Ninjas, meet Joel Nichols, an outstanding storytime provider and our May Storytime Guerrilla of the Month!
Joel Nichols is a Children’s Librarian and Branch Manager at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Past jobs there have included the Parkway Central Children’s Department and the Techmobile, a computer lab on wheels. He is the author of iPads in the Library (2013) and Teaching Internet Basics: The Can-Do Guide (forthcoming 2014), and also writes fiction. Recent stories can be found in the weird fiction magazine Phobos and in With: New Gay Fiction. He has an MSLIS from Drexel, an MA in Creative Writing from Temple, and BA in German from Wesleyan University. He lives in Philadelphia with his boyfriend and their child.
Q: What’s your philosophy for choosing books and activities for storytime?
Joel: For books, the art and book design have to catch my eye. The pictures need to tell the story. The text has to be clear and work on many levels: a preschool-appropriate message level, the right vocabulary level, to start, but it also has to offer something to adults in the group and, for the best ones, also in terms of symbology and reference to other texts.
For songs and rhymes: they have to be something I can sing/remember/recite! I’m no singer, so simple tunes work for me. I’m also drawn to anything about the moon and space, elephants, whales, insects, dinosaurs, and lots of other stuff.
That said, I test books out in storytime all the time that I don’t even necessarily like, but that have interesting connections to real-life events or other books. The final part of my philosophy for planning storytimes is that I try out lots of stuff and keep doing whatever seemed to work, whatever kids enjoyed, whatever they ask for, etc.
Q: If you had free reign to try anything in storytime, what would it be?
Joel: Crafts and writing activities. I work in a small branch and do storytimes on the floor. I wish there were appropriate space and furniture for preschoolers to have a chance to write/draw/make about something we just read or talked about in storytime. I’m constantly pairing storytime books that have lots of intertextual resonance, like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown and Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester, and then asking kids to talk about the stories and books and what was the same and what was different. I’d love to be able to do more of that, but with big groups of preschool classes, it’s challenging.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to librarians just starting out in youth services?
Joel: Think of your professional practice and development as a “see one, do one, teach one” field, and observe as many other librarians doing their work as you can. Watching, assisting and asking questions to learn about the practice of others teaches you new practical skills and builds confidence through repetition.
Q: What one storytime skill are you really great at? Okay, you can share two things.
Joel: My favorite thing is being like a narrator for an amazing literacy experience. Sort of like Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow: setting the scene, introducing the books, and then also asking about and discussing them…I like taking storytimers on a magical journey where they are seeing some things and learning about some ideas for the very first time. That’s what I really enjoy.
Q: You’re in an elevator and an adult services librarian says something about storytime that makes it clear she just doesn’t get it. What do you say to convey the importance of storytime?
Joel: Sometimes people just don’t get it because they haven’t experienced it. You could ask her to join you in giving a storytime sometime, or just invite her to watch yours. In my community, storytime is a place where kids get access to a world of books, stories, art and ideas that’s more interesting and different (and maybe better) than the other media they are exposed to. It can be frustrating that this work is so often reduced to “reading with kids” by people who don’t understand the 5 early literacy areas and the role of children’s librarians in supporting literacy development, but go read to some kids and you’ll feel better.