Thursday, March 28, 2013

Music in Storytime

The fabulous Melissa over Mel's Desk posted recently about the question of music in storytimes, specifically a cappella vs. CDs. I found myself writing an epic comment in response and figured I had enough to say to warrant a post of my own.

So: music is an essential part of storytime. I really can't imagine a storytime without it.  Do you use primarily precorded music (e.g. play tracks off an MP3 player or a CD), or do you sing a cappella with the kids and familes in your group--that is, sing without a prerecorded track? (That being said, the use of the term a cappella is totally appropriate here, but I have to admit that as a former collegiate a cappella singer, it makes me laugh to imagine my preschoolers singing Old McDonald in a highly stylized, choreographed, beat-boxed a cappella arrangement a la Warblers.)

When I started doing my storytimes about a year ago, I didn't use any sort of recorded music in my storytimes. Singing without a track gives you a lot more flexibility -- you can set the tempo and the key.  You can stop mid-song to explain something to the participants. You can incorporate suggestions from the audience. I find often like to repeat a song three times -- slow, then regular, then fast. I often get a request from the kids to go "SUPER FAST," which I'm always willing to oblige.  Kids--heck, everyone--learn from repetition, and doing the same song over and over helps them master it.

I also like to make up new verses or words to songs everyone knows and model for parents as something they can do with their kids. It's something I love doing with my own kids. Not only can it be a great way to build vocabulary, but it also shows families that playing with words and language can be a lot of fun. In my last storytime session, I tried to end as many storytimes as I could with a version of "If You're Happy and You Know It" customized to that week's theme (e.g. "If you're a bear and you know it, show your claws.") To me, this struck the perfect balance of the familiar and the novel. Because the families were so familiar with the original song, it was easy for everyone to jump in and participate right away, but because it was slightly different every week, it really held the kids' attention and was something fun to look forward to at the end of every storytime.

However, in my last session, I also made a conscious decision to incorporate more prerecorded music into my storytimes. When I did the baby storytime at my library, I didn't use any prerecorded music at all, and sometimes I found it a big struggle to get the caregivers to sing along with me. One week, though, towards the end of my last session, I threw a song from the Diaper Gym CD and it went over very well--it was probably the most animated the caregivers were the entire session. I mentioned this to the librarian who took over the baby storytime, and she started to use the "Wiggles and Giggles" track as both the hello and goodbye song which is fabulous at encouraging participation.  I think everyone felt a little less self-conscious singing along to the track, and I think the repetition of the song, twice a storytime, week after week, really helped the caregivers learn the song quickly.

I also found that I wanted to incorporate more gross motor activities into my preschool storytimes. I have two boys who were and are very wiggly and energetic, so I'm always extra conscious of the need for preschoolers to get up and move! I thought that prerecorded tracks would be a great way to incorporate movement breaks in between quieter activities.

I like using songs like that, where there are very specific motions and music cues for what we're supposed to do--I think it helps encourage everyone, including parents, to participate less self-consciously. I think the single most successful thing I've ever done in storytime -- and I've shared this with at least eight different groups so far -- was play "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" off the album Kids in Action by Greg and Steve.  It's a little longer, so you need to set aside enough time for it, but it flies by, and the kids just get giddy from the sheer pleasure of it.

In our winter session, I largely tried to find a song that matched that week's theme. This may have been a bit too ambitious, but happened largely because our first theme was "Bears" and I was really excited to use "Bear Hunt." In my cat storytime a few weeks ago, I played Laurie Berkner's "The Cat Came Back" and had everyone pretend to move like cats.  (I think I cut that one short -- we did about two verses and choruses, and I felt it had run its course.)  Another cute one was a little dance we made up to "Doing the Penguin" from Sesame Street during our penguin week.

One downside to switching up the songs every week, though, was that I learned that some of these movement songs ones really benefit from repetition. I've done a few that have just fallen flat because I think the kids would have needed to do it a few weeks in a row to really get the hang of it.

I think in my next session, I'm going to try to find a movement song or two that we can use every week regardless of the theme. I am really looking forward to sharing Dr. Jean's "Tooty Ta" with my preschoolers this spring. I can hear the laughter already! But I'd love suggestions if anyone has ideas for another!

I do a monthly Sensory Storytime for preschoolers with special needs, and I use totally different music in a totally different way for that storytime. That's worth a separate post of its own....

KidLit Pilgrimage: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

My kids are on spring break this week, and we're having a little staycation.  They've recently discovered the Percy Jackson series and have developed an interest in Greek mythology. We've lived in New Jersey for almost three years now, and we've gone to many of the local museums, but I'd never taken the kids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I asked if they might be interested in going to check out some of the Greek and Roman antiquities, and I got a resounding YES!

We had a wonderful time, and I was very pleased that the museum offered a guide for kids based on the Percy Jackson books.  It led us through three galleries (Greek, Roman, and European sculpture) and pointed out works that would be appealing to kids.  We had a lot of fun entering the galleries and looking for the pieces spotlighted in the brochure.  Three cheers for the people who put that together!

The Met always loomed large in my mind as a child, even as a Midwesterner who'd never been to New York City, because it's featured in so many children's books.  The most obvious, of course, is the beloved and wonderful From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.

It's still the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the Met, and I was thrilled to see the museum acknowledge it with a museum guide for kids based on the novel.  I haven't introduced this book to my kids yet, but when I do, I'm sure we'll be up for another field trip.

Then, of course, there's Olivia the pig, with some pointed commentary on the works of Jackson Pollock.

We didn't make it upstairs to the Modern & Contemporary Art wing on this visit, but when I went with my mother last year, we did take a picture of this and email it to my niece, a big Olivia fan.

The last stop we made at the Met was the amazing Temple of Dendur, an ancient Egyptian temple that was moved brick by brick and rebuilt in the Sackler wing, in an amazing room that is full of natural light.

(Photo by Ana Lopez)

The Temple of Dendur features prominently in the YA classic Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, and when I first visited the Met as a teenager, I was so excited to recognize something I'd read about.  (I still haven't been to the Cloisters yet, which I will admit I was first introduced to by the Baby-Sitters Club Super Special where they visit New York.)

The Met is such an icon that I'm sure I'm missing some other classic kids books that feature it or its artwork. Tell me: what did I omit?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Review: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Vanderpool, Clare. Navigating Early. 320 p. Delacorte Books. 2013. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 0385742096

I think this is going to be on a lot of major Best of 2013 lists, and deservedly so. It's a beautifully written, extremely literary children's novel.  Clare Vanderpool novel Moon Over Manifest won the Newbery, and though I haven't read it yet, I'm not surprised. This novel screams Newbery to me.

Jack Baker's life has been upturned at the end of WWII. His mother died suddenly, while his father, a career military man, was in Europe fighting.  His father uproots Jack from his native Kansas and enrolls him in an elite boarding school in Maine, near a base where he'll be stationed.  Jack has a hard time fitting in, but he befriends an odd boy named Early Auden (who'd surely have a diagnosis of Asperger's today.) Early's obsessed with tracking down a great black bear that's been sighted along the Appalachian Trail, and the two boys sneak away from school and embark on a quest to find the bear.

Navigating Early read like an Odyssey story for me; on their quest, they meet a cast of characters, whose stories and lives intertwine in strange and wonderfully unexpected ways.  Even though many of these characters are larger than life, there's something emotionally true about them, and they're going to stick with me for a long, long time.

Early has a theory that the digits in the number pi tell a story about a boy named Pi, and the story of Pi is interwoven in the book, in between the chapters about Jack and Early. Pi's story mirrors and foreshadows the boys' quest, and again, it's beautifully written. I must confess, though, that I never like this literary technique and always find myself skimming and skipping ahead to the main action. It's totally my own private pet peeve, and intellectually I understand and appreciate why Vanderpool did it, but as a reader, it bugged me.

Even though I loved this book, I'm not sure to whom I would recommend it, except to other librarians or to adults who enjoy thoughtful literary juvenile fiction. It's one of THOSE kinds of books. Our copy has been sitting out on display for a few weeks, and no one has picked it up. I think it's a book that's going to have to be hand sold.  It's absolutely worth reading, though.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Preschool Outreach Storytime March 2013

As part of  my job, I do monthly or bimonthly storytimes at local preschools as part of our outreach efforts. Usually I do two storytimes at each school: one for a group of 2s and young 3s, and one for a group of 4s and 5s. The school I visit most often is theme-based and asked me to match my storytimes to the theme that was being presented that week.  These weren't generic preschool themes like "bears," either: these were things like "health and hygiene." At first, I was happy to oblige, but it started to get tricky.  In January, my theme was diversity. There are a few really great books for preschoolers on that topic...  and when I brought out my basket of materials to read to the older group, the teacher admitted that she'd read the class all the books I'd brought with me already.  I kicked myself for not bringing any back-up books, but the teacher handed me some books she hadn't read the class yet, and it was fine.

In February, the topic was "America." For some reason, I really struggled with finding books for this topic, especially for the younger kids. I think I would have had an easier time for "4th of July," but this was more "President's Day."  Anyway, I brought lots of books and created lots of activities to do in between the stories... and they all fell totally flat. I don't know if it was me, or the materials, or just a bad day for the kids, or a combination, but it was a disaster. Definitely the worst storytime experience I've had to date. The teacher spent most of the time yelling at the kids to sit down and be quiet, and I felt awful.  Storytime is supposed to be fun; I really am trying to teach kids to love books and words, and I don't want them to associate my visits with getting yelled at.

After that experience, I spoke with the director of the preschool and we mutually decided that it would be better if I just created my own storytimes and didn't try to work around their themes. This is a lot less work for me, since I can work from the storytimes I've planned for my in-house preschool group in the previous month, but more importantly, I can choose books and activities that I know will go over well with this age group, rather than ones that fit a theme.

This March was the first time I presented a "themeless" storytime for the preschool, and instead of presenting one of the storytimes I'd done previously, I decided to do a "greatest hits" storytime with some of my very favorite readalouds. I really wanted the kids to have fun.

Some of the books I read were:

Caps for Sale  by Esphyr Slobodkina

The kids LOVED this. I mean, I knew it would be a hit, but I was surprised at how immediately it held their attention. They really got into pretending to be the monkeys, saying Tsz, tsz, tsz! I sometimes feel like I have to drag out audience participation in my stories, but immediately the kids all chimed in. I love any story that provides an opportunity for some gross motor movement, and this one definitely does.

It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw
I read this to the older kids, and again, it was a huge hit.  They had never read it before and had no idea what "it" was.  They really got into shouting out what each shape was, and I liked some of their suggestions better than what was in the book.  They thought the angel was a dragonfly, for instance.  A classic for a reason.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes  by Eric Litwin, ill. James Dean

This was the biggest hit of all, but no surprise there. Pete's just brilliant.  I read this to both groups, and it went over equally well with both.  I'd be happy to read this one to first graders, too -- honestly, is there any age that wouldn't love Pete?  The older group REALLY loved Pete, and at the end, instead of singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" (which is how I usually close out my storytimes), they wanted to sing the Pete song some more.  So we all got up and danced around and made up a song for the whole rainbow "Oh no! Pete stepped in a pumpkin patch. What color are his shoes now?") This was a TON of fun -- and totally organic and spontaneous.

My Car by Byron Barton

I read this to the younger kids; it's one of my favorite reads for younger kids. The illustrations are so vivid and simplistic, which makes it perfect to share with a group. The text is also simple, but there's a cute twist at the end, and what little kid doesn't love cars?

Mr. Gumpy's Outing by John Burningham

I shared this with the younger group, and it also went over well.  The kids enjoyed shaking their fingers and repeating Mr. Gumpy's admonitions to the riders on his boat.

I also brought our "Color Bears," which are die-cut bears in red, green, blue, and yellow cardstock glued onto craft sticks.  We use them in conjuction with the Hap Palmer song "Colors," which instructs the kids to stand up and sit down at various times depending on the color of their stick.  You can get the jist of this here:

Both groups really enjoyed it, although they both had trouble following directions. I wasn't so surprised that the younger group struggled a bit, although I was surprised that the older group didn't quite catch on either. I suspect that if I brought this with me several months in a row, they'd be old pros.

Anyway, this storytime was a ton, a ton of fun. The kids absolutely loved it, and I was so happy to share some really excellent books with them.