A particular logo pops up as you travel across Pennsylvania—a green sign with a stylized profile of a person reading along with the word LIBRARY. These green signs appear in large towns and small, in cities and rural counties, all pointing in the direction of books.
For nearly six weeks this spring I traveled Pennsylvania, visiting these public libraries. As the author of the 2008 Pennsylvania One Book (Every Young Child), I hit the road to promote early childhood literacy from Pittsburgh to Susquehanna, from Philadelphia to Greencastle, and numerous points in between.
Because I was working with young children (70+ events with children, 5 with teachers and librarians) I met many children’s librarians. These folks were kind, extremely cheerful, and possessed great senses of humor. As children entered, the librarians gave them a wide smile and said, “Hello friends.” That’s all you have to do to become a friend, just walk in the door. These days, there is no shushing. Children’s learning can be noisy and that’s just fine. Toddlers darted about. Infants bounced on laps. Sometimes they fussed but that was okay. Story hour is about the children, after all.
Or is it? In one library, while the children were having a snack after their story, the mothers were socializing intensively. But of course—it was the start of spring, and they’d been cooped up indoors with small children for months. Story hour provided intellectual stimulation for the children, but also a social support network for their mothers.
And across the state, libraries have been stretching their missions in an attempt to become centers of community. New library buildings crop up next to municipal buildings, in the midst of town playing fields, in the midst of the action. You want a tax form? No problem. Need to use a computer? Sign up here. Nationwide, libraries are developing Family Places, programs that reach out to parents with children three and under to provide information and support about all aspects of childhood from child health to typical patterns of growth and emotional development to early literacy activities.
On my own trip, I was greeted effusively in every town, every county. In one library, the community room was soon to undergo reconstruction. So on their own time, the librarians painted huge vegetables on all four walls. (My book, Up, Down, and Around is about how veggies grow.) Early in the tour, 160 children arrived for the story and songs dressed as veggies, wearing colorful tee shirts and amazing headgear—green beans dangling from vines or a green foam visor “planted” with three bright beets. Later, a librarian and teachers collaborated so that 300 kindergarteners sang my story as a song. (Twice! Once in the morning , and again in the afternoon.) Another librarian had four-year-olds decorate a tee shirt with veggies as a gift. Still another set up a farmers’ market outside the entrance. By noon, some of her display carrots had been nibbled. In seventy different events, there were seventy different stories to tell—all filled with a joyful spirit—the delight of words and stories and learning.
Children respond to this generosity—they bloom, share opinions, get excited about books and ideas. “I weally, weally wove wettuce,” one little boy confided after hearing my book. Another girl informed the room that “My sister lives with me!” I led a small group, spinning in and around the children’s room bookshelves, pretending to be pumpkin vines, tangling up the books. “This is so fun, I want to keep doing this,” said a kindergarten boy. I agree. I want him to keep tangling with books for the rest of his life. Another child, whose thoughts were stimulated by a story and discussion, asked hard, interesting questions: “Why do seeds grow?” (Not how, which I could answer.) And then, “Why don’t we grow like plants do?” Such a question had never occurred to me. I checked the bottoms of my feet for roots.
As I traveled the state, the children invigorated my spirits. Yes, I got tired of the turnpike, but I only got lost twice and ate in some fine and funky restaurants. And although I was away from home, away from my family and usual companions, I was rarely lonely. Several governors ago, the state had a promotional campaign. Its motto: You have a friend in Pennsylvania. After traveling for six weeks, from green sign to green sign, I can testify to the truth of that statement. We all have a friend in Pennsylvania—she is the librarian.
Katherine Ayres is the author of 10 books for children. She teaches writing in the MFA program at Chatham University and lives in Shadyside.