One aspect of my job at the public library is reading stories to children. It’s probably the part of my job that I enjoy the most. I’ve been doing it since this past September and so I have some experience reading to groups of children, but let’s be clear on one point, I am not a storyteller. What I do is read stories to children; there is a difference.
I am not a natural performer or public speaker, and it has taken me some time to get comfortable with my storytimes. That being said, I have gained enough confidence in my ability to interact with children that I am able to throw in little bits of humour, improv, or even simple editorials here and there in order to get their attention or to stall for time as I work out what I’m going to do next. The one thing I do not do is make up stories on the spot. As I said, I read stories; I am not a storyteller.
Case in point, I recently had a storytime that can definitely be filed under Learning Experience. This storytime happened to be one of our short storytimes that we offer on a daily basis. One of the challenges of these daily storytimes is getting a quick feel for your audience as you scan the library a few minutes before to see what age range you’ll be dealing with. This day I was in luck as most of the children were around the 3-5 range. I had picked some stories ahead of time and did a quick look through to make any last second decisions. There was one, A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea, that I wasn’t too sure about (a bit of foreshadowing in the title I suppose) but I thought I’d give it a try. I gathered the children into the programme room and things got underway. It was soon apparent that I had a spirited group. One boy, who is a regular at our storytimes, is usually quite energetic during the stories and loves to bounce and shout out answers. I was prepared for him, but then I found that there were two other, equally energetic boys in the group. This had the potential to be interesting.
The first two stories went fine, and I seemed to have a handle on the energy levels, but then I pulled out the puppets. I had done a song in one of my other storytimes that involved animals and dancing:
If you should meet a crocodile (elephant/monkey/etc.)
On a summer’s day
What would you do
And what would you say
I’d say hello Mr. Crocodile
How do you do
It’s nice to meet you crocodile
I’d like to dance with you.
At which point I would perform a silly dance and get the children to join in.
Well this was going just fine until the children started to get a bit, should I say, crazed. As I danced around with the elephant puppet the children started to move in and try to grab its trunk. I should have stopped there, but I felt compelled to pull out the monkey puppet as well. By the time the dance portion of the song came they had surrounded me and were clawing at the monkey puppet, which by this point had a look in its eyes that said to me, “Why? Why have you done this to me? You can make this stop. You must make this stop!”
I struggled to wrench the monkey puppet away and tried my best to get the children to sit back down. They finally did sit down, but they were now bouncing up and down on their cushions. What to do now? I decided to try another book. I decided to try, A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea. I enjoy this book; my daughter enjoys this book; that might be where it ends. I was only able to make it three pages in when I realized that I had lost my audience. Half of the children were bouncing up and down, the other half were talking to one another; there was one child who was actually listening to me. It just so happened that a pig parade was a terrible idea. I stopped reading and addressed the children, “I think maybe we’ll stop with this story. It doesn’t seem like you’re very interested in it.”
That’s probably where it should have ended. I should have wrapped up with another rhyme and then sent them on their way, but I didn’t. No, instead I did something that I shouldn’t have done; I decided to improvise and create a story. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t start out trying to make up a story, I honestly just wanted get the children’s attention.
“Ok, everyone! Put your hands up in the air! Now put them down! Now put them up again! [What the hell am I doing?] Alright, we’re going to tell a story using our hands. [What did I just say? We’re going to do what?] One day the rain started to come down and it sounded like this, everyone tap on your knees like this, good. Then it started to rain even harder, tap faster, and harder, tap faster, and harder, keep tapping. And the wind blew like this, everyone blow, whooosh, whooosh. And the thunder sounded like this, stomp your feet. And the lightning went crash! clap your hands.”
By this point everyone is involved and following along, and I’m thinking to myself, I should have just done this, my weather making routine. Why did I bother to introduce it as a story, because now I’m invested and I feel compelled to continue.
“The rain keeps falling down and we’re getting all soggy and wet, so we start to run, use your feet and run, run, run. Oh, I can’t believe how wet we’re getting! [Oh, I can’t believe how lame this story is getting]. Quick! There’s a doorway! Let’s hide there so we can get out of the rain. Whew! We’re out of the rain, but we’re still so soggy and wet, so we knock on the door, knock, knock, knock” [Whoa, whoa, whoa! What are we doing? We’ve ducked into a doorway and now we’re knock on some stranger’s door? What have I got these kids into? This isn’t right at all!]
Well, now I’ve put myself, not to mention the children, into a problematic situation. Brilliant, Seán. How can I salvage this wreck before it bleeds stupid all over the floor?
“The door opens, crrreeak, [umm, umm] and there’s… Grandma! [Wow. No one saw that coming. What are the chances that we just so happened to duck into Grandma’s doorway? What an amazing, unbelievably asinine plot twist. Thank you, Grandma]. Grandma says, ‘Hello, my dear! wave, I was just about to put these cookies in the oven, how big do you think the cookies are? This big? This big? [Why I insist on trying to keep up the charade that this story is still dependent on hand play is beyond me] So Grandma puts the cookies in the oven, put the cookies in with me, and in a little while they come out hot and yummy, mmmmm, munch, munch, munch. The end.” [Ugh.]
Well, that was one of the more painful experiences in my life. What can I do to cap it off? Oh, I know. Let’s read another story. Yes, that’s right boys and girls, I’m going to drag this disaster out just a little bit more. Everyone seated comfortably? No? Too bad, because here I go. I honestly haven’t the faintest clue as to why I was still going on. It’s like I was trapped in some sort of tractor beam that continued to pull me towards the Death Star of crap decisions. I pull out, There Is a Bird On My Head! which is one of my go-to books; good old Mo Willems! Yet, on a day like today, in a storytime such as this, not even Gerald and Piggy can save me. I am struggling beyond belief to keep the children’s attention as a slog through the book which, mercifully, is a short one. The storytime ends and I thank everyone for coming and for listening.
What was I thinking? I’m not a storyteller. It was folly to don such an ill-fitting hat. I retire to the back office defeated, and recount my experience to my coworkers. Well they have a great time hearing about what happened, and we all end up laughing, taking delight in the comedy of errors that I had just created
Oh, sure. Now I can tell a story.