  He also struggles to sip (never slobber!), and yip (never yap!), and all the other proper things their mother encourages them to do, although he always tries the hardest.

Then one day the poodles meet a family of bulldog pups at the park.  Or at least three of the pups (Rocky, Ricky, and Bruno) look like bulldogs (and a lot like Gaston).  The fourth, Antoinette, looks like a little white poodle.   Gaston and Antoinette realize there’s been a mix-up.  The two families reluctantly arrange a swap.  Now everyone looks alike, but no one is happy.  Gaston finds the bulldog family too “brutish and brawny.”  Antoinette can’t stand being proper.  The next morning they all race back to the park, where the two mothers announce that they have made a terrible mistake.  Antoinette and Gaston return to the families they love, and later, when they grow up and have puppies of their own, they teach them be whatever they want to be.

All in all, it’s a wonderful story about the true meaning of family.  The illustrations are adorable (there’s a reason my daughter loves them), and the writing is perfect for reading aloud. I always wonder which of the current picture books will become classics, like Corduroy or Harry, the Dirty Dog–books that my kids will remember fondly enough to want to read to their own kids.  I’m sure this one will be on my daughter’s list.

As for my son, his current book obsession is the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children books by Ransom Riggs.  He tore through them in less than a week, pleading with me to check them all out because he didn’t want to wait even a day between books.  I haven’t read them yet myself, although he’s told me enough of the plot that I know it’s a fantasy/sci-fi series about a group of kids with bizarre talents and attributes.  The author based the book and the characters on creepy antique photographs of children (I love that idea).  I’ve promised my son that I will read them soon.

peregrine

So those are my kids’ current book recommendations.  What current books do you think will stand the test of time?