Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Guerrilla Storytime: Ideas & Advocacy at #ala2013

In the lead-up to the 2013 ALA Annual Conference, you may have heard rumblings about Guerrilla Storytime. The pre-Chicago online chatter about the informal movement resulted in a great crowd of attendees in the Uncommons for the advertised Friday and Saturday storytimes. That stellar attendance (upwards of 75 folks dropped by and/or participated each of those days!) led Guerrilla Storytime idea-genius Cory Eckert to stage a completely impromptu edition on the Monday afternoon of the conference, too.

But wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning.

Cory Eckert, the idea-genius I just mentioned, is the youth services manager at the Octavia Fellin Public Library in Gallup, New Mexico. Back in March, Eckert took to Twitter with an idea for storytime skills building and advocacy among the larger librarian population. Why not stage pop-up storytimes at a major library conference like ALA Annual? Such an event would allow youth services librarians to share their expertise and learn from their peers, and the fact that other non-YS librarians would be able to see the activity in the public space would foster awareness that storytime is so much more than just reading books to kids. Anna Haase Krueger of Future Librarian Superhero created a Google Group to allow interested librarians to continue the conversation in depth, and shortly after the term "Guerrilla Storytime" was chosen as the name for the project.

Cut to last Friday in Chicago. At 3 p.m., a group of children's librarians entered the Uncommons as planned. Then more and more people started to join as Guerrilla Storytime got underway. The beginning premise was straightforward: participant volunteers would select a storytime challenge from the Challenge Cup, then respond to that challenge using their own knowledge or by asking the audience for assistance. Challenges were brainstormed by Eckert, Melissa Depper of the blog Mel's Desk (and 2013 Mover & Shaker!), and myself, and they included such topics as incorporating early literacy skills and practices into storytime, favorite and go-to rhymes and songs, and strategies for responding to storytime problems (moms talking in the back, we're talking about you).

Guerrilla Storytime Challenge Cups can all look different.

On Friday, Guerrilla Storytime started with a few brave souls getting the energy pumping. After the initial few challenge-seekers, more and more attendees opted to try their hands at storytime skills and share ideas with their colleagues.

My favorite takeaways from Friday (a limited list, to be sure, because I couldn't type all the great ideas into my phone quickly enough!):
  • What do you do when the moms in the back won't stop talking? Cate's strategy is to stop talking, or whatever activity she is doing at the front of the room. If the obvious pause in storytime doesn't stop the chatter, then Cate will start to make silly faces. Of course the kids notice, and of course they start to make silly faces back. Suddenly, in the unexpected quiet and barrage of goofy faces, offending talkers usually get the picture.
  • Trying out some favorite parachute songs.
  • Favorite parachute song? Kendra grabbed the parachute that Katie generously brought to the convention center, and a small army of storytime guerrillas jumped up to play along. Kendra's favorite song to share during parachute play time--especially with toddlers and younger preschoolers--is "These Are the Colors Over You," a simple song about the colors on the parachute set to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle." As you can imagine, a singalong ensued.
  • How do you incorporate letter knowledge into storytime? Instead of creating an entire storytime around a single letter, a storytime guerrilla says that she'll tell her kiddos their "letter of the day;" whenever the group might encounter that letter during storytime, everyone makes note of it together. We all know how much kids love seek-and-find activities, and this strategy emphasizes letter recognition without derailing your storytime theme.
  • Your kids have the wiggles! What do you do? Rick got the whole group standing to participate in his go-to wiggles-be-gone trick: the chant "Form the Orange." This one is solid gold.
  • What do you do when your storytime crowd has grown too large, but your supervisor doesn't see that as a problem? A few voices chimed in here with some great ideas. One, have a discussion with said supervisor about the goals of storytime; this discussion can allow you to voice concerns about meeting specific goals in a too-crowded room. Second, invite said supervisor to storytime. Sometimes, it takes the visual of seeing kids unable to adequately participate due to group size to impress the notion that program size matters.
  • Favorite cumulative stories? There Was a Tree, The Great Big Turnip, This is the Jacket I Wear in the Snow, and I Ain't Gonna Paint No More (for which Cate dons a painter's full-body smock and lets kids paint her!).
  • Favorite shaker song? Mel got in front of the group to lead a rousing rendition of "We're Going to Kentucky."
  • How do you incorporate vocabulary into storytime? Katie shared her modification of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," which she uses to talk about size words and family words. Katie starts with the familiar Itsy Bitsy spider, who is then accompanied by his younger sister, Eensy Weensy, and his older brother, Big Giant spider.

Guerrilla Storytime on the Front Porch Stage
Then, on Monday, after the exhibits hall had closed and not too many folks were left in the conference center, Cory Eckert called for an impromptu Guerrilla Storytime. A group of librarians, some of them youth services folks but many not, were gathered around the Front Porch Stage, a small stage front in the atrium of the convention center. Many new participants shared their expertise there, including some absolute gems that I cannot wait to incorporate back at my library:
  • Favorite fingerplay? Marge shared a rendition of "Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree" that uses sign language as the finger playing; when she shares the fingerplay in storytime, she always does the last verse ("One little monkey...") silently, everyone using just their hands. Then Julie shared her delightful "Five Little Hotdogs"--a bit of fun absurdity to add to storytime.
  • Best books for incorporating narrative skills? Monkey & Me; Oh, No!; and Animal Masquerade were highly-recommended titles.
  • Best practices for incorporating books with foreign words? Make laminated pictures of the unfamiliar words, then use the pictures as references whenever the word appears in the story. Before you know it, "gato" will so obviously mean "cat" to your storytime audience.

Was Guerrilla Storytime successful? As a storytime provider who left with lots of new ideas, I would say so undoubtedly. What about from an advocacy perspective? After Friday's Guerrilla Storytime, an adult services public librarian came up to me in the Uncommons and said how much he enjoyed seeing all of the different things that can happen in the storytime room. After the Monday edition, Steve Thomas interviewed Eckert about the Guerrilla Storytime project for his library podcast, Circulating Ideas. Guerrilla Storytime appears to have begun to reach even a small group of non-YS librarians with information about what storytime really entails (and how knowledgeable, how expert, storytime librarians are).

The best news: Guerrilla Storytime has every appearance of becoming a regular conference activity, albeit one that remains a bit off the grid. If you weren't able to take in Guerrilla Storytime in Chicago this past week, just look for Guerrilla Storytimes happening at future conferences like Midwinter, ALA Annual in Las Vegas, and perhaps even PLA and the ALSC Institute. In the meantime, share your favorite storytime skills and conference storytime takeaways on Twitter using #guerrillastorytime. There is so much we can learn from one another while advocating for the extremely important work that librarians do in storytime.


  1. I learned to love stories at the feet of our local library lady Mrs. Bamber. Four-plus decades later, I can still hear her voice, see her funny hats, and feel the soft fur of the Chihuahua she brought with her on Saturday mornings. I love how you share all of these ideas with so many people who are now doing the important work of connecting children to stories. It's life-affirming and life-saving.
    I'm passing this on to anyone I know who reads to children . . . Thank-you!

  2. This was one of my favorite sessions at ALA this year. I gained lots of new ideas to incorporate into my storytimes. Thanks to you, Cory, and Melissa for putting this together!

  3. I was so bummed that I couldn't attend any of these! My schedule always conflicted with Guerrilla Storytime. :(

  4. Thanks for sharing, Amy. I can't wait to use "We're Going to Kentucky". And oh, how I wish I could have seen/been part of this.

    1. Guerrilla Storytimes should start making appearances at library conferences of all types, so you should get your chance to participate! In fact, you're welcome to host your own if you so choose: http://storytimeunderground.wordpress.com/guerrilla-storytime/


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