March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Puppet-Savvy Nashville Librarian Earns the Toyota Family Teaching Award


Elizabeth Atack with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Image © 2014, Metropolitan Government City of Nashville and Davidson County.

A Nashville librarian who created family literacy programs and carefully tracked her programs’s outcomes is the winner the 2014 Toyota Family Teacher of the Year award. Elizabeth Atack, program manager of the Bringing Books to Life! (BBTL) initiative at the Nashville Public Library (NPL), is the first librarian to be recognized with the honor. Established in 1997, the award grants Atack and her library $20,000.

BBTL started in 2003 as a way to develop a literacy curriculum for preschools and day care. It then centered on NPL’s marionette puppet shows, a mainstay attraction at the library since 1938. These days, library employees load up NLP’s Puppet Truck and take the show on the road to perform at day care centers, schools, community centers, museums, and other facilities. The Puppet Truck put on nearly 450 traveling performances between June 2012 and July 2013.

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NPL’s Bret Wilson and Morgan Matens perform ‘The World of Mother Goose’ at a community center.

During the Puppet Truck visits, library staff train teachers, distribute resources, and suggest activities that connect the shows to early educational curricula.

They strive to “create a classroom focus around a story using the themes of the puppet show as a springboard,” Atack says.

A story about pond life can link to ecology; a fairy takes can open up a conversation about friendship. Library staff also train teachers and hand out literacy kits.

While these educational puppet shows are going strong, BBTL has expanded its literacy goals far beyond those origins. Funded by the Nashville Public Library Foundation, it now encompasses workshops dedicated to giving caregivers and families tools for reading aloud effectively to their kids at home and understanding how to use developmentally appropriate resources. BBTL is a partnership between the foundation and many organizations, including Vanderbilt University and Nashville’s Martha O’Bryan Center, serving families living in poverty. The budget for this fiscal year is $375,000.

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The Puppet Truck.

Atack began offering parent workshops at the library in 2007. While some patrons attend programs at the library, NPL also takes its family workshops on the road, hosting them in schools, community centers, and elsewhere.

“Rather than assume they will find their way to the library, we will go to the places they already know and trust,” says Atack. “Parents are busy and have to work; we try to meet them where they are.”

Between July 2012 and June 2013, BBTL trained 764 teachers and served 9,234 children at 115 different  pre-K agencies. During that same time, the library presented 61 family literacy workshops attended by 877 participants at 38 partnering agencies. NPL distributed 499 literacy kits to attendees.

“Nashville has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the country,” Atack says, noting that many of those families participating in BBTL come from “countries where public libraries do not exist, or where you have to pay for them.”

In addition to having the largest Kurdish community outside of Iraq, Nashville is also home to a rapidly growing Central American community as well as refugees from Burma, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, according to Atack.

Wishing to empower caregivers to “read to their preschool-aged children without reading the words,” Atack and her colleagues added a focus on visual interpretation.

“We teach parents how to read the pictures, talk about what’s happening, and look at what the illustrator is saying. This may be different from what the author is saying, and we say, ‘that’s ok.’”

According to Atack’s statistics on BBTL, “Ninety-four percent of the teachers we trained have increased their use of literature-based themes in the classroom, and 85 percent report using the library as a resource for their curriculum,” she says.

“For our parent workshops, 99 percent of parents who participate report that they are more inclined to use the library. Ninety-five percent report engaging in literacy-based activities with their children more often three to six months after their workshop with us.”

Looking forward, Atack and her colleagues will continue their outreach strategy. “We’ll go to the community centers, meet them where they are, and slowly lead them to our doors.”

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.



  1. I’d love to see these puppet shows! Anything online– Youtube, Vimeo? I included shadow puppet pattern in my book, Recipe & Craft Guide to Indonesia (Mitchell Lane). I LOVE puppets!

  2. Just wondering why there’s no mention of Brian Hull in your story. He is an internationally known puppeteer who has been with Nashville Public Library for 15 years; under his tutelage, the puppet productions at NPL have gone from a few shows a month to 6-8 shows a week. NPL now has 70,000 children attending the library each year, more than any other city library in the nation. and the library attributes the attendance to shows that Brian writes, builds, directs, and performs in. For more information, see:

    Brian Hull is featured in that story, as well he should be on any story regarding NPL and puppets!