An American in Homburg

Reading a book to a group of kids – especially in this environment, where I am the American in a small German town, reading to a multi-cultural group of kids who are individually bilingual or trilingual – can be challenging. To say that anything goes is an understatement. There is no telling what a child might say or do. It is like improv theatre, where I am the unwitting prompt for hilarity. It is extraordinarily fun.

On the fourth day of the fourth week at four O’clock (a.k.a. the last Thursday of each month at 16:00 hours) you will find me at the local library (Stadtbibliothek Bad Homburg) with a bunch of kids making a really big mess. We call it Happy Palmtree because in our special room of the library, the space for kids, there is a giant plush palm tree with a soft bench underneath it.

On Happy Palmtree events I get to read an illustrated storybook in English (a story of my choosing) and afterward we all get messy making a craft project at the big blue table. This is a free one-hour event that anyone can attend, and even though it is in the library, we are not very quiet.

Happy Palmtree

This is something that I love to do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It’s gotten easier over time, but it was a major challenge in the beginning. I was out of my depth. Being a Mom and a writer and a nice person who likes kids was not enough to prepare me for… reading to kids.

 

The First Time

I remember the first time I did Happy Palmtree. I was very nervous. I had spent two weeks worrying over the craft project and getting art supplies together. I practiced reading the book aloud – I don’t know how many times. Five? Six? It was important to me that I engage the kids and that I not um and uh while reading… not that I do that when reading to my daughter, but somehow I thought this would be a problem.

What didn’t occur to me in all this worrying and preparing was one vital factor: the kids. I was not actually going to read to the kids or lead them in a project. No. What I very quickly learned was that the group of kids and I would be reading the book together, that this was a group effort, and that they would be showing me, in fact, how the craft project would be looking in the end.

It was hubris to think for even a moment that I had a chance of being in control on that first Happy Palmtree. As I read, or tried to read, a child would interrupt. Every couple of words: interruption. “Why is he making that face?” One child asked. “Why is the donkey doing that?” If I didn’t have the answer, the kids would make something up.

“Maybe the donkey is bad. I think the donkey has a little brother, and the big brother is not letting him into his big brother’s room or something even though he just wants to play a little with the big brother’s cars. Not real cars even, just toy ones.”

“Where is the little brother donkey?” I asked.

“Over there,” just to the right of the book. Clearly.

 

Asking Questions, Asking The Right Questions

I learned to ask the kids questions. “What is that do you think?” The kids already know to raise their hands; they learn that in Kindergarten. Fabulous. They all get to tell me what they think, and no matter what they say, they are all right. When it comes to storybooks, the imagination of the listener rules absolute. “It’s a balloon? Yes. Good. What else? A bear. Terrific. Yes, it does look a bit like a bear. What else?”

This Is Not My Hat

Example craft project from one of the kids. Using pipe cleaners, stickers, and google eyes on black construction paper. For „This Is Not My Hat“ by Jon Klassen.

If I don’t get quite the answer I’m hoping for, I get to go last but I again toss it into the mix as a question. “Do you think it might be a penguin?”

I’ve been doing the Happy Palmtree for a while, and now only need a few hours of preparation on the day before, time enough to plan-out and make a prototype of the craft project. I no longer practice reading the book aloud. I read it once through in my mind. I find it’s best if I discover the book a little bit along with the kids.

Recently, a mother came up to me and remarked, “I have enough trouble doing things like this with my two kids. I don’t know how you manage this.” There were twelve kids that day. It was busy and a little chaotic, and I reveled in it. When the woman said that though, a fellow mom, it struck me: I am doing it. I am actually managing to do this, and I am not pulling out all my hair. A year ago, I was not in this space.

My Real Purpose

What do I actually do at the library with these kids? I don’t lead, I don’t teach, I don’t guide them anywhere. I give the kids a platform where they can actively learn, interact, have fun, make a mess and go back home with something they made.

What reading to kids has taught me:

  • Ask the kids to get up and come point to things in the book. They really like that.
  • Take time and slow way down, don’t read it as though the kids are teenagers because they aren’t.
  • Always make funny noises, funny faces and funny voices where appropriate. Not all the time.
  • If I like a drawing, I tell the kids and then I ask them if they like it too.
  • If I think a drawing is scary, I admit it openly. I am usually not the only one who thinks so.
  • The biggest difference between me and a child of five is that I have to remind myself not to take things for granted or jump to conclusions and they don’t need to do that.

Parents who bring their kids to Happy Palmtree are certainly welcome to just drop them off with me and then go downstairs to the library café, which is lovely and quiet. Those parents who do stay can sit and watch and be surprised at what the kids do there during story time. If their child is younger (four years old), then it’s particularly nice if Mom can help with using the scissors and cleaning up glue spills after. I never expect it, but I always appreciate it.

This October there will be no Happy Palmtree, due to Halloween. That’s OK. We’ll be back on November 28th to read Oliver Jeffers’ “This Moose Belongs to Me.” I can’t wait.

 


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