Shaking Up Story Time: New Interactive Approach Gets Kids Thinking

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Story time is an integral part of early learning and bonding. But what if story time was more about inviting children’s active participation — gathering their reactions to the book’s art and story and letting these observations lead story time down unexpected paths?  

Megan Dowd Lambert, senior lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons College and mother of six children in Amherst, offers such an alternative in her new book, Reading Picture Books With Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See.

Published in collaboration with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst — the only full-scale museum of its kind in the United States — Lambert’s book shares with parents, teachers, librarians, and other caregivers the “Whole Book Approach” story time model she developed while an educator at The Carle. A portion of the book’s proceeds will benefit the museum.  

  The Whole Book Approach engages children to make meaning of all that they see and hear during a shared reading. This includes spending time focusing on the artwork and design of a book and not simply its text. Doing so can be as simple as taking a look at a book before traveling inside to “Once upon a time” and asking questions about what children see (e.g., “Why do you think this book is so tall?”). Or, children can be asked to study the book’s endpapers (the pages glued to the inside of the boards of a hardcover book) to see what they think the illustrator is trying to say with color,  design, and the clues he or she may be giving about the storyline.  

  “With the Whole Book Approach, we’re not just getting through a book, we’re reading the words, the pictures, and the design, and the kids are driving it,” Lambert says. “When we read with children, it should be about them and their responses and ideas. They can read pictures before they can read words, and they have things to say and questions they want to ask. The Whole Book Approach is an intentional way of reading — we’re reading with children, not to them.”

  “Children delight in having their voices heard during Whole Book Approach story times, and you can see confidence and community build among a group of children,” adds Emily Prabhaker, museum educator at The Carle, Whole Book Approach facilitator and trainer, and mother to a 3-year-old in Northampton. “The key (to success with these story times) is letting go of control, giving it over to the children, and following where they lead. If you’re able to give children the time, a safe space where they feel comfortable contributing their thoughts, and the vocabulary to make meaning of what they see, they will always enrich your own understanding of the story.” 

 In the process, children develop an appreciation for the book as an art form, an intriguing concept in the digital age with e-readers threatening the popularity of paper books. Perhaps even more importantly, the interactivity of the Whole Book Approach lets children be who they are. 

   “You never know what will come out of kids’ mouths, so reading becomes a really dynamic experience using this model,” says Ali Wicks-Lim, mother of two children in Amherst and participant in The Carle’s Whole Book Approach story times. “The conversation can change each time you read a certain book, making the same books feel new again. Plus, you learn a lot about your kids during these story times — what makes them laugh, what kinds of stories they’re interested in, etc. They become a mini book group!”

  The approach also works well for children of different ages. “The Whole Book Approach has extended my son’s ability to appreciate picture books,” Wicks-Lim adds, noting her son is now 10 and started with Whole Book Approach story times as a toddler. “I think this is because there’s more to them for him than just what’s read aloud or in the text on the pages. He’s thinking about the book in multiple ways and dimensions.” 

Even young children who aren’t fully verbal can signal their interests by pointing at certain objects on a page. Or, they may simply enjoy holding a book to increase their familiarity with it. 

 Thankfully, for parents, this style of interactive reading happens most naturally at home. Parents need to only supplement what they already do when incorporating the Whole Book Approach into their reading repertoire. Introducing simple book design terms into the conversation is one addition parents can easily weave into readings (see next page). “If a 3-year-old can name all of the dinosaurs that they’re interested in, why not get them familiar with book design terminology to make them feel entitled to talk about books and engage with books as physical objects?” Lambert asks. 

Getting Started

Since the Whole Book Approach is a highly engaged manner of reading, parents should facilitate these readings when they have the time and energy to be fully present. It’s equally helpful for parents to review the book they will be reading in advance so they know what’s coming within its pages and can figure out the best questions to ask to invite children’s observations. And there is great value in the conversations that result in helping children build critical thinking and expressive language skills. 

 Lambert reminds, however, that the Whole Book Approach isn’t the only way people should read to children. Sometimes a quiet read is best if parents or caretakers are preparing children for naps or bedtime and want them to settle down. The Whole Book Approach aims to do the opposite, challenging and motivating children to make meaning of everything they see outside and within the pages of books.  

 Reading Picture Books with Children provides the guidance that parents (and educators) need to fully understand and use the Whole Book Approach. This includes chapters on book design elements such as trim size and orientation, jackets and covers, endpapers and typography, along with vivid examples from well-known picture books that bring to life how a book’s design, illustrations, and words work together to tell a story and inspire a reader. Lambert also shares a sample Whole Book Approach story time at  

 Parents and children of all ages can also see the model come to life during drop-in story times at The Carle Museum. The Whole Book Approach remains central to the educational mission of The Carle, and museum educators are even willing to travel to locations nationwide to share this groundbreaking model with interested groups.

Get To Know Your Story

Here are a few sample book design terms you can teach children to empower them to talk about and engage with books:

Jacket: The decorative paper covering that fits over the casing of a hardcover book.

Endpapers: The pages glued to the inside of the boards of a hardcover book.

Gutter: The seam between the left- and right-hand pages of a book, where the pages are bound together.

Verso and recto: Left- and right-hand pages of a book.

Here are a few sample questions that can help kick off your Whole Book Approach story time:

• Why do you think this book is so tall/short/long/square? 

• What information does the jacket give us about the story? 

• Do you see any clues about the story in the endpapers? What are they?

Jenn Sheehy Everett