Singing the Story: Musical Audiobook Read-alongs | Listen In

Sharon Grover and Liz Hannegan explore the role singing plays in early literacy development and how audiobooks can be used to further this growth. From Janis Ian's The Tiny Mouse to Simms Taback's Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, these titles make excellent sing-along picks for preschool storytimes.


Librarians are keenly aware of the key role they play in early childhood education; engaging children and involving their adult caregivers in the serious business of introducing books, rhymes, and songs that promote a love of reading and develop early literacy skills. Every Child Ready to Read 2, developed by the American Library Association and the Public Library Association, offers the Five Practices of Early Literacy—talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing—as a structure for planning storytimes and modeling fun ways to strengthen pre-reading skills. This month, we explore the role singing plays in early literacy development and how audiobooks can be used to further this growth.

Rhyming and singing reinforce phonological awareness, an essential skill for learning to read. As early literacy expert Saroj Ghoting points out, “singing slows down language so children can hear the smaller sounds in words.” Indeed, many librarians sing books in baby and toddler storytimes to enhance  the development of language skills.

When we met singer/songwriter Janis Ian at the launch of the picture book edition of her song, “The Tiny Mouse,” the conversation turned to music and how singing can affect children’s acquisition of reading skills. Ian, whose father was a music educator, believes that the early introduction of singing in her life influenced her reading ability as a young child.

Talking with Ian about The Tiny Mouse sparked our idea to use picture books adapted from songs in storytimes for preschoolers. Such material naturally lends itself to the support of early literacy development; songs allow children to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words, repetition helps reinforce story sequencing, and colorful lyrics introduce children to rich, new vocabulary.

Sharon experimented with a variety of musical audiobooks in her storytime program for children ages four through six. She led the children and their adult caregivers in a spirited sing-along of I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, retold and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott (Little, Brown, 1980), and the pop-up edition of The Wheels on the Bus, adapted and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky and paper engineered by Rodger Smith (Dutton, 1990). Sharon also read Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Viking, 1999), Simms Taback’s 2000 Caldecott Medal-winner. After reading and discussing the story with the children, she played a clip from the song in the audiobook version (reviewed below), which differs from the print book. An eager conversation ensued about the variations between the two formats. The storytime was a rousing success, and Sharon plans to use “singing books” again.

Here are a variety of sing-along audiobooks to use in storytime. We hope you’ll consider using them in your own work with preschool children, and we encourage you to share your results.


Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems. Written and narrated by Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. Music by Scotty Huff and Robert Reynolds. CD. 30 min. with paperback book. Weston Woods. 2001. 978-1-55592-615-1. $18.95. Gr K-2

This collection offers rhythmic verses, a musical background, a variety of song types, and accurate penguin information. Beginning with “A Hatchling’s Song,” each poem has a distinct pace, melody, and tone that will have students humming, singing, or tapping their toes. The verses’ subject matter ranges from the bird’s early stages as a hatchling to how penguin parents provide food and safety in “My Father’s Feet” and “I Am Looking for My Mother.” Two of the most effective contrasts in rhythm and song are “Predator Riddles” in rapping time and “Antarctic Anthem.” A second set of tracks without music allows students to focus on the facts.

Chicka Chicka 1_2_3. Written by Bill Martin, Jr. and Michael R. Sampson. Illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Narration, music and vocals by Crystal Taliefero. CD. 12 min. 16 sec. with paperback book. Weston Woods. 2005. 978-0-439-02109-8. $18.95. Gr PreS-K

This rhyming counting story offers three listening formats: with page-turn signals (Track 1), without page-turn signals (Track 2), and the song (Track 3). Each choice gives children time to count, study the bright illustrations, and hear the cadence of the rhymes. Numbers, from one to 100, climb an apple tree and reverse to fall on the ground. Counting is engagingly reinforced with the lyrics and repeated refrain, “Will there be a place for me?” Taliefero’s just-right tempo complements the rhyme scheme and will have children chanting long after the end of the story.

The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night: An Old Song. Written and illustrated by Peter Spier. Performed by Tom Chapin. CD. 21 min. with paperback book. Live Oak Media. 2006. 978-1-5911-2441-2. $18.95. Gr PreS-1

The story told in this traditional folksong about a fox hunting for geese and ducks is enhanced with banjo music and well-placed sound effects. Unhurried pacing allows children to enjoy Spier’s 1962 Caldecott Honor–winning illustrations. Chapin’s enthusiastic vocal expression reaches perfection when he sings, combining wry humor with a hand-clapping performance. The result is a rousing choice for any children’s program.

The following websites offer additional ideas for using music in storytimes:


Mr. Scooter from New Hanover Public Library This one-minute video with children’s librarian Mr. Scooter (below) delivers a brief, effective message to parents about singing and phonological awareness. Music Is a Must! By KBYU TV Eleven Ready to Learn This 39-minute workshop explores the ways music works to enhance learning (for example, by using both hemispheres of the brain). Clips from Barney and Caillou may be dated, but they introduce ways of using music with children, including incorporating movement when singing along with an audiobook.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Written, illustrated, narrated and performed by Simms Taback with members of the Klezmatics. CD. 30 min. with hardcover book. Live Oak Media. 2001. 978-1-5911-2412-2. $29.95. Gr PreS- 2

When Joseph’s much-loved overcoat becomes worn, the resourceful tailor reinvents the garment until there is only enough cloth for a button. When he loses the button, Joseph discovers that he still has the most important part: the story. In this work based on a Yiddish folksong, Taback’s spirited, well-paced narration lets the illustrations shine. Playful sound effects extend the humor, while the Klezmatics’s rousing music reinforces the focus on Jewish culture.

LMNO Peas. Written and illustrated by Keith Baker. Narration and music by Crystal Taliefero. CD. 6 min. with hardcover book. Weston Woods. 2013. 978-0-545-57154-8. $29.95. Gr PreS-K

An alphabet book with whimsical illustrations and unusual vocabulary introduces an industrious set of peas that dance, climb, and listen. With the inclusion of a song with rhythmic flair, these ABCs encourage young listeners to imagine themselves as astronauts, kayakers, zoologists, or any of the other myriad careers that are noted. While listening and looking at the bold, graphic illustrations, children will join in the chant, “We are peas, alphabet peas!”

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Written and illustrated by Simms Taback. Narrated and performed by Tom Chapin. CD. 10 min. 11 sec. with hardcover book. Live Oak Media. 2001. 978-1-5911-2409-2. $29.95. Gr PreS-K

This familiar rhyme, illustrated by the inimitable Taback, won a 1998 Caldecott Honor. The song is performed by the talented Chapin. Background harmonica, guitar, and sound effects add to the whimsy of the story. Track 3 includes the history of the folk poem with Chapin providing authentic country intonation and musicality. Children will enjoy singing along as they learn about story sequencing.

The Tiny Mouse. Written and performed by Janis Ian. Illustrated by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert. CD. 3 min. with hardcover book. Lemniscaat USA. 2013. 978-1-9359-5430-9. $19.95. Gr PreS-2.

A tiny mouse goes off to sea only to discover that the captain is a cat! After he escapes with the help of a flounder, he marries a “Mouseketeer” and spends the rest of his days entertaining his many offspring with tales of his adventures. Children will enjoy listening to Ian sing this amusing and outrageous story with guitar accompaniment. Schubert’s lush, richly hued illustrations help extend the text. Included in the package are lyrics, musical score, and an instrumental version. The whimsical website ( features an “interview” with the tiny mouse and encourages children to make their own videos based on the story. Lyrics, which can be projected for singing along in storytime, can also be found on the website.

Sharon Grover is Head of Youth Services at the Hedberg Public Library, Janesville, WI. Lizette (Liz) Hannegan was a school librarian and the district library supervisor for the Arlington (VA) Public Schools before her retirement.


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