Secrets of Storytime: 10 Tips for Great Sessions from a 40-year Pro

Storytime is the premium service for children in public libraries across the country. For many youth librarians, it's the most treasured part of their job. A storytime veteran shares her best practices.

Illustration of storytime at a Library, by Tom Bloom.

By Nell Coburn

“I want to know your top 10 best practices for storytime,” a colleague said to me a few months before I retired. “You’ve been in youth services four decades and you’ve long been a storytime trainer at Multnomah County Library (MCL). I bet you have some best practices I’ve never even thought of.”

This was an irresistible challenge, because it’s storytime that’s kept me in youth services for 40 years and storytime that I’ll miss most in retirement. Storytime is the premium service for children in public libraries across the country. For many youth librarians, it’s the most treasured part of our job. I’m sure my colleagues are aware of many storytime best practices, but I can suggest a few that might not be on everyone’s list.

I’ll start with something I’m passionate about: My longstanding belief that storytime is for children and adults. When I trained as a youth librarian in the 1970s in Prince George’s County, MD, storytime was a kids-only affair. As in most public libraries, parents and caregivers waited for their children outside the program room. A few of us encouraged them to join, but many librarians felt intimidated by the adult presence.

Back in those days, storytime was for three to five year olds. When we started offering programs for two year olds—and eventually, babies—we needed adults to accompany their children. It soon became obvious that everyone was benefiting from storytime. Now, most libraries make it clear that storytime is very much for children and their adults. I’ve underlined some key phrases from the MCL website’s description of storytime: “Parents learn how to foster early literacy skills to prepare their children for learning to read. Librarians answer questions about books and library services, and teach parents how to interest their children in books.”

How does that transfer into best practice? The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and the Public Library Association (PLA) offer some effective techniques in their early literacy initiative, Every Child Ready to Read @your library, accessible online ( Since that venture began over a decade ago, MCL librarians have made it standard practice to make direct comments to adults during storytime.

Here’s an example: After sharing a book like Raffi and Nadine Bernard Westcott’s Down by the Bay (Crown) or Westcott’s The Lady with the Alligator Purse (Little, Brown, both 1988), a librarian might say: “Singing and rhyming help children learn that words are made up of different sound combinations. In songs, each syllable has a different note, so it’s easy to hear distinct sounds. Children who can do this are better able to sound out words when they are learning to read.”

Adults appreciate knowing that storytime materials and techniques are supported by research and boost early literacy skills. For many, this gives storytime more legitimacy and educational value.

Even more important than sharing such information with grown-ups is the ability to ensure active adult participation in storytime. The best storytimes are those during which adults are fully engaged—shaking out their wiggles, clapping, singing, dancing, and encouraging kids as they interact with the books.

This can be facilitated in multiple ways. I like to hang large-print copies of regularly used songs and rhymes on the wall, or have a collection stapled together in a take-home handout. It’s easier for grown-ups when the words are right in front of them. It helps storytime presenters, too: We don’t have to memorize all those songs! And a handout encourages parents and caregivers to share the songs and rhymes with their children later, further strengthening their early literacy skills.

Adult involvement has all sorts of positive outcomes beyond the educational ones. When grown-ups are engaged, we have fewer “adult behavior” challenges, such as chatting or cell phone use. This leads me to another best practice: Establish clear expectations for both adult and child storytime behavior. Effective instructions are positively worded and presented in simple, direct language. The focus should be on what storytime participants should do, rather than what they should not do.

Consider posting your expectations, briefly mentioning them at the beginning, or handing them out before a series of storytimes. For example, a clear, friendly statement may help adults realize that cell phone use during storytime is not appropriate. Here’s one to try: “Adults: Please help me make this storytime a good experience for all by turning off your phone, or putting it on vibrate. If you must accept a call during storytime, please step outside the room to do so.”

Help young parents understand that it’s best to take their child out of the room if he or she is disruptive, and that they are welcome back when the child is ready. According to MCL staff, this instruction is especially appreciated by immigrant parents with no storytime experience who may not know how they and their children should behave.

Likewise, a brief, straightforward statement can inform adults that we don’t expect their two year old to behave like a five year old: “Welcome! This is a storytime designed for two year olds, so please know that it will look different from some other storytimes you may have attended. Two year olds need to move, so we plan lots of movement activities and we don’t mind when they get up and roam around the room during the stories, as long as they don’t hurt themselves or disturb others.”

Adults who are actively involved and understand the educational value of storytime may be less likely to be chronically late. Of course, nothing is predictable where young children are involved, and there will be occasions when traffic, a child meltdown, or some minor home crisis will result in latecomers. The best practice here, I believe, is to welcome all attendees warmly and make them feel comfortable. Recently I observed a Spanish-language storytime during which families trickled in from 10 to 10:30 a.m. Everyone seemed fine with that, and the newcomers slipped into the group seamlessly. Spanish-speaking staff say that a relaxed regard for time is culturally appropriate, another factor to consider in our approach to latecomers.

I’ve always felt that one of storytime’s main purposes is to introduce children and grown-ups to the riches of the library’s collections. Adults often need a nudge in the direction of poetry and the fine information books available to children. To encourage them in these areas, I believe we should make it a point to feature poetry and nonfiction books in storytime.

Here are some suggestions. Byron Barton’s Building a House (Greenwillow, 1981) and Joy Cowley and Nic Bishop’s Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Scholastic, 1999) are fascinating and well-paced for storytime reading. A poetry book I’ve used again and again is Jack Prelutsky and Marc Brown’s Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (Knopf, 1986), a gem containing a great selection of poems to match with picture books. The collection includes an assortment of poems about mud, puppies, and other ordinary things that delight small children and connect storytime to their immediate world. Try pairing Lillian Schulz’s “Fuzzy Wuzzy, Creepy Crawly” caterpillar rhyme with Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel, 1969). The short poem nicely reinforces Carle’s simple science lesson.

If I have one pet peeve, it’s people who come for storytime and leave immediately after. In MCL storytime training, we encourage staff to invite participants to explore the collection and “find something wonderful to take home!” We also urge storytime presenters to accompany families to the shelves and offer assistance. Staff should not be expected to return to a public service desk right after their program. They can make themselves most useful by roaming the shelves with the participants they’ve just put under the storytime spell.

Often, adults like to linger and socialize after storytime. If you find that they aren’t also visiting the collection, set up a small selection of enticing materials in the program area. Encourage everyone to browse. You may even wind up doing quick booktalks about materials you’re encouraging families to check out. Include some cool materials for adults—a new cookbook, seasonal craft books, gardening books, magazines, or DVDs.

How do we stay fresh when we do storytimes week after week, year after year? We need to look for opportunities to continue our education in storytime techniques. Even after 40 years, I love learning new rhymes and songs from colleagues. I love seeing how someone else approaches a title and discovering which new titles work well for them. The best way to grow our storytime skills is through observation, an important part of new staff training at MCL. Veteran staff benefit from observation as well: We should all get out of our own libraries and observe our colleagues elsewhere several times a year. Managers can support this practice by incorporating it into yearly staff performance appraisals.

MCL youth librarians also enhance their skills through a practice called “storytime highlights.” During several monthly youth services meetings, a few librarians share a favorite song, rhyme, puppet story, or activity. They also meet periodically for “circle of practice” sessions before the meeting. Each session focuses on supporting skills in a specific area, such as toddler time, family storytime, or songs and rhymes for babies.

I’ll close with one of my strongest beliefs about storytime. Perhaps it’s more of a “best concept” than a best practice, but it affects everything else we do. This is something I learned from the wise Marjie Crammer, who for decades headed the children’s department at the New Carrollton (MD) Library. Marjie would tell her staff: “Storytime is not about you; it’s about the children.”

Over the years, I’ve adjusted that a bit: “Storytime is not a performance; it’s an interactive experience between you and the people in front of you on any particular day.” Staff attending MCL storytime training say this is what they remember most. It takes the pressure off and keeps the focus on the children. Come to think of it, let’s move that to best practice number one. I don’t doubt it will hold for another 40 years.

Nell Colburn served as a children’s librarian for over 40 years at Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, and at public libraries in Maryland, Virginia, New York, and Washington. She is the 2013 recipient of the Oregon Library Association’s Eveyln Sibley Lampman Award for significant contributions in library service to the children of Oregon. She also cowrote SLJ’s “First Steps” column with Renea Arnold from 2004-2012.

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Lesa Dierking

Wonderful article! I've only been doing storytime for a few years, after teaching early elementary grades for a couple of years, transitioning to a stay at home mom, and then moving to part-time work at our public library when my daughter entered school. It is very satisfying to see that I have evolved into many of the suggestions the author has made, over time of doing more storytimes and seeing and interacting with different children and parents. A very good read for storytime leaders and storytime audiences.

Posted : Aug 27, 2013 09:14



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