By Sarah Brown
When library assistant Darcy Smith of youth services started story time at the Lebanon Public Library, a little boy named Steven sat in the front row to listen to her read.
“He loved reading and he loved finger games,” Smith said. “But every time I started to sing, he put his fingers in his ears.”
This is one of the things she appreciates the most in children: their authenticity. She also likes their spontaneity. She can read the same book three times a year and have completely different reactions.
“I can read this book and have kids standing on their heads without paying attention, and a little guy up front who’s so engrossed it’s powerful,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Smith has presented storytime for children since she started working at the library in 2010, and in the past two years she hasn’t missed a single reading, despite the COVID-19 closure or the limitation of other library activities.
The library closed in March 2020 per state guidelines, but that didn’t stop story time with “Miss Darcy,” as some kids call her. With the help of her “cohort and partner in adventures”, library assistant Julie Tibbetts, she started reading on camera on social media.
She shot her first videos at home, but changed locations over the next two years. Smith read in a pumpkin patch and on a Christmas tree farm, in front of the butterfly mural at the library, and even on a boat.
When Smith visited his sister in Alaska last year, the family took their boat to Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, where Smith read Neal Gilbertsen’s “Little Red Snapperhood: A Fishy Fairy Tale.”
Against the backdrop of misty mountains, she told the story of a small goldfish, the kind that might have been swimming below her at that very moment.
“I wanted to bring something to the kids that wasn’t something they see every day, something special,” she said.
While the camera may have improved story time in some ways, Smith said she missed being able to feed off of the children’s reactions as she read.
“It’s a piece that I miss,” she said, “the interaction and responsiveness of the kid audience.”
She uses facial expressions and tone of voice to engage children, bringing stories to life. She raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth in an O shape, or widens her eyes and gasps to show her surprise. These animations are a little subtle though. She’s not overdone and her voice always seems to gently sweep the audience like a motherly embrace.
Smith grew up in Albany and earned her degree in education and child psychology from Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University). Her mother grew up in Lebanon and her grandmother, Leneve Nichols, was Strawberry Queen in 1929.
She worked in Montessori schools for a few years before moving away to become a stay-at-home mom. Part of her role involved bedtime stories for her children, Austin and Georgia, which her grandmother Nichols did for her when she was a child.
“She was always reading to us,” Smith said. “She read all kinds of books to us when we were children. She has this very soothing grandmother (voice).
Reading seems to be a tradition passed down from generation to generation, from Nichols to Smith’s mother, Sue Parrott, to Smith and her sister. Parrott nurtured the joy of reading in his children by taking them to story time at the library, reading to them, and letting them read whatever they wanted.
Smith grew up reading Judy Blume and Stephen King, and today she prefers books by fiction authors Kristin Hannah and Jason Reynolds, as well as some non-fiction and plenty of young adult books. She loves reading on her back porch, with the sound of nature around her, or listening to audiobooks while quilting or doing puzzles.
“My favorite place to read is snuggled up in bed,” she said. “It’s my happy place to read.”
As a child, Smith developed his own library in his bedroom for friends.
“I took all my books and put little envelopes on the back of them and then checked them for all the kids in the neighborhood,” she explained. “If they were late, I would even knock on their door and say ‘your book is late’.”
That’s why working in the library’s youth department seems like a natural choice.
“I’ve always loved reading, I’ve always loved reading to children,” she says. “This work had an artisan component and an imaginative component that really appealed to me.”
When she started, however, she found she needed to practice reading at an appropriate pace. Every evening before story time, she would bring a chosen book home and practice on her family. In fact, thanks to her dedication, her husband, Phillip, is able to recite Eric Litwin’s “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes” by heart.
“It was one of my favorite reads here at story time,” she said. “Time and time again I would practice it because it definitely has a rhyme.”
When choosing her books each week, Smith looks for ones that revolve around a theme. She chooses titles that are interactive, informative, entertaining and inclusive.
“It’s a way for me to reach children with various books, it’s at story time,” she said.
While “Pete the Cat” might rank as an all-time favorite, she’s currently picking Amanda Gorman’s “Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem.”
More than a decade after Smith took his post at the library, Storytime has evolved into programs that cater to people from birth to adulthood, including the Summer Reading Program, which encourages reading during the summer crisis.
“We really encourage families to read together,” she said. “We encourage parents to read to children or with children, so we want parents to participate in the summer reading program.”
Last summer, the Lebanese Public Library placed permanent installations for its new StoryWalk program, which showcases pages from storybooks along the path of Academy Square. Although summer seems like the best time to walk and read, Smith finds evidence that it’s a popular feature even in winter.
During that brief time Lebanon saw snow last December, a family walked the StoryWalk, which featured Jan Brett’s ‘The Mitten’. The family returned home and sent the library pictures of a mitten they had made in the snow.
“It was spectacular,” Smith said. “And that’s how you know you’re connecting with families, especially with something like the StoryWalk.”
This summer, she plans to present Storytime again in person, outdoors. While the mask mandate may be lifted by then, she has no plans to put it back inside yet.
For now, Storytime is filmed live Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on Instagram, and 9:15 a.m. on Facebook. A recorded yoga exercise for kids is posted on social media late Thursday morning.
This story by Darcy Smith is dedicated to the staff of Lebanon’s public library. Principal Kendra Antila and library assistant Julie Tibbetts provide a level of support that helps her offer story time and other services to children.
“We really couldn’t be successful here at this library without the staff we have,” Smith said. “I couldn’t do story time if we didn’t have three people in the office to bring 50 families together here.”