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It’s been a hard time for librarians. Enter an epic sleepover of stuffed toys.

“I heard several kids whisper, ‘I love you — be good and have fun,’ ” library technician Linda Hori says

Children's librarian Elizabeth Saucedo reads “Goodnight Moon” at the Goleta Valley Library's stuffed-animal sleepover in Goleta, Calif., in June. Kids left their stuffed toys overnight. (Linda Hori)

With book bans, heated political debates and a pandemic to deal with, it isn’t an easy time to be a librarian.

In cities and small towns across the country, librarians have become increasingly maligned for simply keeping the shelves stocked and doing their jobs, which includes everything from organizing yoga classes and book clubs to sometimes providing resources to homeless people and other times helping kids with their homework.

“There’s a lot more involved than just helping people check out books,” said Linda “Lynn” Hori, a library technician at the Goleta Valley Library near Santa Barbara, Calif. “Libraries are the heart of every community.”

Part of Hori’s job is to help organize children’s events for the library in Goleta, which has a population of about 32,000.

She said she and her co-workers realized their community could use a break from the divisive rancor and isolation brought on over the past couple of years by the pandemic.

In previous years, the Goleta library held a stuffed-animal sleepover every summer for younger patrons, Hori said, in which kids would drop off their favorite teddy bear or other stuffy, then return in the morning to see photos of them in various silly poses around the library having a late-night party.

“When it was canceled for two years because of the pandemic, everyone really missed it,” she said. “It was something solely about having fun and making kids smile. We all wanted to experience that magic again.”

Hori and others at the library decided it was time to bring back the beloved tradition, which started about 10 years ago.

“Only this time, we decided we would go all out,” said Hori, 40. “The last couple of years have been hard on kids who had to do their learning at home through Zoom. We wanted to do something extra-special.”

His McDonald’s closed for months due to renovations. He kept paying the staff.

Libraries across the country have held similar stuffed-animal sleepovers over the years, from the Teddy Bear Sleepover in Warren, Mass., to the Stuffed Animal Pajamarama in Huntley, Ill., and the annual slumber party for well-worn stuffies at the Shaw (Watha T. Daniel) Neighborhood Library in D.C.

“It’s become a thing for a lot of libraries because it’s a great community-building event,” Hori said.

“Everyone can remember a favorite comfort toy that they read stories to and snuggled with as a child,” she added. “For me, it was a pink Care Bear.”

Hori usually coordinates about a dozen special children’s events a year, but she was determined that the 2022 stuffed-animal slumber party would be the biggest ever.

She put up posters, enlisted the help of 15 teen volunteers and invited children to drop off their favorite bears, lambs, dogs, cats, dolphins, pigs and unicorns for a night of merrymaking on June 24.

About 220 kids dropped off their cuddly toys, with the promise that tender care would be given and plenty of photos would be taken.

“Some of the younger ones were a little reluctant to hand them over, but we assured them they were going to have an exciting night and meet new friends,” Hori said. “I heard several kids whisper, ‘I love you — be good and have fun.’ ”

Each stuffed animal was given a number to avoid mix-ups, then the party was on. It was a blowout, Hori said.

She gave away her wedding gown on Facebook. Soon others did the same.

She and her volunteers spent hours staging the animals (and one well-rounded, smiling avocado) in dozens of party scenarios: roasting marshmallows for s’mores, sharing milkshakes, goofing around on the library’s photocopy machine, playing computer games and making phone calls to faraway places.

There was even a glow-stick disco dance, with a few hula hoops thrown in for good measure.

By midnight, Hori had taken more than 1,200 photos and it was time for a bedtime story with bubble machine special effects.

“We gathered all of the stuffies around and our children’s librarian, Elizabeth Saucedo, read them ‘Good Night Moon,’ ” Hori said.

She said she sent the photos to an all-night photo lab to have the pictures printed at about 2 a.m., then caught a few hours of sleep before picking up the pictures the next morning and returning to the library to sort them into 220 piles. Kids were also given goody bags and sleepover certificates when they picked up their animals.

“Just seeing all those faces light up — that was the best part for me,” Hori said. “My hope is that events like our sleepover will shape the adults these kids will eventually become. I’d love to see them become lifelong library patrons.”

That would be fine with Lauren Cox, 8, who dropped off her favorite stuffed bunny, named Rabbit.

“The library is a fun place — I’ve always loved going,” she said. “Rabbit sang songs, played with Legos and danced. It was kind of hard to leave her there, but I’m glad I did. She made a lot of new friends.”

Brooke Kelley, 9, said she especially loved seeing all of the photos of her stuffed lamb, Lamby, even though she “probably broke some of the library rules.”

Her brother, Boston Kelley, 7, said he had mixed feelings about dropping off his stuffed avocado, Avi.

“I was sad that he wasn’t going to be my stuffed animal for the night, but I also was happy for him so he could have a great time,” he said.

Out walking her dogs, she found an Olympic gold medal on the ground

Erin Kelley, 45, said this is the first time her children have participated in the sleepover, and she thinks it won’t be the last.

“It was a great event that put smiles on the kids’ faces, which is nice after recovering from two years of a pandemic that shut kids out of so many activities,” she said. “We hope the library does it again next year.”

Hori said she’s up to the challenge.

“I’m not sure if we can top it, but we’ll try,” she said. “I’m really happy that it brought so much joy. Anytime we can get kids excited about reading and coming to the library, I’m in.”

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