Crowd Control: Sharing Books with Babies, Toddlers, and Young Preschoolers

This article originally appeared in the 2003 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. All rights reserved.

Reaching Your Readers

I’ve heard authors of young picture books complain that they have few opportunities for promotion. Nonsense! Look beyond typical bookstore events and library readings. Your books may not be ideal for elementary school visits, but the early childhood community is a great place to share your work. When teachers like your book they’ll use it in the classroom and recommend it to parents. An added bonus is the contact with your audience, which will enhance your future writing.

Start your tour of the early childhood circuit with a center to which you have personal connections—the one your children attended, or a center in your neighborhood. Many early childhood programs offer special events in conjunction with the Month of the Young Child (April) or other seasonal events. When a center contacts you to set up an event, find out who your audience will be. Events for young children generally include an exuberant reading and some related fun: songs, fingerplays, or dances. Parent-centered events tend to be lectures on selecting books for children, reading readiness, or writing. Since many childcare centers have lean budgets, you may need to lower your fee for workshops or sell books at the event as a fundraiser. Whenever you present at a childcare center, be sure they publicize it in their newsletter. Contact a local newspaper to include your event in the community calendar and perhaps do a write-up.

Authors can also do workshops for childcare staff on literacy topics. Teachers need information on hands-on activities to extend learning. They like handouts—reading lists and activity ideas—and they love freebies like bookmarks. Stipends for workshops vary greatly: I’ve received between $50 and $250 for a two-hour session. Contact your local community college or university to let the education and English departments know that you are available as a guest speaker or lecturer. Register with childcare referral agencies, which provide speaker lists to the early childhood community as well as put on their own events.

Consider submitting a proposal to present at a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or other early childhood conferences. These generally do not pay presenters, but sessions are short and you can arrange to have book signings at vendor booths. Your publisher may even be willing to subsidize your trip—it’s worth asking. Many teachers are aspiring authors and they pack into conference sessions on becoming an author (I did, too). One big bonus at the national NAEYC conference is the presence of book and magazine publishers. I’ve met editors at exhibitor booths and conference sessions. Some educational publishers even offer conferees on-the-spot appointments with editors who are seeking submissions.

If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of presenting workshops, you can introduce your book to local children and teachers on a smaller scale. Many communities have literacy groups such as the Family Book Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which donates new books to low-income families and coordinates reading programs for disadvantaged children. These organizations welcome author visits and are a great destination for authors’ surplus books. Think about “adopting” a local childcare center or preschool program. You might donate signed copies of your books and stay in touch with teachers by visiting the classroom for an occasional story hour. Give the center a stack of your promotional postcards or bookmarks for their reception area, and participate in annual picnics or fun days. Besides keeping you in touch with your audience, this kind of relationship is a great way to contribute something meaningful to your community.

Staying Dry

Doing a book event with children who drool, crawl, and cry is a special kind of challenge. Before you plan your first book event, it’s wise to establish some ground rules with your sponsors:

  • Children should be accompanied by adults. Make it clear with your host and in your promotional flyers that parents are expected to sit with their children during a reading. Otherwise, they may stroll over to another department or the coffee bar and you will be outnumbered by wigglers.
  • Before you begin reading, tell the adults what you need from them: “Please help your child participate or remove them if they are overwhelmed.”
  • If you plan to sing songs or do fingerplays in a childcare center, send the songs and words ahead of time so the teachers can practice with the children.
  • Limit the group size with young children. In a bookstore, several readings with ten children are infinitely more manageable than one reading with thirty. The same goes for community events. If you must do one session, enlist some help for crowd control. Large crowds can be overwhelming for small children (and harried authors).
  • Sit where all the children can see you. If no chair is provided, stand up or perch on your knees, or you’ll be drowned out by a chorus of “I can’t see’s!”
  • Expect very young children to fidget, loll, or get up and move around. They are kinetic learners and kinetic listeners.
  • Don’t read several books at a stretch. Babies and toddlers can’t concentrate for more than five minutes or so. Break up your routine with simple songs or fingerplays. Songs that require kids to get up and move are great, as long as you end on a “sit down” note. All told, the performance aspect of an event with babies and toddlers shouldn’t last more than 15 or twenty minutes.
  • If you use props during your presentation, expect the children to touch them. They can’t resist – they haven’t learned to delay gratification yet. You can cut simple shapes out of felt for the children to hold—circles for pretend cookies, for example. Don’t expect to get them back.
  • If a child comes unglued while you’re reading, pause so his parent can remove him from the group. Recruit another adult to help you if parents don’t get the picture.
  • Young children have a hard time with negative phrases. If you say, “No jumping,” they have a hard time figuring out what not jumping is. It’s more effective to say the thing you do want them to do: “Put your feet on the floor.”
  • Be flexible. If the children aren’t interested in your story but they love your songs and fingerplays, go with the flow. You’ll all have more fun, and parents will remember you fondly.

My best advice? Honor babies’ and toddlers’ perspective and experiences in your writing and in the presentation of your stories. Whet children’s appetites for literature by writing rich stories that they’ll want to savor again, and again…and again.

Online Resources

There’s no shortage of wonderful organizations dedicated to promoting literacy in young children. Bookmark these websites to stay in touch with news and conferences about early literacy:

The International Reading Association: www.reading.org

The National Association for the Education of Young Children: www.naeyc.org

The National Education Association’s “Read Across America” initiative: www.nea.org/readacross/

The National Center for Family Literacy: HeadStart Family Literacy Project: www.famlit.org/headstart/hsece.html

Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families: www.zerotothree.org

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