Story time to go: Libraries try to reach kids who aren’t being read to at home

She comes prepared for the road shows, her voice diving deep and stentorian the way an elephant’s might. She’s also ready to hit the high notes, like the squeaky falsetto of a little piggy.

Renee Edwards, a librarian in Fairfax County, can pitter-patter like the rain, fingers falling like drops from the sky. She can bring the thunder with the stomp-stomp-stomp of her feet. Page after page, sound effect after sound effect, she turns the children’s book “Are You Ready to Play Outside?” into performance art and keeps the 3- and 4- year-olds at her feet totally engaged, enraptured one moment, convulsing with laughter the next.

The show is story time, a long tradition at libraries everywhere. But Edwards takes her act beyond the hush of the stacks to community centers, Head Start classrooms and, as on this day, day-care centers.

It would be nice if all the children who need to read — or be read to — came to the library. But the truth is they don’t. So the libraries are trying to go to them.

Armed with new research that validates what many have thought for years about the urgency of early literacy — that reading to children opens their minds, enriches their vocabularies, gets them ready to learn in school and helps keeps them from dropping out of high school later — libraries in recent years have expanded the role they play in the education of young children, some so young they are still learning to crawl.

In addition to going out into the community, libraries are beefing up collections geared toward babies between 6 and 18 months old, and they are developing programs designed to teach parents and caregivers the most effective ways to read to children.

“Early literacy has gotten increasing attention, which is really important because it points out the role public libraries play in helping children get ready for success in school,” said Mary Fellows, president of the Association of Library Service to Children. “Public libraries in many communities are the only game in town for these children.”

But the move comes as libraries budgets are being slashed, and the programs — deemed by some librarians as the most important work they can do, especially in disadvantaged communities — are limited.

In the District, for example, where the library budget has been slashed so much that last year the system considered closing its main facility on Sundays, branches drastically cut back the number of visits to day-care centers and classrooms, from 2,444 in fiscal 2010 to 1,100 last year, according to a spokesman.

“In the last couple of years, we have not had the funds to be able to continue a good many of our outreach activities,” said Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian of the D.C. Public Library system. “We need to focus on keeping our libraries open as many hours as possible.”

An increasing number of children between birth and 5 years old are coming to the District’s libraries, however, where there are an increasing number of baby books and programs such as STAR (Sing, Talk and Read), where parents learn to interact with their children. Recently, the library has taken its STAR program to high schools with teenage mothers. Last year, more than 115,000 children ages 5 and younger attended library programs, up from 89,000 the year before.

In the past, libraries generally “didn’t expect to see kids until they were 3 or 4 and could sit quietly while they were read to,” Cooper said. “Now we’re happy to see kids as young as 6 months old. . . . We really think of ourselves as the first classroom for children and are pleased to play that role.”

Libraries are increasingly being used as resource centers for new parents. In May, the Oxon Hill Library in Prince George’s County is kicking off a school readiness program, developed by the Maryland State Department of Education, called “Healthy Beginnings.”

Parts of some libraries don’t even look like libraries anymore; they look like day-care centers or even theme parks for toddlers. In Baltimore County, for example, two library branches have “Story­ville,” free interactive early literacy learning centers within the library that are exclusively for children younger than 5. They are child-size villages with play grocery stores, construction zones and theaters that promote language development and social skills.

The first Storyville was so popular — officials say it routinely attracts people from out of state — that the county spent $1.7 million to build another in 2010. There are caves and treehouses and a baby park, logs to climb through, toys and dolls and stuffed animals. In other words, they are nothing like a library. Which is the point.

Edwards, the Fairfax librarian, starts her story times with a hello song and has the children play a game where they touch their
noses and toes. It ends in raucous applause. She encourages questions and answers — the more animated the feedback, the better.

“I work in a building with lots of books,” she said at one point. “What’s it called?”

“A LIBRARY!” one of the children bellowed.

Her technique of engaging children by constantly asking them questions about the characters in the book — “Why are they sad?” she asked. “Because it’s raining!” the children answered — is exactly what some libraries are trying to teach parents and caregivers.

Using a grant, the D.C. library system has recently started what’s called a Family Literacy Involvement Program, which helps parents read to children by providing interactive books and learning kits developed by the Children’s Museum of Houston.

In a city where, according to a 2007 study, 35 percent of the population is functionally illiterate, the real challenge is getting out to the people who don’t typically use the library.

Micki Freeny, the D.C. library’s coordinator of youth services, has talked to social service agencies and nurses who visit at-risk homes, trying find to children in need of help. But she says the system still hasn’t figured out how best to reach them.

“We haven’t cracked that yet,” Freeny said. “It’s definitely a challenge.”

Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk.
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