It was late in a dreary afternoon on Feb. 15, and the Frankford branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia was hopping. Kids were upstairs in the big children’s section doing their homework, and downstairs, parents and toddlers were gathering to meet local author CJ Waddy.
Waddy’s appearance, perhaps, made the branch, at Frankford Avenue and Overington Street, a bit busier than it usually is, but the kids upstairs come four days a week to participate in a homework-help program, said children’s librarian John Elliott-VanDivier.
That program is just one of many branch library events designed for kids. Every branch, in fact, has a lot to offer children, or parents who want their kids to read.
Each branch in the Northeast has a children’s librarian, said Free Library spokeswoman Alix Gerz. The branches have big collections of books, DVDs, CDs and other materials all aimed at children. Children’s programs can be anything from story times for toddlers to schoolwork help to reading clubs, computer classes and photography instruction.
Although the Central Library on Vine Street has many author events yearly, visits by writers to branch libraries are rare. Still, Waddy, a former day-care teacher in Frankford, drew a packed house Feb. 15 when he was there, in costume, to read from U Noo Tito, Boy Hero, Says No to Strangers, which he wrote and his young son, Chafik, illustrated.
Ann Hornbach of the Torresdale branch on Holme Avenue said she handles pre-school story times for kids ages 2 to 5, but “sometimes, we do pay performers to do programs.”
“Animal programs are always a big hit,” said Lisa Carpenter of the Tacony branch on Torresdale Avenue. “We do a wide variety of programming for ages three and up.”
Some Northeast branches have “Friends of the Library” groups that provide funding for children’s programs.
There’s a personal touch, too, that parents likely will find appealing.
Librarians interviewed for this story said some parents ask for help in getting their kids to read. Spotting a reluctance to read seems to be particularly true for parents of boys who are 8 to 12 years old, said Carpenter.
“I actually interview a child to see what interests him, to try to find something to spark his interest,” Carpenter said.
If a child likes sports, Carpenter knows the titles a kid might enjoy. Hornbach suggested looking for author Matt Christopher, who has written more than 100 action-packed sports books for children.
Elliott-VanDivier said some parents try to speak for their kids when he asks questions about their interests, but they don’t always know what their kids like. It’s important, he said, to hear from the kids themselves.
Carpenter said some parents are timid about asking for help.
“People forget that there are places you can go for personal, one-on-one service,” she said. “They don’t know the library provides that service.”
The children’s librarians know what’s on their shelves, what’s popular, what the trends are and what’s coming in. Plenty comes in, too. New material arrives weekly and monthly, librarians said.
It’s an easy guess what’s popular with kids. It’s anything in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. The series’ books never stay on the shelves long.
“Parents come in and ask for that,” Carpenter said.
“Those books make even adults laugh,” Hornbach added.
The Harry Potter series continues to fascinate kids. Book series in general, Carpenter said, are big with young readers.
“Children who come in looking for a favorite series are thrilled if there is a new book in that series,” Carpenter said.
For little kids, pop-up books are hits, especially books with pop-up dinosaurs.
David Payne, Tacony’s branch manager, recommended 39 Clues series. The books chronicle Amy and Dan Cahill’s search for 39 clues, which will make the finder “the most powerful and influential person(s) on the planet.”
Some books get overlooked by kids and parents. A real gem is the 1938 book Mr. Popper’s Penguins, said Elliott-VanDivier. The book about a family whose house gets crowded by an ever-expanding group of penguins recently was made into a movie with Jim Carrey, so, despite its age, it probably will be recognized.
Anything tied to TV shows or movies is is known by kids and parents, librarians said.
Not all library programs are for little children. Payne is proud of two Tacony programs that involved older kids.
The branch hosted a six-week ceramics course. The kids worked in clay at the branch and their efforts were fired at a professional studio. In another program, sixth- to ninth-graders were given disposable cameras so they could go around Tacony and take photos of their neighborhoods.
“They saw their community with a fresh eye,” Payne said. “It gave them an appreciation of their community and the fun of photography.”
Next month, Hornbach said, the Torresdale branch will look at Irish heritage.
“We’re going to have Irish dancers,” she said. “And the kids are going to make Irish potatoes … I might live to regret that. ••
Read all about it…
The Free Library of Philadelphia has 10 branches and a regional facility in the Northeast. This month, the Northeast Times is examining the entertainment value that can be found at the libraries.
The bulk of the material and programs available — free of charge — is probably largely unknown to most Philadelphians. Only about 31 percent even have library cards.
Earlier this month the Times featured stories on the DVDs, music CDs and audio books that can be borrowed by library patrons. Today’s story is about children’s materials and programs. Next week, the series’ final installment will be about programs for adults. ••