"First" Books for Story Time

Last week, I listened as Andrea read Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh to the two-year olds on their first day of school. "Blue feet in a red puddle..." Andrea measures the words out, giving time to the children to take in the illustrations. With the last words of the line "…makes purple," a wave of two-year olds’ ooohs and aaahs wash over room. The children are transfixed and amazed in a 4th-of-July-fireworks kind of way. Mouse Paint is a familiar book to most children, but it's the way Andrea reads it on a fresh Fall morning in a new world that seems to keep them riveted. And, come on, the mice WALK, etc. IN paint. So intriguing. Such a great idea. Walking and rolling in paint.

Most teachers have a favorite book they start the year with, like Mouse Paint. Favorite "first" books are selected to set the tone and purpose for story time for the year. Mouse Paint is appealing because it will connect to painting projects. I like to "read" The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang to the 3 turning 4-year olds. Grey Lady is so intriguing that it sets up story time as a time for discussion and idea trading.

The book is an absolute attention-getter without any words. I like the illustrations even more than the story, although the story has plenty to offer, e.g. the downsides of snatching, the upsides of sharing, trying different foods, even market economy topics like the benefits of growing your own strawberries rather than purchasing them from the store and what you need to buy strawberries, "money, credit cards, you need a shopping bag!"

The illustrations present complicated visual messaging--a child inside a store window, action happening off-page, overlapped visual elements like the edge of the Grey Lady's dress marking the edge of the forest-bog.

For the prekindergarten class, the choice of "first" book is more fluid. I know the book I will read second, but the first has to be selected carefully and it has to perfectly match the discerning taste and capture the imagination of peer-focused, four-year olds turning five. By far, my favorite first book for that age group is Lotta on Troublemaker Street by Astrid Lindgren.

I have it at the ready for the first day/week of the prekindergarten class. Are the kids ready for it? I look at the kids—after circle meeting and ten seconds of silence, off they go to wiggle their bones on the way to get a drink of water. I gauge the emotional and physical energy of that first day. Most of the children are returning for a second or even third year at the school and we welcome a handful of new students. And the Summer season brings all kinds of growth and change for all of us.

I listen and watch. How do they leave circle? Are they moving fast, was circle too long? How do they come back for story time? Do they settle in right away? Are there children "jockeying for position" trying to find a seat next to their friends? That shows a level of social-emotional growth that will be receptive to the Lotta discussions. Do some of the children come right back and situate themselves facing my reading chair, looking forward to just the idea of story time? They will be receptive to the sometimes-complicated character/story development that happens in the first chapter of a good chapter book. These small, meaningful cues help me decide yes or no on a Lotta launch.

Here is the true joy of Lotta. Once I get through the first 10 pages to reveal that nothing is working out for Lotta this morning (scratchy sweater, imagined slights, stomping, and refusing hot chocolate -- "No" the children chime in, "How could she?" We arrive at this passage. . .

"...Lotta didn't have a tummy ache. She was just very, very angry. She stomped both feet, thoroughly outraged. Suddenly, she saw the striped sweater lying on a chair. It looked scratchier than ever. Lotta pushed the sweater onto the floor. Then she stopped. She became very quiet. Next to the sweater lay a pair of scissors."

I stop reading. I love this section so much. I stop to look at the kids. I take in and savor how they process the information the book has just gifted them. I see the same look of horror, mixed with absolute and utter fascination, on the kids' faces, their eyes wide. They know, in their hearts, what is going to happen next. They cannot stop it, they need to keep going, and they cannot turn away! Oh. Lotta. How could you? If I can get them to that line (with no picture, by the way), they find the same joy I do in all of Lotta's shenanigans and they are hooked.

p.s. Library of Congress' National Book Festival is held annually on the Mall in Washington, D.C. It is this weekend, Saturday, September 25th, 2010.