Jump Start on Reading

By Christine Volker

The Richmond Public Library has offered Story Time for as long as people can remember. What exactly is it? And why does the library put emphasis on this FREE program?

During Story Time, a librarian engages children by reading picture books or other stories to them. Listening to stories and learning new words are keys to a child’s development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents read to their children from birth. To succeed, a child needs basic literacy skills by the time (s)he enters school; without these they are 3 to 4 times more likely to drop out. Sadly, dropping out leads to individuals’ unfilled potentials; in many communities, drop out levels are used to plan for prison capacity needs, a stark indication of where the future for some may lie.

It is estimated that a child from a professional family would hear around 11 million words annually, while a child from an economically disadvantaged family would hear 3 million.
The Richmond Public Library’s free program helps to bolster children’s vocabulary and development, evening the odds, along with providing a fun and positive group atmosphere for learning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In November I sat down with Sheila Dickinson, Children’s Librarian to learn more. Here’s what she had to say.

Tell me about your background.

I’ve been a professional for twenty years, working in the west. For the last eight, I’ve been a children’s librarian here in Richmond. I come from a family of librarians and booksellers. Holidays around our home looked like a book festival! You could say that a love of reading and books is in my genes. So it was natural that I would study library and information science and get my MLS.

Why did you choose to be a children’s librarian?

Despite all of the technological changes that have impacted libraries and other types of librarianship, work as a children’s librarian continues to be rooted in strong personal relationships with kids and their parents. We connect and interact over the stories (Story Times date back to the 1930s) and other activities I organize.

What else should people know about Story Times?

We offer a total of five to ten Story Times per week, taking place in our three branches. They’re listed in our website and also on flyers in the library. I also post these on my personal Facebook page. We try to keep to the same, predictable schedule, so parents and guardians can plan. Story Times are open to the public on a drop-in basis. Kids from ages zero on up are welcome to attend. Roughly 4,500 kids attended Story Time for the first nine months this year. Getting that exposure to words, and to vocabulary in children’s early years is critical. Plus, kids have a lot of fun and get to experience the library as a friendly place.

How do you decide which books to read?

Generally I key off the seasons, holidays and cultural celebrations. November is Native American Heritage Month, so some of the stories I’ll read to the kids will be related to that history or those beliefs, like the story of Raven putting the sun in the sky. I plan far ahead, generally one year, but it’s flexible, so I can take advantage of anything that may come up in current events. Recently I featured stories on immigration and refugees.

How about outreach to kids in schools or those outside of the library?

We still have a commitment to this, but the new school curriculums, test schedules and other rules make it much harder to visit schools on a regular basis. After school tutoring programs in many schools have been cut as well.

How have kids’ tastes in stories changed during the years you have been doing Story Time?

Not surprisingly, 21st century kids have a shorter attention span than when I began this work 20 years ago. Their preferences are for more action and brighter colors. Humor continues to be popular and a big crowd pleaser; funny stories are a sure bet, especially if I don’t know the kids attending a particular Story Time and what they like. I’ve always loved the natural world, and many kids don’t get the chance to run around in the woods or parks as much as they’d like. I want to make sure that through stories, kids coming to Story Time can experience a bit of the wonder and beauty of nature, even in an urban environment like Richmond.

What would be your one wish to improve the experience of children and their parents with the library?

To hire more children’s librarians! There is so much more that we could do if we had more people to help do it all!

With roughly 17,000 kids in Richmond, 18% of the population in poverty, 49% of Richmond families speaking a language other than English at home, and just two children’s librarians plus one teen librarian to serve the huge numbers, the need to boost early reading is urgent.

Story Times Schedule


BayView branch library 10:30am


West Side branch library 10:30am


Main library 10:30am


Main library 12:00pm

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