A Tale of Two Libraries

It was best of story times. It was the worst of story times.

One of the best friends to a stay-at-home parent is the library. Of course, without kids, I’m not sure I’d spend much time at the library. I’d like to think that I’d go there all the time, checking out books and broadening my mind, but the reality is my trips to the library would probably be few and far between.  Before having kids there was a long, long gap in my relationship with the library. So long, in fact, that it made returning a little awkward. Like someone I dissed for a decade and then came back asking for a favor.

When I did finally go back to the library, it treated me like the prodigal son returning home. Killed the fatted calf and everything. And I was glad to be home. No offense to my relatives in retail, but my first thought was, why do bookstores even exist when all the books are right here for free? And that’s not all. There are tons of other services the library provides too. Who knew?

When living in Oakland I was a bit of an expert on story times.  There were something like a hundred libraries in the area, and I had scoped them all out.  I knew what was good, what was crap, what was crowded, what was best for a 3-year-old, and what was best for the baby. I couldn’t get enough of them either.  I developed into a full-blown story time junkie.

Moving to Paris, I was hoping to replicate some of that magic.  The first place I ended up was the American Library in Paris. Overall, very similar to the expectations I had developed in the States.  Very interactive, lots of cool stuff.

Cozy story time at the American Library.

I have nothing but respect for people who do this sort of thing. It’s only when you see a mediocre story time that you appreciate how easy the experts make it look.  Reading a book while holding it up for kids to see is no small task. I saw one woman do it, and she kept fumbling over the words in the story, having to correct herself or read things over, or worse, mangle the syntax without even noticing.  Please people, familiarize yourself with the book before going in front of a group.  But overall I have to say that I’m truly impressed by what they do.

And they do crafts too!

Coming from Oakland, my first impression was that the librarians at the American Library kicked some ass.  The stories are great and there’s a lot of jumping up and stretching and dancing in between stories to keep the kids from getting too fidgety. There’s also a slide show of a book after the reading. It’s usually some real old-timey book like Harold and the Purple Crayon or something like that. They wrap things up with a crafts project. My kids were enthralled from start to finish. I thought, “This is what I’m talking about.”

Patrick might have a future in AV.

I love the whole deal. Although there was this one song about peanut butter and jelly that ends with them joking about rubbing the food off on your pants. I had about two weeks of trying to un-train Patrick from that practice.

Then there’s the French library in my neighborhood. It’s pretty cool, and somehow, even story time is different here. Now I really shouldn’t make big generalizations, having been to only one French story time, but I will anyway.

The French story time was bare bones, but in a good way. It was just books.  It might have been the first story time I’ve attended where there wasn’t something else interspersed with the books.

And maybe this is just a space issue, but it was totally better for the kids to follow the book. They used these cushion things like bleachers, so everyone could see. Every other library story time I’ve visited, there’s always some problem with seeing the book in the room because it’s crowded, and the room is tiny, with kids mixed in with parents and such. My back would be killing me as I tried to hold one child and urge another one to move up closer so he could see past some giant who decided to sit down in the middle of the rug. Bleachers. Brilliant.

Doesn't this look relaxing?

Parents were on the side watching and the children were separate, again not something I see usually at story times. Maybe I’ve been to mostly younger ones, and this is for slightly older kids. I don’t know. Or maybe the French expect that their kids will behave and hold their attention without the parents having to simultaneously entertain them. Maybe there’s no need to help them get rid of excess energy. I don’t know. Maybe they have something here.

I love that the parents are on the sidelines. It seems to parallel the teacher-parent relationship here.  In France, the teacher is the expert and parents don’t meddle, whereas in the States parents are almost expected to be up in the teacher’s business.  There are good and bad sides to this dynamic of course, but in the context of story time, it’s great.

I suppose it could be just that Americans are more energetic and want to be more interactive with the kids. Maybe the French are missing something, and the Americans have more razzle-dazzle and better understand what kids need.  After all, I totally thought a story time should be all those things, with all the bells and whistles.

But, it wasn’t that the French librarian wasn’t interactive. She was totally engaging in how she told the story. There weren’t many instances of kids standing up or being disruptive. And no one seem bored. In fact, my kids seemed a little more engaged than usual.

I remember when I was in social work grad school, a teacher was talking about class participation and being engaged. She talked about noticing people listening and focusing on what other people were saying and how that’s a form of engagement and participation.  You don’t need to blather on and on to be engaged. Maybe this is the case with story times. Sometimes less is more. You don’t have to do a bazillion things to make something interesting. Turns out the books are pretty entertaining on their own.  They only need a good reader.

My kids have always been slow to warming up to group activities.  Jumping up and dancing at the drop of a hat, not their thing so much.  And I always have this feeling that it’s perceived as bad that they don’t. Like they are antisocial. I have to tell myself to let it go and respect who my kids are. They’ve always been the ones to quietly take things in. At least in those situations.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I kind of dislike sing alongs and campy dancing things. I like reading books though. Maybe my kids picked up on that. Maybe I’m boring.

Or maybe it’s just that there are different ways to interact with different types of kids. Maybe kids are individuals. How revolutionary!

It made me think about how I often try to get my kids to fit into what the expectations are in a certain situation. I think, “So and so does this and this, why doesn’t my kid do this and this?” Well, maybe it’s not my kid, it’s the venue.  Maybe I need to worry less about my kid conforming to his surroundings and more about finding surroundings that conform to him. Not something he feels forced to do because other people are doing it.

What I’ve realized is that you don’t need all the bells and whistles as a parent either- it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a parent if you keep it simple. Maybe kids just need someone who can tell a good story to them. You need to trust that your skill set is uniquely designed to be a perfect match for your child.

But for now, I think we’ll keep going to all the story times.  Maybe the truth is, “It was the best of story times.  It was the best of story times.”  It just depends on your kid.

This entry was posted in Culture, Kid behavior, Libraries, School and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Tale of Two Libraries

  1. Elaine B. says:

    Great post! I have been “the library lady” for 18 years and I really enjoyed hearing the parent-side to storytime. My family and I were in Paris earlier this month and went Cite des Enfants (for the 2 to 7yr crowd) with our 5 year old. The museum staff did a little story about the seasons. And it was not unlike how you described the storytime. Sure the lady had on a costume and some props, but MAN was I bored. I couldn’t watch the whole thing and my daughter also got up (probably saw me yawn). But we were the only ones who were not paying close, quiet, unsquirming attention. I guess my storytime philosophy has always been that it’s a child’s introduction to theater/ live performance — good expressive storytelling and razzle-dazzle are a part of that.

    • Thanks so much for sharing that. That is an interesting point about live performance. I agree that having examples of people expressing themselves creatively is important. I can see both sides of storytelling and think that children can benefit from either approach. Sometimes, I feel like the razzle and dazzle can be too much, but most of the time i am appreciative of the efforts and thankful for someone encouraging my children to do something different. I also like straight up storytelling, but sometimes I recognize that as boring and something I can do at home. I like both and I think it depends on the child. I’ll continue to mull this one over.

  2. Pingback: Dial 18 in Case of Coincidence | monsieurmaman

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