“Tony Chestnut knows I love you.
Tony knows. Tony knows.
Tony Chestnut knows I love you.
That’s what Tony knows”. Anonymous
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a children’s programme at my library. It all started when my children’s staff person was called away for a month to deal with her father’s death in India. This was a week before the Spring sessions of children’s programming was to begin. We offer 4 weekly programmes at our branch, and I was able to get existing staff to cover 3 of them. Budget tightness prevented me from bringing in extra staff to cover the fourth programme, so I quickly realized that if we were going to go ahead with it, I would be the one leading it. Although I’ve been a librarian for 4 years, and have worked in libraries for 20, I had up to this point avoided any substantial children’s work. It’s not that I have an aversion to it, it’s just that I always seemed to be busy doing other things.
Children’s programming has been a blind spot in my professional career development up til now, but I could no longer look the other way. I completed my M.L.I.S. degree part-time as I worked full-time in our library’s Outreach Services department. By day I would drive a van to various retirement homes throughout the city to provide books and services to a community that had difficulty getting to a library, and by night I would become a library grad student. Our guest room would magically transform into a tutorial room at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the few schools at the time that offered a 100% distance education program online. My only professional training in children’s work came from one course on children’s literature. It was taught by a borderline depressive woman who spent most of the lecture time using us students as a sounding board for her grief issues over the recent death of her mother. I don’t remember reading any children’s literature, actually, and the only highlight was when she was too ill to come to class one day, and we had a guest lecturer who was actually a children’s librarian from a local public library in Milwaukee. Her enthusiasm and excitement for the field brought more energy to the class than anything our regular professor was able to offer. Unfortunately, it lasted only one week, and then our regular prof was back at it, dealing with death metaphors in “Bridge to Terabithia” while sobbing into a hanky or some damn thing.
Practically, over the years I had helped cut out craft supplies, nametags, and even painted a mural one summer when I was a part-time employee, but I never had to plan anything. I never really gave children’s programming much thought, or much credit if I was perfectly honest.
Even though my experience was limited, I did have two advantages. The first one is that my wife leads the identical programme (Time for Twos, aimed at ages 2-3 and a caregiver) at another library in the city. The second one is that we actually have a 2-year-old ourselves at home. So even though I had less than a week to pull together two half hour sessions, I knew I had resources on which I could draw. There was an extra spot, so my wife offered to bring my daughter to the sessions for support. I initially thought I would be too nervous with them there, but soon changed my mind. It may actually be fun!
“Time for Twos” is aimed at 2-3 year olds and a caregiver. I soon realized that I wasn’t going to be sitting down and reading 5-6 stories straight through and then leaving. Our daughter Audrey can barely sit through one reading of “Goodnight Moon” before she’s up and on to something else, even if she’s getting really good at spotting the mouse.
For these sessions to be successful, I would need to become an entertainer. “You can’t worry about inhibitions” my wife told me. “You’re going to have to push yourself out of your comfort zone”. She produced a template for what she does in her programmes, and I couldn’t believe the prep work that goes into one of these things. I remember seeing Bono in an interview circa. ZOO TV tour era and his cheeky quote “The trick is making it look spontaneous.” The same rules apply here, apparently. I’ve got a set script, but if I sense I’m losing the crowd, then I can ramp it up with an impromptu song or rhyme. The first one I learned was “Tony Chestnut” where you touch the part of your body that corresponds with the rhyme (toes, knees, chests, eyes, noses, and your “head” for “nut”). Some of the descriptors on the template were “Naming song”, “Warm up song” “Hand Game” “Finger Play” “Tickles rhyme” “Movement Transition” “Circles” “Wind-Down Transition” “Quiet Song” and “Goodbye Song” with slots for just two books.
Two things immediately struck me: I was going to be doing a lot of singing, and these descriptors sound like something you may ask for in a seedy massage parlour and/or day-spa.
So I got to work on it, selecting songs, rhymes and books and before I knew it, it was time for my first programme.
I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I’ve defended a Master’s Thesis on water resources in front of room full of crusty geographers, I’ve sung in a 200 voice choir with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in front of a sold out concert hall, and yet a room of 13 two-year olds and their parents suddenly frightened me beyond measure. I was terrified to deviate from the script, a script that I must admit was shaped and built with much input from my wife, to whom I deferred on every decision. I did have one back up: I made a playlist of all the songs that I was going to use and brought it with me on my iPod, just in case I totally blanked and couldn’t remember the tunes.
As the children began to file into the library with their parents, I began to size them up. “This one looks like he may have a tantrum, that one looks like she’s going to be a talker” etc. At the last minute, I had a revelation as to something that was bothering me all week: all the great children’s performers had a side-kick (or two). Mr. Dressup had Casey and Finnigan, the Friendly Giant had Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster. Hell, Mr. Rogers had an entire fantasy world he would slip into routinely to escape the monotony of feeding his fish and changing his sweaters. What did I have? Nothing. I scrambled into the boxes of puppets in the supply room. My children’s person left me with nothing except a set of “themes” for each week. “Never use themes” my wife told me. “Themes will paint you into a corner every time. I never use themes”, she said a couple of days before. Too late for me: the pamphlets were already printed and distributed. The first session’s theme was “Ducks and Geese”. I could not for the life of me find a duck or a goose puppet, but I did find a bird. He had a long rainbow beak, so I think he may have been trying to be a toucan. I decided to call him “Louie” after the name of the library. Obvious and boring, I know, but what choice did I have?
“Showtime!” I whispered to Louie and opened the door to the children’s program room.
to be continued