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At storytime, it’s llamas and pajamas

It’s 11 a.m. on Friday at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville, and that means Story Time, a regular date for parents and their children to have some fun reading.

The children, who range in age from 2 to 5 years old, sit on carpet mats in a corner just outside the children’s library area and settle around Youth Services Librarian Jennifer Prince. Prince has a collection of colorful books to read, but before reading, she invites parents and kids to join in a brief sing-along.

At such a young age, these children are not yet readers, so it’s important to set a cozy, inviting scene. That means lots of stuffed animals, touch-and-feel books, bright illustrations, and story boards where felt figures can be placed on a board from left to right to model the direction in which a child reads.

“It doesn’t just have to be reading,” Prince explains.

Though some of the children squirm, blurt out comments, and want to touch the pictures in the book as Prince reads, they eventually settle down to listen. As she reads, Prince pauses occasionally to ask them questions about the story and its pictures. She reads books with funny titles like Llama Llama Red Pajama. In one book, she shows them pictures of animals like the peacock, flamingo, hippopotamus and zebra along with their animal sounds.

They sing verses of “Old MacDonald” as Prince introduces miniature stuffed animal heads and asks them to identify them. On the final verse, Prince teaches them the movie star Broadway ending to “Old MacDonald.” They sit up straight, act like they’re the most important person in the world, slow down their singing, and wave extended arms for exaggerated dramatic effect.

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“You guys are gonna make great movie stars one day,” Prince says.

She asks them what their favorite animals were from the stories she read. They are all eager to share their answers. Even though they’re not reading yet, they already know what a boa constrictor is, they know the difference between a cow and a horse, and they repeat strange new words like “llama.”

“Excellent!” Prince declares. “You guys know so much about animals.”

Then they all conclude with a softly sung rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

After Story Time, participants are invited to come into the children’s library and play with puzzles, check out books, and investigate a new corner of the library.

While Story Time is a way for the library to welcome the next generation of patrons, it’s also a way to give children an early introduction to reading so that, before they start school, they’ll already be building a rich vocabulary and familiarity with books.

Leisa Mease, a former teacher at Bethel Elementary School and mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Sarah Mease, has been a regular participant in Story Time since Sarah was 3 months old. Though Sarah is still two-and-a-half years from kindergarten, she’s already showing a keen interest in books, retelling stories, and even picking out books for her dad to take with him to work.

Leisa Mease says she reads regularly with her daughter and asks her story questions like “What do you think is going to happen next?” They read books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and Leisa makes a point of pointing to the words on the page to reinforce the idea that it’s not just a story being made up but rather a story from a book. Mease says it’s helpful when books have the words in the same place on the page.

Otherwise, she explains, “That makes it hard for kids to follow.”

For librarian Jennifer Prince, reading at children’s story time has special memories. While serving at the East Asheville library branch, she became something of a celebrity — so much so, that mothers or fathers would tell her that their children actually argued at home over who got to play the librarian when they read books and acted out make-believe scenes from the library.

Prince remembers how one particular book resonated with a boy she read to; it was a book about a cow who refused to produce milk unless his boy owner would take him to the moon. One part of the repeated line throughout the book was “No Milk.” Later on, that same boy who’d listened to the story would point to the library and say, “No milk” whenever he went by the library.

“At 2 years old, he made a connection,” Prince said.

Since children can be so impressionable, anything you say or do — no matter how seemingly innocuous — can be copied or repeated by children.

“It’s very humbling,” Prince said. “I never want to be sloppy or lazy with what I do.”

Now in her new role at the Haywood County library, a job she just took over this past summer, she’s learning new faces and makes sure the children’s book collections are up-to-date and available to all who come to the library.

“We do try to make the library an inviting place,” she said. “It’s a free service — and what a service it is.”

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