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.
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?”