With her blue eyes as wide as saucers, 2-year-old Jordan West
jumped slightly as the voice boomed in the silence.
I’m a wide-mouthed frog, and I eat flies. What do you eat?
Jordan sat cross-legged, tense, her small hands pressed together
in her lap. She closed her slightly gaped mouth and held in a
breath, anticipating the librarian’s words.
With her blue eyes as wide as saucers, 2-year-old Jordan West jumped slightly as the voice boomed in the silence.
“I’m a wide-mouthed frog, and I eat flies. What do you eat?”
Jordan sat cross-legged, tense, her small hands pressed together in her lap. She closed her slightly gaped mouth and held in a breath, anticipating the librarian’s words.
And when the page turned, Jordan’s eyes lit up. A bubble of laughter escaped.
“I eat delicious wide-mouthed frogs!” the librarian exclaimed, impersonating an alligator.
Storytime at the Gilroy Library is perhaps one of the few half-hours in Jordan’s week that she is completely still, engrossed in the librarian’s words and amazed by the splashes of color in the books around her.
In a society constantly bombarded by television, computers and video games, the simple yet endlessly creative world of books becomes easily overshadowed. But libraries, bookstores, schools and families in South Valley are working together to encourage kids not just to read, but to love it.
Jordan’s mother, Christine West, takes her daughter to storytime at the library regularly. She also brings along Eli, Jordan’s 8-month-old brother.
“She loves books,” West said. “I’ve been reading to her since she was an infant. Right now, she really likes pop-up books.”
Jordan’s passion for reading probably is partly because she was exposed to books at an early age and reading has always been a part of her life, said Dr. Mazhar Khan, a pediatrician in Morgan Hill.
Khan encourages parents to read to their children – including infants – as often as possible, even if it’s only 10 or 20 minutes a day.
“It’s good to establish that routine with your child right from the beginning,” he said. “That way your child knows what structure is.”
Reading before bedtime each night is a routine many South Valley families enjoy, including Hollister resident Carolyn Alcorn and her children, Alyssa, 6, and Bryan, 10.
During a recent break from school, the three spent a few hours browsing the library’s shelves, a dozen or so books splayed on the table in front of them.
Alyssa spoke excitedly of Amelia Bedelia, a children’s book series about the adventures of a housekeeper who interprets everything literally.
“In one book, someone tells her to part the curtains, and so she started to tear them apart,” Alyssa said, giggling.
“Reading together brings a bond. It’s downtime for us,” Carolyn Alcorn said. “It’s a good close to the day, and we learn things and are able to talk about different issues that are in the books.”
Not all children, however, take an immediate liking to reading, even if their parents make every effort to read with them. The problem might not be the kids, but rather the kind of books being read, said Dennise Weidenhofer, children’s librarian at Morgan Hill Library.
“Books that are too challenging will turn kids off. No one likes struggling through a book,” she said. “Often, if you go down a level, they’ll enjoy it more. And it’s important to remember not everyone is a fiction reader. Sometimes, I’ll introduce a child who doesn’t really like fiction to cooking books, or magic books, or riddle and joke books, and they love it.”
On a daily basis, parents and grandparents visit Booksmart bookstore in Morgan Hill asking for help finding books that will interest their children, said store owner Cinda Meister. Meister and her staff offer pointers not only on what to read to children, but how.
“It’s really important to read aloud to children, and to read above their reading and at their listening level,” Meister said. “It helps them build their vocabulary and do better in their academics. It’s also a good bonding experience between a parent and a child.”
For young readers, sometimes the hook that draws them into books is bringing the characters to life. Barnes and Noble bookstore in Gilroy holds a costumed character reading day once a month, as well as a monthly “pajamarama,” where young readers cozy up at the bookstore in their pajamas and listen to picture books with a “good night” theme.
The costumed characters also make regular appearances at schools throughout South Valley, an effort that the bookstore would like to increase in the future, said Mary Ellison, community relations manager for Barnes and Noble in Gilroy.
A few weeks ago, students at Sunnyslope Elementary School in Hollister enjoyed a visit from Spot, the lovable dog from the famed children’s series.
“The kids really love it, and it’s a way we can reach the kids who wouldn’t normally get into the bookstore,” Ellison said. “All these tough boys were hugging Spot. It was great to see.”
The bookstore also orchestrates a summer reading program, where kids receive a free book when they read eight books of their choice, whether from Barnes and Noble, the library, family members or another bookstore. Ellison said about 300 books were given away last summer.
Local libraries also offer similar summer reading programs, where children are invited to participate in reading days, arts and crafts and other activities at the library during the months they don’t have schoolwork.
All three South Valley libraries also offer storytime, an ever-popular activity many families make a weekly tradition.
At a recent storytime in Morgan Hill, Weidenhofer entertained a room packed with kids and parents, her boisterous voice and animated facial expressions eliciting giggles in the children and adults alike.
“For many of (the children), this is their first foray into the world and being part of a group,” Weidenhofer said. “My goal is to enchant. I want to introduce them to the library and enchant them.”
Over her six years with the library, Weidenhofer said she’s watched several children grow up with a love of reading, partly because they were exposed to the library from the beginning – the very beginning.
“I’ve had mothers come to storytime with their child in the womb. Now the child is 6 years old, and they love reading. It’s great to see,” Weidenhofer said.
The last 15 minutes of storytime in Morgan Hill consisted of “Leo the Late Bloomer,” a book-on-video about a lion who needs a little more time than his friends to come into his own.
In showing the video, Weidenhofer demonstrated a good point: Not all movies, computer games and video games are harmful. On the contrary, said Khan, some educational, interactive media can stimulate a child’s mind in ways different than books.
Morgan Hill resident Shelley Carroll lets her two children, Julia, 4, and Ian, 2, play educational games on the computer and watch about two hours a day of educational television, such as Sesame Street or Blue’s Clues. But neither of the children have televisions or computers in their rooms, and Carroll said she makes sure the family also spends time reading, going to the library and doing outdoor activities.
Carroll said she’s not worried that her kids later will become hooked on video or computer games, as long as she monitors what they’re doing now.
“I’m not a militant about it, but I certainly don’t indulge them in mindless things,” she said. “Kids need a balance and a way to relax their minds.”
As Weidenhofer turned out the lights and cued up the video, Julia was among the roughly three dozen children who, amid a chorus of “shhhs!,” straightened up and eagerly waited for Leo to appear.
And when he did, Julia’s eyes got a little wider, a little brighter. The same look that was on Jordan West’s face in Gilroy washed across Julia’s, perhaps the universal expression of a child being read to.
She was enchanted.