Sing Along in World Languages Story Hour

By Ilene Dube

French, Spanish, German, Hungarian, Russian and Chinese are among the languages in which you’ll hear the phrase “Good morning, children, it’s story time” spoken at the Princeton Public Library. The library offers its World Language Stories program to connect with the languages and cultures of the greater Princeton region.

It began eight years ago. “We started with Spanish to address the needs of Princeton’s large Hispanic population,” says Allison Santos, Youth Services Librarian. “We would average 40 attendees, made up of children, their parents and caregivers. We were then approached by other native speakers who were interested in story times for their communities.” After Chinese language story time attracted a crowd, it was followed by a French program. Veronica Olivares, an advocate for early literacy initiatives, leads the Spanish language story time.

“Some libraries offer Urdu or Gujarati language story times, but it’s rare for a library to offer as many languages as we do,” says Santos.

All the storytellers are native speakers who volunteer their time. “They put a lot of work in planning and promoting the programs and help make decisions about books to include in the World Language Collection,” Santos says. Ages of attendees begin at 2, and children up to 10 enjoy attending. “Ages 3 to 5 is the most receptive,” says Santos. “We want them to participate and sing along.”

Story times range from half an hour to a full hour and a half, in the case of the Hungarian story time, which includes music, dance and acting out scenes from the book. “If you go to that one, you’ll be singing and dancing before you leave,” says Santos. Most attendees speak the language of the group they attend, but “you don’t have to be Chinese to come to Chinese story hour. Parents can expose their children to different cultures and language.”

Japanese story time incorporates kamishibai, a centuries-old form of storytelling considered a precursor to manga and anime that incorporates picture scrolls in conveying stories. Sometimes called paper drama, kamishibai has even been used by Toyota as a management tool and by others to promote world peace. “With ‘kamishibai,’ even if you don’t speak the language you can understand the story and get the flow,” says Santos.

The library’s World Languages literature collection includes picture books, chapter books, nonfiction, music and movies in 16 languages from A to Z. “Everything from Arabic to Zulu,” says Lucia Acosta, the youth services librarian who manages the collection. When she arrived 14 years ago the collection included books from Norway and Sweden, reflecting a population no longer reading those books. She took it upon herself to rebuild the collection, which now includes Tagalog, Hindi, Czech, Korean, Hebrew and Italian.

While bestsellers such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are available in most languages of the collection – books that have been translated from English – the primary focus is on books written in the language of the author. “It is through French books by French authors that we can understand French culture,” says Acosta, a native of Colombia who is fluent in English, Spanish and French, and speaks some German and Italian.

The Spanish collection is the largest, but the French collection is significant, to meet the needs of families who came to the Princeton area with such French businesses as L’Oreal and Schlumberger. Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study also bring international library patrons. Siemen’s and Munich Re bring German speakers who don’t necessarily live in Princeton but purchase Princeton Public Library cards so they can borrow the books, says Santos. “During our summer reading program, the German children completed their 50 hours of summer reading in German.”

The library offers a summer reading program, One World, Many Stories, in which children tell where their parents were born. When the library opened its Sands building in 2004, a video was made of children saying “library” in the 81 languages spoken in Princeton.

“With the World Languages Collection and story times, we’re making available what other libraries don’t offer,” says Santos. “We also have English conversation groups, where native speakers can come and practice English. It’s like a little U.N. Princeton really is a melting pot.”