For about a year and a half now, part of my job description has included performing our partnered storytime each month. Our store is uber tiny, so we work with the Chick-fil-A across the road as part of their family night rotation. The second Tuesday of every month, I head over with my bag of coloring pages, my shoebox full of craptastic crayons (the store’s, not mine- I’m one of those people that can barely stand to peel back the paper when the crayon needs to be sharpened), and a stack of books. I’d always thought storytime had to be one of the cushiest assignments in the world. You go, you read, they color, no biggie.
Any by now, anyone who’s actually worked a large-scale storytime is laughing at me. Deservedly so.
Needless to say, I learned the error of my ways.
First off, there’s selection. Some months are easy- if there’s a major holiday in the month that falls after the second Tuesday, score! But what about all those other pesky months? In September, school’s already started, so you can’t really do the back to school stuff, and if you do that at the beginning of August, that’s just depressing. And what about Christmas and Easter? Yes, Chick-fil-A is a Christian organization, but how do you balance out the religious with the secular? Or do you just do the secular and let the rest sort itself out in the hopes that maybe this way you won’t offend anyone? Then, when you’ve picked your theme, you have to find the books that have engaging enough stories and pictures to keep the kids in their seats, not so short that they feel cheated, but not so long that they get bored. Larger formats are better, of course, because then it’s easier for everyone to see at once, but that’s not always an option.
Then you have to find coloring pages. Sometimes the company sends some along, but while some kids will spend the entire two hours on a single masterpiece, others will scrawl across the lines with a single color and then want to move on the next picture. You want to make sure you have pages for all age levels, enough for the kids who’ll camp out the entire time to not have to repeat, but not so many that the trees start crying when you walk to the printer. And, of course, you have to find more than what’s provided, especially if the themes don’t fit together. For that, every month I bless Crayola for their free coloring pages. They have saved my hide more than once, along with other free, sans copyright pages with a google search.
Where it gets interesting is when the kids start showing up. With Chick-fil-A, the family night is a two hour block where parents can buy a meal for themselves and get a free meal for a kid, let them run and scream in the play area, molest the enormous cows that are far better sports than I could ever manage, and do various activities off to one side. Very few of them will actually stay for the full two hours, so there’s generally a sort of rotation as fresh waves enter the restaurant. You have kids joining in the middle of stories, or getting pulled away in the middle of stories. You have kids interrupting CONSTANTLY, either with questions (that may or may not have anything to do with the story) or the kind of baseless observations that only little kids seem to be able to get away with. You’re reading for two hours straight, but sometimes they want to hear the same book over and over and over and over again, and sometimes you get to the end of a stack of eight books and they look disappointed when they realize you’re not going to pull a ninth one out of your sleeve. They talk over each other, and you, they spill drinks, complain they can’t see the pages, chatter about school and friends and family plans, and if the cow walks by, forget any attention you may have managed to hold.
And it’s amazing.
Every now and then, I’ll get a set of slightly older girls who ask if they can help me read. They stumble over words, and they don’t have a rhythm, but just the fact that they want to try is wonderful. Their mother credits this for improved grades at school; they’re participating in their classes now, more comfortable with reading aloud. There are some kids who get so hooked into the stories that they forget about the coloring and just stare at the page, and get so excited that they try to figure out what happens next while you’re struggling to turn the page. They recognize you from month to month and can’t wait to tell you all about school and friends, and it’s awesome to hear them talk about it even if you really are trying to read to an entire table full of kids.
And every once in a great while, you get a kid you know you’ll remember for a really long time. Our Christmas storytime was insane, packed with kids the entire time, way too many for one person to manage at our small group of tables. One of the books was Chris van Allsburg’s Polar Express, and either the publisher or the company had sent along a box of jingle bells on ribbons as giveaways. (In retrospect, I should have given them the bells as they were leaving, but hey, you learn something each time). One little girl, who probably wasn’t above eighteen months, picked up a bell, and her mother crouched down next to her and reminded her of the story, where if you believe in Santa Claus, you can hear the bell ring. Little girl gives her mother a panicked look, very solemnly shakes the crap out of that bell, and when she hears it, breathes this HUGE sigh of relief that cracked up every adult around. She believed, she just needed the proof of that belief.
Then there was a pair of brothers, maybe four and eight years of age, who came near the end of that same storytime. Big Brother was old enough to realize that the cow was actually just a person in a costume, and had in the last year discovered that Santa was actually Dad’s handwriting on a package with different paper. His parents had been living in fear all year that he’d ruin Little Brother’s Christmas by pointing this out to him. While I’m reading one of the other stories, Little Brother is very concerned about whether or not the cow is able to eat, because he must be hungry, but they don’t serve cow food at CFA! Big Brother starts to tell him that it’s just a person in a costume but I cut in and told Little Brother that the cow would eat in private once everyone was gone, because cows are very messy eaters and they don’t want to embarrass themselves by eating that way in front of people. Little Brother is happy as a clam, Big Brother is willing to leave it alone for the moment.
Then we got to Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus. If you’ve never read a version of this story, do yourself a favor and find one. It’s about a little girl named Virginia who lived in New York during a great recession, and she believed in Santa with everything she was, even when it meant being Santa for someone else by doing something kind. When some other kids made fun of her, she wrote to the Editor of The Sun (“if you see it in The Sun, it’s so!”) and asked him if there was a Santa Claus. The word for word response is available online, and it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes when you consider that this was the front page of that day’s paper. Oh, didn’t I mention? This is a true story. The basic gist of the response is that whether the figure we know of as Santa Claus is real or not, we make it real by sharing kindness, hope, and goodness to others, so when we do things to benefit others, Santa Claus is real. Big Brother looked very thoughtful through most of this story, especially when I told him it was true, and then looked over at Little Brother. Mom bit her lip and braced herself for the worst. Then Big Brother pulled over one of the activity sheets, scooted next to Little Brother with a crayon in hand, and said “Tell me what you want to write to Santa; I’ll write it for you”. And Mom burst into tears.
I will remember that pair of boys for a very long time, quite possibly even the rest of my life, because it was proof positive of the power a story has to change people. Is it the end of the world if one child doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore? By no means. But isn’t it magic if, in a world that’s so bent on scandals and harsh truths, a child can believe in Santa Claus for just one more year? Or two? Because that magic counts for something.
You can never tell how a kid will react to a story. Sometimes you can actually see them absorbing something from it, and all too rarely, you actually get to see how that turns out. Sometimes they fall so deeply in love with a story that they won’t stop begging until their parents promise to stop on the way home and buy a copy of the book to take home with them. Because they don’t just want the story now, they want it forever (or at least what they think of as forever). The parents may or may not thank you for this. When in doubt, smile and remind them that books are easier to clean up than puppies.
That’s not to say it’s all rainbows and ponies. You get the days where the kids are all shrieking over each other in such a way that you’re pretty sure your ears are about to start bleeding. You get the kids who behave so atrociously, not just to you but to the other children, that you ignore the small voice in your head warning that you’re about to get fired because you’re already hauling the kid across the restaurant to give them back to their parents until they can remember how to behave appropriately and not ruin things for the other children. You get the spills, the bad tempers, the interruptions, the “this story is stupid”, the hoarse throat and dry cough because you’ve recited yourself into dehydration.
Or, as I learned with tonight’s adventure, the child who stands up and promptly starts projectile vomiting all over the table, the floor…the girl across from him…
All hazards aside, storytime is one of my favorite times of the month. I always learn something new there. I get to see the pride a child takes when he or she can write out their name, even if the E is still backwards. I get to marvel, EVERY SINGLE TIME, at the fact that when presented with a shoebox FULL of crayons, seven out of ten children will reach for the plain pencil and start coloring with it. A cow who can color within the lines is never less than awesome. And I get to see the moment when the story becomes more interesting than the coloring page, when it’s not just the pretty pictures and the sound of my voice but the STORY that captivates them, and I know they’re going to start asking for bedtime stories, for books, for a way to take that feeling and make it their own not through an accident of circumstance, but through a love of story.
Storytime really is its own reward. Even with the…mishaps…it is one of the most rewarding things about my job. Most bookstores and libraries sponsor storytimes; even if you don’t have kids, check them out. See if you can help with them, even if it’s just offering to bring snacks on rotation. Check in with elementary schools or daycares or preschools and see if you can volunteer. Even when it’s just reading a single story, you never know how that story, or your reading it aloud to a classroom or group, could change lives- including your own.
Until next time~