This summer my library partnered with the amazing organization Food, Friends & Fun to provide weekly outreach storytimes at two neighborhood parks where kids 0-18 could get free lunch during the summer. Doing this type of outreach was one of the first things I brought up in summer reading planning. If we weren’t going to be providing kids with much-needed summer lunches on site, it made sense to work with organizations that were doing it, strengthening our connections with local partners and learning how to better serve children and caregivers in our community. We want to reach as many kids as possible during the critical summer months, and going to local parks seemed like a great opportunity to reach kids who might otherwise not have access to library services.
We entered the process a little late, so a couple of really good ideas got discussed but ultimately shelved. I had tentative plans to bring honor system collections to both sites, something similar to what Santa Cruz Public Libraries do with their Teen Self-Help Collection. Because we were at different sites, these collections would need to be mobile; I wanted to base our approach to mobile outreach collections in part on Oakland Public Library’s awesome Bike Library. Deadlines and funding kept us from moving beyond the discussion stage on this. We also looked at the possibility of checking out library materials at summer lunch sites, but untenable logistical hurdles cropped up here as well.
We ended up with three librarians doing outreach at two sites for the entire two months. I was able to go to both sites all summer, which was awesome. We read a lot of stories with a bunch of kids. Like, a lot. But we also talked to them and their caregivers, listening to what they wanted in terms of relevant library collections and services. We got harassed by bees pretty much constantly. Oh well, the rough with the smooth.
So here’s what I learned about outreach storytimes:
There's no such thing as a comfort zoneAs cool as doing this outreach was, we pretty much started in unchartered territory. Food, Friends & Fun had never partnered with our library before. Their onsite staff was minimal so we were responsible for doing our thing, soup to nuts. These sites were good-sized city parks, each with basketball courts, jungle gyms, and (most distractingly) awesome splash pads.
To find our place, we really had to put ourselves out there. A lot of this was introducing ourselves to kids and families and offering to read stories with them. Scratch that. It was almost entirely introducing ourselves to folks and developing relationships. Shyness was not an option. We’d ask if kids wanted to read some stories, and it was OK to hear “no.” We couldn’t get comfortable or expect people to come to us, nor could we expect to be people’s first choice with all the aforementioned basketball courts, jungle gyms, and splash pads. Especially not with the splash pad.
Brief aside: because it was just me and another librarian (and often just me) with my bag of books, I briefly contemplated some sort of attention-grabbing gimmick: a crazy hat or something. I thought better of it (mercifully) and, after raiding our supply closet, instead constructed the Mystery Cylinder, pictured below.
We could use the Mystery Cylinder to choose books to read when we had a big group together, since there was no way to choose something to perfectly match everyone’s tastes. I found myself occasionally nudging the results in a certain direction, but it was overall a success and I can’t wait to use it with a more targeted audience.
Sing!Singing books were among the summer’s most popular, and especially Abiyoyo and Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes. I read/sang Pete the Cat maybe 20+ times, slightly more than once a storytime. Because we read with several groups over the course of an hour, there were lots of chances for folks to request it.
While these were outreach storytimes, attention spans were shorter and groups were diverse, age-wise. I tried some songs and action rhymes my first day, and the kids were not into it. Singing books were a huge hit, though, so I used them throughout the summer to regularly incorporate singing into the mix.
Sometimes you're just there to have a conversation.Occasionally, kids weren’t really feeling storytime. During that downtime, we would chat about books and other things they like. Other things being mainly Minecraft. This was an important time for them, making the outreach a two-way street, and getting their feedback about materials and services they would like to see. But I had to eventually institute unofficial “Minecraft conversation limits” or it would consume the entire hour.
When a story goes doesn't click, bail ruthlessly.This is pretty standard storytime operating procedure, but reading with groups of kids aged 2 to 12 really sharpened my “ditch a book that’s bombing” instinct. With outreach in the park, it’s only natural that kids will get distracted and wander off. I’m absolutely fine with that. But if someone wants to read stories, it’s up to me to make sure I am not offering something low-interest or unengaging.
You can never have enough books, especially ones that mention "butts" or "underwear."This follows logically from the previous point. Every week I brought a massive bag of books, and every week I had a pile of at least a few books beside me that had failed to connect with the kids. See also Chicken Butt!
So in conclusion, I wanted to share a couple of my favorite outreach storytime titles from this summer:
What! Cried Granny by Kate Lum - This cumulative tale may be one of my favorite storytime books, ever. It works with preschoolers, but seems to resonate with early- to mid-school age kids, which makes it invaluable for diverse outreach settings. It also deals with sleeping over at grandmother’s house, a theme that school age audiences connect to. I will be always be grateful to the amazing Jim Jeske at San Francisco Public Library Children’s Center for showing me this when I was interning there.
Little Red Hot by Eric A. Kimmel - Paired with Red Riding Hood, this fractured fairy tale offers a lot of opportunity for laughs. I can do a passable Texas accent, which helps when reading this one.
Red Riding Hood by James Marshall - I am very pro-fairy tale, though I acknowledge you have to be careful when it comes to outreach storytime. Marshall’s version of Red Riding Hood retains a strong narrative but is short enough to work with older kids in an outreach setting. Like I said, we read it paired with Little Red Hot on multiple occasions.
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean - I think I’ve covered this one pretty well anon.
Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger - Another chance to sing, as well as read a great folk tale with a cool monster.
Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard - I like reading mysteries with older kids, and Miss Nelson is Missing! has a good narrative and enough humor to work well with older (and even some younger) readers in an outreach context. In a more structured outreach setting, I’ve done a reader’s theater version which works as well.
Ted McCoy is currently a Children's Librarian at the Springfield (MA) City Library. He conducts Tiny Tots infant/toddler storytime and ongoing school-aged STEAM programming. He can be reached at emccoy(at)springfieldlibrary(dot)org and @ted_mccoy on Twitter.
Mystery cylinder photo provided by the author.