What I learned watching the mayor of Culver City read to children

Last Tuesday I helped the Culver City Friends of the Library with their monthly Bedtime Stories program – an evening event where parents are invited to bring their little ones in for an hour of stories and crafts.

Their special guest reader was the newly-elected mayor of Culver City, Meghan Sahli-Wells, who kicked off the evening with two Mother’s Day stories and finished it with a personal favorite: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen.

I was struck by Mayor Sahli-Wells technique. Rather than raising her voice and asking the rambunctious group to settle down, she simply prefaced each story with a question directed at the young audience.

“When is Mother’s Day?”

The kids were eager to show off if they thought they knew the answer. When one girl response turned into a story about a visiting friend from France, the mayor replied in French.

“That’s how you say ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ in French.”

The kids were impressed and primed to listen.

Mayor Sahli-Wells read slowly and carefully, asking the group to scoot in closer so everyone could enjoy the illustrations. Only glancing at the text, she faced her audience during her delivery, making sure to make eye contact with everyone.

Occasionally, she would add a slight flourish to her delivery, the theatricality coming easily to the elected official/mother of three. In these subtle but effective ways, she rendered the children spellbound.

Then there was the magic conjured by the stories, themselves.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is about a family who, on their way to a bear’s cave, describes each obstacle encountered along the way. The predictable refrain is their mission statement:

“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.”

This is followed by their reaction to each new obstacle:

“Uh-oh!”

And finally, their formula for overcoming the obstacle:

“We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”

Each resolution is rewarded with a new sound effect describing the “going through” process. For instance, the sound of traversing the tall grass is “swish swish swish.”

Just like the mayor’s tactic of asking questions, the story’s refrain invited audience participation. And these kids really got into it! As soon as they picked up on the repetition, they started “reading along” with the parts they were actively memorizing.

This repetition never stalled the story because couched within each cycle of repetition was something new – a different obstacle and a different sound associated with how that particular obstacle was passed. As Mayor Sahli-Wells sang and swayed through the sound effects, I spotted kids actually dancing along to the words. Their enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment was truly impressive.

This formula also did a great job of setting up the page turns and building suspense. And the story’s climax didn’t disappoint. More than anything, the eruption of giggles showed me what a successful picture book and story time session can do for children.

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