Essential Elements of Storytime: Embracing the Performance

Storytime is a different library service than reference work, reader’s advisory, or circulation assistance in that it is not a one-to-one transaction. It is a performance, a show, not a conversation. To present the best storytimes, I believe we need to understand and accept this.

Be Comfortable on Stage

When we’re prepping our storytimes, we need to not just prepare our material, but prepare ourselves to be in front of an audience, and be their center of attention. Their eyes will be on us, their attention will be to our actions, and not only do we have to accept this, but we have to go out of our way to ensure it! This is a very different mindset than we have the rest of our week. (Well, I don’t bust out in song in the produce section, but maybe you do.)

We need to be willing to expand our working definition of professional behavior so that it includes singing, dancing, and expressing ourselves to grownups and children without being self-conscious. Even reading books to a group requires a different skill set than reading to one or two children at home.

Fill the Stage

We can be comfortable on a stage and still not be very practiced at it. This is natural! Not all of us have high school drama or band or choir solo experiences to draw on, or are natural extroverts. But I think successful storytimes do require thought beyond book and material selection, to dramatic conventions such as voice projection, audience awareness, prop manipulation, staging, pacing, and continuity.

When you watch actors on TV or on the stage, it’s easy to get caught up in the story and forget how much rehearsal and attention to detail goes into every show. Actors do breathing exercises to help them project their voices; they do walk-throughs of each scene to learn where they need to stand and how to hold their hands and when and where precisely to pick up and set down props. They practice their lines on their own until they can say them fluidly, then practice them with the rest of the cast to fine tune the timing. Even improv comedians practice! They may not be rehearsing lines, but certainly they work on how to express emotions with their faces and bodies and they build their general background knowledge so they can make connections on stage and they brainstorm possible reactions to different scenarios.

Storytime Providers are Performers

Storytime providers have lines, and sets, and props, as well. Preparing for storytime shouldn’t just mean choosing your books and your songs, but practicing holding your book and singing your song. It means setting your stage so you know exactly where each item is and you can put your hands on it at the right time. Bands prepare set lists and know who is going to introduce each song; storytime providers can too. You don’t have to follow your plan to the letter, but thinking a sequence through in advance and planning some transitional comments can save you time and lessen your distraction during storytime itself. Part of your thinking about storytime is running through possible situations ahead of time—what will you do if no one wants to get up and dance? What will you do if you have a super-chatty three-year-old?

A couple of years ago, I was presenting a “Moon and Rockets” storytime to a crowd of infants and young toddlers. I was sitting in my chair, talking about what astronauts wear, and all of a sudden I looked down and saw my friend Tyler. He was about 8 months old, and had crawled all the way across the room, grabbed the hem of my skirt, and pulled it out over his head. I laughed and said, “Tyler! Astronauts ALSO wear underwear, but we aren’t talking about that today!” Everyone else laughed too, and Tyler’s mom scooped him up, and on we went with storytime.

This is a funny story, and I love to tell it because believe me, I am not always so quick witted and people don’t always laugh at my jokes! But I tell it also because that response is not something I would have been capable of as a newbie storytime provider. It took a lot of practice and a lot of storytimes to get me to the point where I am that comfortable on stage. Where the unexpected doesn’t (usually) disconcert me, where I’m comfortable with all eyes on me (even during slightly embarrassing moments), where I can interact spontaneously with my audience, and where I’m able to keep storytime moving along to the next scene.

Give Yourself Credit

I also think we owe it to ourselves and our profession not to disparage our fill-the-stage performances or our funny improv moments as “just being goofy” or “just being a kid.” You know what? You may be having a great time (in fact that’s another one of my essential elements), but if people are enjoying your storytime, it’s not just by chance. Consciously or unconsciously you are working hard to command the stage, empower yourself, and employ dramatic techniques to enable your audience’s understanding and enjoyment. Don’t brush that off. And if your style is not over-the-top, you are still filling the stage. You don’t have to chew the scenery to embrace the performance. (In fact one storytime provider I know is so Zen and calm I always leave her storytimes feeling like I’ve been to the spa.)

I think that treating storytime as a true performance contributes to a successful storytime. What do you think? Let us know! Then come back next week to find out what else is on my list!

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19 Responses to Essential Elements of Storytime: Embracing the Performance

  1. Amy says:

    This is such a great post. People are shocked to find out that in terms of personality testing, I’m actually a pretty big introvert. Naturally, as I’ve spent more time working in libraries and leading hundreds of programs, I’ve moved a bit more toward the extrovert end of the spectrum. But still, I’m the person who decided education wasn’t a viable college major because I couldn’t picture myself in front of a classroom everyday…. and yet, here I am, in front of groups at least 4 times a week.

    What helps me is a) preparation & practice, just like you say (thinking through what you’ll do and how you’ll arrange things, speaking loudly and clearly, etc.) and b) being fully present. When I stop thinking about myself and how I think my speaking voice sounds childish or how awful my big hips must look shaking about while dancing to a song, I’m able to enjoy what I’m doing. Because I love what I do, even if it is totally on the other end of the personality spectrum. Instead, I look around me at what the kids are doing, how they are engaging and participating (reminding grown ups that I don’t want to be the only silly one wiggling my hips helps too!) The kids could care less what I sound like or how self-conscious about my body I might be. They see a grown up who’s smiling, having a good time, and that is good enough for them!

  2. Lisa says:

    These are terrific, Melissa, but I have to say that saying that I’m “just being a kid” is NOT disparaging myself in terms of story times. It’s that sense of fun, of joy, and that lack of self-consciousness that brings me close to the kids and makes my programs successful. That IS my “comfort on stage”. And it’s what lets me keep going even when everything in story time goes catawampus. As it usually does!

  3. Ha! I always wear pants – and try to wear loose clothes, long shirt etc. b/c we do a lot of dancing and moving around (and nobody really wants to see my tummy!) and because I have a lot of kids that are very touchy-feely – some just because they like me, but some with developmental issues. It’s hard enough to do a storytime with a ten year old trying to crawl on your lap without having a toddler climbing up your skirt!

  4. Melissa says:

    Thanks ladies, I love your comments!

    I think Lisa and Amy are on the same track in their comments about self-consciousness, and I think you’re both absolutely right. Getting past that awkward third-person awareness of yourself will let you become more invested in the performance and engaged with your audience, both of which can improve your storytime.

    Lisa, my concern about “just being silly” and “just being a kid” is not the ability to actually BE silly or BE a like a kid–those I value highly in a storytime presenter. And, really, in anyone! But as a group, children’s librarians are often marginalized or looked on as less professional than our adult services counterparts. People are still surprised when we have tech capabilities or management skills or aspirations beyond the children’s room. As a result, I tend to be very very cautious about how I present my abilities. I am wary of suggesting that any of my hard-earned presentation or audience management skills are “just” anything! People assume that anything kids can do is simple. People assume that giving storytime is easy. So while you may not feel that saying “just like a kid” is disparaging, it’s my experience that others do. And it’s my experience that some of us do use the phrase “just being a kid” to shrug off attention from what we do in storytime. Most storytime providers are women, and it’s true that women tend not to feel comfortable touting themselves, in general. So I want to make sure that as a group, we are using language to describe our skills and abilities that does not make them easy for others to dismiss. But I totally agree that the quality of our engagement is best when we enter our experiences as fully as children do!

    Jennifer, you are so right on this! I didn’t even think about mentioning clothing despite telling that story. Clothes are a kind of prop, too, though, and attention to all of it–necklines, waistbands, hems, maneuverability, shoes, all affects how we feel on stage and what we can do when we’re up there. Great point!

  5. Tracey says:

    I can not even express how wonderful this post is. So much to think about, I must digest and come back and comment more later. But I definitely think of story time as my own personal show time. I am painfully shy, but give me a book and I will perform that book for you at the drop of a hat. And story time = dancing!! But I am also clumsy and gulumphy, and always drop something or knock something off the flannel board, so every week I dream of a “perfect show”. And I know there are parents who choose another story time provider because they prefer a calmer, quieter story time.

  6. Melissa says:

    Hi Tracey! So good to hear your thoughts.
    I don’t think we ever get that “perfect show” but we can become more comfortable with our “performance selves.” There will always be families that match up well or not as well with our personal style & we can’t let that rattle us when they don’t. The important thing I think is that we are working to be genuine and welcoming no matter what our style is!

  7. Lisa says:

    My thing is that I have dealt with way too many librarians who are thrust into programming who don’t like doing it, and I get a lot of comments from parents to that effect. I don’t want to diss my colleagues, but I do believe that the joy I find in playing with the kids is the true secret of my success. Certainly it’s not my careful planning :D

    Jennifer, I seldom if ever wear anything but pants to work because at my “Mother Goose Time” I crawl around on the floor with puppets and because most of my story times involve all kinds of physical activity. I probably should wear knee pads!

  8. Melissa says:

    Yes, Lisa, that’s exactly what I talk about in my first post–liking storytime AND wanting to do storytime are keys to success!

  9. We have a very small staff at our library and after I talked several members into subbing for storytime (specifically lapsit) I’ve never heard a disparaging comment about what I or my counterpart from the school does. On the other hand, I’ve only got one sub now because nobody else would do it more than once (-:)

    I found that the more I relaxed and let the idea of a perfect performance/perfect program go, the better it went for everybody, including myself.

    I frequently get wannabe volunteers who want to “read stories to the kids” and don’t seem to grasp the idea that there’s more to it than that.

  10. Melissa says:

    Yes, those eye-opening experiences go a long way, don’t they! We have been working with staff supervisors this year to help them see all those extra layers of storytime and help them get on board with the amount of prep time their storytime staff needs off the desk.

    Letting go of the “perfect” storytime is an excellent strategy for becoming more comfortable with the performance! Thanks Jennifer!

  11. Sandra says:

    Hi Storytime Peoples:

    Thank you for this article. Lots to think on….

    I believe it is important to “read” our audience at every program. Having each child or adult “succeed” is a priority for me. New, younger and more timid people need to feel welcomed and encouraged to participate at a level comfortable for them. Being a natural extrovert, I can overwhelm certain individuals and have learned to gauge myself. We still have loads of fun at each program.

    I frequently find myself working with the group dynamic and “tweeking” presentations as often as every couple of minutes. 3 new children enter the program 5 minutes into the book…someone seems brave for a moment so I capitalize on that & ask them to come up and point to the dog in the illustration(that comfort zone might not occur again for weeks)…only 6 children today is different than having 19…everyone is hyper beyond belief due to “Easter candy”…and on & on & on it goes…

    I love the variety, flexibility, giggles, hugs, enthusiasm, funny stories from 3 year olds, dancing, running, excitement, joy, the observers, the do-ers, the meticulous, the messies, smiles, hopping like frogs, singing, listening, creativity, shining pride of each artist, the pleased drivers (can’t say mommies because I have Uncles, Grandparents, Dads, Aunts, big sisters and Craig – oops, asked the 4 year old if that was dad-”No, he’s not my dad- he’s Craig.”) I seem to engage everyone in the room. Even if 90-95% is on the focus group, I want to keep the adults involved and “entertained”…usually in the form of joking that goes over the heads of the under 10 year olds.

    Now – changing subjects:
    The community I serve has families who prefer females to be in dresses or skirts. In deference to those families I do not wear slacks on “Program Days.” To quote a Camp Director (speaking to counselors to dress to be a good example to the campers) “long, loose, and lots of it” is the way I dress for Storytimes. Can I crawl, lift my arms high and sit on the floor with out my offending anyone? …then that clothing works for me – often with bike shorts or leggins underneath.

    thanks for listening
    Miss Sandra

  12. I have just glanced at the website at the suggestion of our library director. It is awesome. I am going to spend some time reviewing this site over the next week while I take I break to prepare for my April events after Easter. A couple of years ago, I delighted in dressing up for each story time to go along with the them; pirate, hula girl, snowflake, witch, etc. The kids loved it and tried to guess what I would wear each week. We are doing so much more in our library under a new director and I look forward to implementing many of your ideas on this site. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Melissa says:

    Andi, thanks for letting me know you’ve found this site helpful! I love the idea of dressing up a bit for storytime. Let us know what you try and what works well for you!

  14. Melissa says:

    Sandra, you have so many great thoughts here. It’s so true that we reassess our audience as we go along! And you’re right that we must respond to the larger culture of our community as well. Thanks so much!

  15. Katie says:

    I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve been enjoying your site. I’ve been a children’s librarian for 4 years and have recently moved to a new library. I’ve been scouring the Internet for new resources and new ideas to bring to my programs because I’ve started to feel a little bit of the burn out you mentioned. I’ve loved all your posts on storytimes and I have some great new ideas for my infant program tomorrow. Thanks!

  16. Melissa says:

    Thank you, Katie! Have a great time trying out your new ideas!

  17. Sandra says:

    Andi-
    thank you for the comment about “dressing up.” This can be as easy as wearing tights with snowflakes on them, a fire fighter’s hat, a rainbow colored scarf, roller skates, certain colors ( orange and green for St. Patrick’s Day), pink piggie earrings, hip waders or holding an umbrella. The children look forward to “props”, costumes and guessing what I have inside my lunchbox from week to week. I think the “driver” enjoy it too.

  18. Mary K says:

    Thanks for this, Mel! One thing I talk about when I give presentations about reading aloud, whether to preschool teachers or parents, is “finding your style.” I know excellent storytime providers who are more low-key than I, and choose books to share that suit their style. I gravitate towards silly, loud books myself. Either style is valid, I think, as long as you can present your books with enthusiasm and in an engaging manner. It really shows if you love the books. I tell parents they don’t HAVE to do voices, but they do need to make their sad characters sound sad, excited characters sound excited, etc. I think that’s a concept parents can wrap their minds around when reading aloud to kids.

  19. Melissa says:

    Thanks Mary! Loving the books and being genuinely interested in sharing them with the kids I think is a core concept that is independent of your personal reading style!

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