Spend any time on Playing by the book and you’ll soon realise that bringing books to life is something I’m passionate about; taking their wonder and bringing it out of the pages and into our lives. And so, when I recently heard about the work Australian librarian Tracie Mauro was doing in Parkes Library I was keen to hear more; Tracie is a big believer in enabling kids to have enormous fun with activities inspired by what they find between the pages of the books they read as you’ll read in our conversation below:-
Zoe: Can you tell me a little bit about your job and the joys it brings?
Tracie Mauro: My stodgy title is Parkes Branch Librarian. Parkes is a regional town in the central west of New South Wales, Australia. Annually, we celebrate Elvis, ABBA and comics, and we dress up as zombies when required.
What gives me the most joy? Providing the “unexpected”, creating wonder-based activities for kids and families that will spark a conversation round the dinner table and imaginative play in the back yard. If people in town are talking about how wonderful and different the library service is, and the kids resources are being used to their full potential, then I’m over the moon.
Zoe: Can you briefly describe 2 or 3 events you’ve done in the library that others might see as slightly out of the ordinary?
Tracie Mauro: I always thought cooking was the best kids literacy activity until we played hairdressers. The Big Bouffant written by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2001), is the story of Annabelle, a little girl sick of always wearing ponytails and braids.
We read the story to kids and parents then set them loose to play in the “Our Town Hair & Beauty Salon” (perfectly shaped around one of our mobile display units.) Mums, dads, grandparents, siblings and library staff had their locks brushed, combed, rolled and water sprayed. Assorted magazines filled the “waiting” room. Everyone talked, listened and looked at themselves in the mirrors. By the end of the 4 week program, one 3-year-old had all the fine motor skills and language perfected.”You know Sandie, you should keep this style,” he advised, inserting the rollers into our library officer’s hair. “This one really suits you.”
Polly and the frog, a story by Matt Finch, also received the Parkes Library special treatment. In order to save their froggy friend, Polly and the knights have to squelch through a muddy marsh so we filled our branch transfer tubs with instant chocolate pudding and jelly. At first we told them it was imported bog but when one little bright spark licked between his toes, our rue was up. Typically, one of the little girls wanted our recipe – but not to cook it, I’m pleased to report. She just wanted to go home and play the game again with her family.
Zoe: What’s so important about doing activities which bring books alive outside of their pages?
Tracie Mauro: Bringing books to life is a core business of our library. We love to provide sensory play that goes hand in hand with the story and it’s the immersive experience, I believe, that sparks curiosity and leads to self directed learning – and lots and lots of talking, speaking, listening and of course, reading! And borrowing! These days my clever staff say that they read children’s books differently now. It’s like they’ve developed a director’s eye visualizing an extension of the words using smell, touch and taste. Working out how to plug all those things into an activity to get the most out of the story is the fun part. We like to get the most from our library resources. It’s a way of working leanly but producing mega value.
Zoe: How can families approach bringing books to life at home?
Tracie Mauro: Cheaply! Considering the story and using one’s imagination to extend what’s on the pages doesn’t cost much. It just takes commitment to the game. When other libraries hear about the children’s services that we provide they moan about not having enough funds to pay for sophisticated resources. Most of the time we don’t have to buy anything, we just use what we’ve got in storage. A dragon’s eye that’s really a plastic egg can hold magical qualities if that’s what you want them to believe. When I accidentally dropped one into the Polly and the frog story before it was due, I adlibbed about the Bad Luck Curse and what would happen if it was touched. As the story progressed and the knight’s bottom was burnt by the fiery menace the kids cited the Bad Luck Curse and pointed the finger at the poor sod who’d accidentally trodden on it. But, like all happy endings, justice is sweet in the land of wonder-based play and our bad luck merchant received an extra slice of party cake. Nice.
Zoe: Nice indeed, Tracie. I love what I’m hearing from you but it leads me to another question – about how one changes a library (or even home) culture to allow such activities to take place. Whilst you mention fears about cost as one area that holds others back from replicating what you do, I can imagine another is perceived mess and possible damage to stock. How did you / your library embrace the mess that often comes with creativity?
Tracie Mauro: For library staff who haven’t quite “made the change” from traditional library services, duties and routines, then my approach to kid’s services, reading and play can be quite confronting.
Really, there is nothing that I do that causes permanent harm to the space where I’m working. It’s all cleanable. Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone walk into a library and say oh, what lovely clean carpet, you are doing a good job keeping that in lovely condition. They usually walk in and comment on how wonderful it is to see the kids in the library or that they didn’t know that you could do that in a library!!! That’s the sort of talk that you want spreading around town. It’s worth more than the new sign you pay for, or the 5000 pamphlets that get printed. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing in our business.
I can’t ever remember damaging any stock in my activities. When I talk to library staff or parents when/ if they are concerned about children’s items being returned “damaged” I remind them that this actually happens very rarely. Not never, but rarely. To me, it’s just part of the collateral damage of providing good, busy children’s services. If I have to replace a book or a comic because it’s been well used then I’ve achieved the best outcome possible. We’ve both seen how little kids read. It’s a tactile experience. The books get read on the floor, pages fingered, turned over and turned back again. Sometimes with gusto. They might read it under the table to the dog, or to a bed full of teddies.
I had to laugh the other week. One of our nanas that brings her granddaughter to storytime dragged me aside to have a quiet word. “I have a complaint. I’m sick to death of that library officer of yours. When Alex (the granddaughter) and I go home from storytime all she wants to do is play library. Over and over, I hear the same songs, the same stories. And I’m not allowed to call her Alex anymore. I have to call her Sandie.”
Winning awards is great, but that’s when I know that I’m on the right track. My question to librarians these days is not what they think will happen to their service if they do this, but what will happen if they don’t. Nurturing the love of books and reading is central to what we do. It’s just that these days we need to come up with more engaging ways to do so.
Zoe: It’s been inspiring hearing about your work Tracie; I and hope many other libraries will adopt and adapt your ideas. Thank you for taking time to chat today with me.