Picture Books

I am one of those weird people who loves public speaking. I find it invigorating. Even more than public speaking, though, I love reading. So it comes as a surprise to no one when I say that I love storytimes– they are public reading, shared experiences in which I can make a story I love come alive for a group of children.

Storytimes are great. Reading out loud to children is fun, and it’s satisfying, and it’s important. Children develop vocabulary, they learn how stories are structured, and they develop positive associations with reading. I know all of this. Yet in the last week I’ve found myself equally captivated by a very different experience– the experience of being “read aloud to,” often by children who can’t actually read.

What do I mean by that? For example: I’ll be sitting in the library, completely focused on a spreadsheet where I’m tracking quantitative data, when a little girl will come up to me, poke my arm, and dump a picture book in my lap. The first time this happened, the girl in question was about three. She opened the Nyanja-language picture book authoritatively and poked at an illustration about as hard as she had just poked my arm. She said something about the illustration. In Nyanja.

“Hmm,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “Yes.” It would be really cool if I could speak Nyanja, I thought to myself.

But as we continued looking at the book, I felt less and less of a need to speak Nyanja. We touched our favorite parts of the pictures. We counted some of the animals. We discovered we did share a few common vocabulary words (“apples,” “biscuits,” “baby”) and could have a surprisingly engaging conversation using those words and a lot of pointing and miming. When we got to an illustration of a baby, she picked up the book and began kissing the page enthusiastically. “I love babies, too,” I said, and pretended to kiss the baby as well. She giggled. Her emotional connection to that book and its images was real, and the connection we developed while reading that book was real– even though we couldn’t actually read the book together.

I had another experience like this with an older child who spoke English (but didn’t read it) the other day as well. He came up to me while I was working at the desk and handed me a book. “I’ll tell you this story,” he said.

“Okay,” I agreed. He opened to the first page. A baby was lying on a blanket in a garden.

“A frog eats the baby,” he informed me.

“How can a frog eat a baby?” I asked incredulously, thinking that he was making up something silly. He turned the page. The next picture was of a frog swallowing the baby. Silly me, as it turns out.

I like the role reversal of being read to from pictures. I like that it gives children an opportunity to be the experts, which is an opportunity a lot of children don’t have in schools or in their day-to-day lives. More than offering a hollow chance to play-act at being adult, however, I think that there is something essential pre-literate children can share with adults, and each other, using picture books–the skill of reading images.

Last year I told myself I finally needed to get on the graphic novel bandwagon, and I buried myself in my room with some award-winning graphic novels for young adults. I emerged a day later with a headache and a sense of my own incompetence. Reading graphic novels is hard. I hadn’t realized how limited my ability to read sequential still images was. I couldn’t keep track of the characters. I missed important details. I would find myself re-reading the same pages over and over again, trying to get the same flow that I found in reading words. I got better at it with time, but I still wouldn’t say that I like it.

And that’s part of why it amazes me to look at picture books with children who can’t read words, but who notice every tiny detail in a picture and who use those images as a springboard for their own developing skills as storytellers. I see young children in the libraries every day, children who I know can’t read narrating stories they’ve interpreted from picture books as confidently as if they were fluent readers. Recently I noticed a boy in the library who was sitting by himself and looking at the illustrations in a book in painstaking detail. He hunched over the book and touched the pages, utterly rapt but clearly not reading. I couldn’t resist– I grabbed another library staff member and sat down next to him. “Let’s talk about this book,” I said. “What are you doing? What’s going on that’s got you so interested?”

“I’m thinking about what’s happening,” he said. He pointed to a girl in the sky. “She’s flying,” he said. “She’s flying to the supermarket.” He touched the building below her. “This is the supermarket.”

“Oh,” I said, intrigued. To me there was no indication that the girl was flying, and no indication that the building was a supermarket. I asked the first thing that came into my head. “How do you know that she’s flying, and not falling?”

He looked at me incredulously. “Look at her ribbon,” he said, pointing to her dress. The ribbon was streaming out behind her in the wind, a dead giveaway that she was moving horizontally. If I paid even a fraction of the attention to pictures that I pay to words, I would have noticed that. It’s a good thing I had someone to remind me.

Learning to read words is essential. But I think sometimes we get so hung up on words that we forget about all of the other skills children gain from having access to picture books. They are particularly valuable here, where Zambian-language picture books are scarce and English-language literacy isn’t fully developed until most schoolchildren are around nine or ten. Picture books offer those children who aren’t yet bilingually literate an opportunity to meaningfully interact with a story on their own terms. However, picture books are not just a step on the way to becoming a “real” reader– they are complex and beautiful forms of literature that open doors to deep creativity, empowering children of all reading levels (or none) to interpret, create, and share the unique stories they see when they look at pictures.

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Reading Together

5229448631_db8f276005_bWhen I worked in Lubuto’s D.C. office, I spent a fair amount of time captioning photos that other people had taken in the libraries. Looking through those pictures was always fun– seeing the big smiles, the crowds of children watching or participating in drama performances, and the teen artists bent over their masterpieces. But the most common caption that I used was some permutation of the phrase “reading together.” “A group of young girls read together,” “Volunteers and children read together,” “Reading together during community outreach,” etc. You get the idea.

The frequency of those images caught my attention, because in my own life, going to the library had never been a very social experience. Even as a child, I would dart away from my family the second we got through the doors, find the most private corner I could, and disappear into a book. My childhood reading life was mostly solitary, and my books were like my own private universes. I don’t remember ever going to the library with a friend.

Reading in Lubuto Libraries, on the other hand, is an intensely social experience. It’s rare that I’ve seen a solitary child come into the library. Usually they come in five or six at a time, lining up behind each other to write their names (or draw a picture, if they can’t write yet) on the sign-in sheet, and then cluster together on a bench or in the talking circle. The other day I watched a group of three young boys come into the library– the youngest was probably five, and the oldest might have been nine. They ran to the shelves and grabbed books with the energy and abandon that little boys have, and when they sat down in the talking circle I surreptitiously came over and sat near them. The youngest didn’t seem to be able to read much yet, but his enthusiasm was unmatched by any of the older, more literate children in the library– he turned the pages quickly, stopping to point or gasp or exclaim to his friends, and would occasionally be so overcome that he would literally shove the book on top of whatever his friends were reading, drawing their attention to the images on the page. (It was a book about early humans, so the images were pretty exciting– think neanderthals being attacked by saber-toothed tigers.) Then the other two boys would patiently set their own books aside and admire the pictures with him, until eventually one of the others would appropriate the book and the younger boy would just as eagerly grab whatever his friend had been reading instead. There was no fighting, just a mutual acceptance that a friend’s book must be as exciting as one’s own.

In addition to observing the ways in which the children pick books and utilize the collection, my research has involved monitoring the baskets in the libraries that are supposed to be for children to put used books in so librarians can re-shelve them. My observation has been that these baskets are used less to collect books that kids are finished with than as a “mixing bowl” to exchange reads. I see children pull books out of the baskets just as often as I see them take from the shelves, it seems, and when I asked some kids about it today they expressed a sentiment I think is universal, saying, “we want to read the books our friends just finished!” I think of the popularity of websites like Goodreads in the United States, and the cumbersome process of “finding” my friends in order to see their “shelves” and read their recommendations so I can share their reading experiences online. I wish my shared reading experiences could happen as spontaneously or as constantly as they do for children in Lubuto Libraries– informally, at rapid-fire speed, either verbally or with as little ceremony as shoving a book into a friend’s lap– because if a friend shoved a book in my lap, I’d definitely read it.

These shared reading experiences are building friendships even as they help children grow into enthusiastic, wide-ranging readers with an appreciation for the opinions and interests of others. They are also building leaders. Recently I walked in on the end of a storytime that had been led by a library staff member. The end of a storytime is always a little bittersweet– the kids often linger there, staring hopefully at the librarian, or picking up new books to push into their hands, “just one more.” This time, though, after the librarian walked away, the oldest girl in the group just picked up a pile of books and sat down among the younger children and began her own storytime. They crawled on top of her and read “Hop on Pop” together in chorus, and the other children in the library laughed and occasionally chimed in on a line or two. And I’m sure I should be able to think of a more creative caption by now, but if I’d had a photo of that moment I would have returned to the simple but amazing sentiment of “an impromptu storytime sees children of all ages reading together.”

Former Lubuto Program Associate Elizabeth Giles is currently in Zambia for the summer, conducting research on the Lubuto Library collections.

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12 More Days!


Just a few weeks left to contribute to Thomas’s professional education! As Lubuto is committed to contributing any remaining amount needed for the coming academic year, every donation, large or small, means more of Lubuto’s funds can go towards our direct library services.

Donate here today: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-leader-for-african-libraries

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Learning About Biodiversity and Other Big Questions of Life at The Library

Library users at Ngwerere Lubuto Library have been using Wikipedia for Schools and the World Book Encylopedia (digital) for over a month now. I’ve spent some time at the library observing the use of these e-resources and interacting with users. The response to World Book and Wikipedia has been very positive. Two experiences illustrate how users are seeking information, both happened last week. First, several secondary school students were huddled around the computer preparing for their ultimate school exam. They were answering questions about biodiversity. The question in front of them was what the importance of biodiversity was. World Book has a comprehensive article on biodiversity. The article breaks down the three different kinds of biodiversity. The students were very excited to discover that there were three kinds of biodiversity discussed; genetic, environmental and species diversity. We launched into a discussion on genes before going back to the questions they had. At the end of the day, I feel that their experience was richer than it would have been if they had only a textbook.


A couple of days later, I noticed a shy looking boy typing in a question into the address bar of a search engine. I explained to him that the computers were not yet connected to the internet but were loaded with two great resources: Wikipedia and World Book. The question he had typed in was ‘Why do people grow old and die?’ I directed him to the World Book article on aging and he read it with great interest. I was very curious to know why he was asking that question. He responded that he had read it in a religious pamphlet. Why did he think people grew old now that he had read a different source? He said he believed both accounts. That people grow old because of a version of original sin and that, according to the World Book article, we grow old because of natural, biological, reasons. I’m not certain that he understood all the scientific information but I think it is a triumph that he found an alternative explanation for a question that intrigued him, a process that will likely broaden his mind and aid him in later life. I learned that this boy had come into the city recently and wasn’t attending school. The library served as a place to be and a place to learn when school wasn’t possible.


by Thomas Mukonde.

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Meet Thomas Mukonde

A video to introduce our Library Services Advisor, Thomas Mukonde. Thomas, based in Lusaka, Zambia, needs funds to earn a Masters in Library Science at the University of Illinois. Lubuto believes that supporting his professional education is the key to the future not only of Lubuto, but of children’s libraries across the continent. Please consider contributing today!




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Who Saved the Prince

Last Saturday, at Ngwerere Library, LubutoDrama members performed a play inspired by Umba Soko’s Who Saved The Prince in which a group of village elders save a prince from a big snake.who saved the prince There was a large audience of young people who enjoyed the story characterized by song and dance. The actors brought the story to life with their simple props and well rehearsed performance. Children were encouraged to read the book that the play was based on. LubutoDrama will begin rehearsing for the next performance in six weeks!

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A Leader for African Libraries


Lubuto has begun a campaign on Indiegogo to support our Library Services Advisor, Thomas Mukonde, earn his Masters in Library Science at the University of Illinois. Building local ownership and professional capacity is central to Lubuto, and crucial to improving a sustainable future for public libraries in Africa as spaces for education, community and development. Thomas is a terrific example of this leadership and ownership. Lubuto believes that supporting his professional education is the key to the future not only of Lubuto, but of children’s libraries across the continent.

Thomas joined Lubuto in November 2013, and immediately became a integral part of our team. Since joining our staff, Thomas has met and formed important new partnerships with local publishers and technological innovators, revitalized library services for teens through book clubs and movie nights, and fully embodied the holistic, supportive mission of Lubuto Libraries.

While there are many professional librarians and some library schools in Zambia, there is no coursework available in library services for children. Thomas has been accepted to the Master’s in Library and Information Science program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, giving him an opportunity to study children’s library services at the perennially highest ranked MLIS program.

While Thomas has been offered both an assistantship and small scholarship, $25,000 is still needed to support him while he earns this essential degree. This amount includes the cost of his travel to and from Zambia, living expenses, books and academic supplies, and some remaining tuition costs. Please help contribute to this amount and play a vital role in the life of Thomas, and the lives of countless youth in Africa transformed everyday by visits to libraries made just for them.

Please contribute to the campaign here. Every little bit counts!

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