Read to me!

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August 11, 2003 // UPDATED 11:02 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Minneapolis library volunteers log serious time reading to kids trapped in serious situations

Ten children ages 4 to 8 gather for story hour. Some sit in their soft, fuzzy "Elmo"- red chairs, elbows on their knees and chin in hands, listening raptly. Others recline backwards on the seats, feet in the air, staring at the ceiling. One boy has taken two chairs and barricaded himself in a corner. While the kids' attention spans vary, the reader plugs on through "Clifford at the Circus."

This could be a story hour anywhere, but it's not anywhere -- it's at a homeless shelter. Twice a week, volunteers from the Minneapolis Public Library come here to Mary's Place, 525 N. 7th St., to read from a selection of storybooks in a blue denim bag. They also go to People Serving People, 614 S. 3rd St., The Jeremiah Program, 1510 Laurel Ave., and The Harriet Tubman Center, 3111 1st Ave. S.

These story hours are part of the Read to Me program, a Minneapolis Public Library initiative to expose children living in crisis to reading, supportive adults and library resources.

"Sometimes these kids start sentences with 'when my daddy gets out of jail,'" said volunteer reader Pat Waterloo. "These kids have a lot of responsibility. They don't have a lot of fun time. Any exposure that kids get to reading is a help. They learn listening and knowing when it's time to respond. Even knowing when to shout things out is important."

The program

Read to Me was started in 2001 by the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. When it began, the Read to Me program had 37 volunteers who did 135 reading sessions that year. It has now grown 57 volunteers who are expected to log 229 reading sessions in 2003.

"This program is serving a need that children have for more exposure to quality children's literature," said Janet Urbanowicz, associate director of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library and Read to Me's volunteer coordinator. "This is a program that gives volunteers the opportunity to use their skills and be connected with children. [The volunteers] say that they recognize how much children really treasure these books. I'm really excited to be coordinating it."

After receiving extensive training to run a story hour, volunteers are assigned to a site, where they typically read in pairs so one person can do crowd control while the other reads to the children.

According to Urbanowicz, volunteers are encouraged to engage the children in the story, rather than simply read to them.

While volunteer Waterloo reads "The Elephant Walks," she lets the kids finish every sentence. For example, "When the elephant walks he scares the ____." The children shout out "Bear!" in unison.

Said Urbanowicz, "Children are more effectively read to when they're allowed to participate. It shouldn't be active reader/passive child."

District Youth Services Librarian Pat Downs picks out the books to read during story hour. She said very few children's books are actually appropriate for a group reading.

"Lots of books are really good to share one-on-one with a child, specifically books about their interests. But when you're looking for books that have a broad appeal and are really interactive ... there are not many books that qualify for presenting in front of a group," Downs said.

When choosing books for story hour, Downs said she tries to pick those books with good illustrations that "aren't inherently scary."

Titles that might be chosen include:

  • "Widget" by Lyn Rossiter McFarland

  • "Gigantic! How Big Were the Dinosaurs" by Patrick O'Brien

  • "Brave Bear" by Kathy Mallat

  • "My Bunny Made Me" by Lindsay Barrett George

  • "Nathaniel Willy, Scared Silly" by Judith Mathews

    Downs said she also likes the selections to reflect diversity.

    "We want the people in the books to look like the people we're reading to. We want to show families and multigenerations," she said. "We want them to be able to see themselves in the book. I think that's really empowering for kids. If you never saw anyone who looked like you, you might feel your place in the world was not important."

    The importance of story hour

    Some may think story hour is a nice activity but possibly not that important to a child's development, but Downs said listening to stories is actually crucial to reading readiness and emotional growth.

    "Besides just being great readers, kids who have been exposed to a lot of books have a great deal of compassion and empathy for people because not only do they experience the world of other people, but they also experience their feelings, struggles and triumphs," Downs said. "A good book can help you to experience those emotions. Kids who have been exposed to other people's emotional, personal stories are much more resilient and compassionate. That's one of the real benefits of exposing children to books."

    And beyond the benefit of books, both Urbanowicz and Downs said it is meaningful to simply expose children to another supportive adult.

    "We hear from people at the shelters who say just the presence of another caring adult, especially a caring man, is important," Urbanowicz said. "They say it does stimulate the children intellectually and open them up to learning."

    For more information or to volunteer with Read to Me, call Janet Urbanowicz at 630-6173 or e-mail her at