One year before we launched Maktabatee, our local Islamic center approached me about leading a monthly Arabic story time for kids. It was a stroke of luck, because it came at the same time that my sister and had been exploring the idea of starting an online store for Arabic children’s books. The opportunity allowed us to see if there was a demand for Arabic children’s books, and to really explore the needs of parents like us when it came to Arabic learning.
The program lasted for a year and we had dozens of children coming through, some driving more than an hour to join us on Saturday mornings. One of the most difficult parts of planning the storytime was finding the right books to read. I dipped into my stash of Arabic stories, but realized they just weren’t enough. While my kids may have enjoyed them because we had read them dozens of times, they weren’t necessarily easy to understand for children hearing them for the first time. I struggled to find enough to make a “theme” for each session and sometimes the books that I thought would be a hit, were actually a miss. This made us even more determined to address this challenge for other parents and educators like us.
When we launched Maktabatee in April 2016, we knew that we wanted books that could be read in this context, that would allow children to see the beauty of Arabic storytelling, away from some of the old school story lines and graphics that we were used to. Since then, we’ve heard from many community members who are hosting similar programs in their schools and libraries. If you don’t have one in your area, why not start one yourself? If you’ve thought about it, but are not sure where to start, we broke it down for you into five steps, drawing on our own experience as well as tips we gathered from talking to others who have been involved in starting or organizing an Arabic story time in their community.
1. Find a venue: Whether it’s the local library, mosque, or your own home, the first step is to choose a location for your storytime. Ideally, there should be a space that is away from distractions, includes comfortable seating, and is accessible to parents and little ones. We found it helpful to have floor seating for children so they won’t be constrained in chairs. If you have a large Arabic speaking population in your area, don’t hesitate to reach out to your local library and offer to help organize an Arabic storytime. If the library is not ready to sponsor one, you can reserve a library meeting room to host your storytime and once you build a following, the library might see the value in sponsoring it themselves!
2. Set the program: From our own experience and hearing from other parents, the ideal audience for a storytime is children ages 1- 5. Your program can be customized to fit a more narrow age group, but in general, we found that 60-90 minutes is enough time to read 2-3 stories, sing songs, and do a simple craft. Having consistency in the program from week to week helps children get used to what to expect. Asiya, a mom to three little ones in Virginia who helped run a local Arabic storytime, says “repeating the same opening, transition and closing song each week worked really well, as the children started to memorize them and could participate in singing them with us.” Songs are a great way for children to practice their Arabic and get everyone engaged, you can even have kids stand up and get their energy out while singing or add hand and body movements with each song. You can find plenty of nursery rhymes in Arabic on Youtube, or get creative and make up your own!
Mariam from Michigan described the storytime she helps organize, “We play a 'bismillah' song to get folks seated in a circle and ready, then we read some Quran, sing songs in Arabic, use a felt board or puppets with the songs, read a couple of books, and finally end with a themed craft.” We love the idea of using puppets with songs or to do a more “storytelling” style instead of book reading.
Following the story session with a craft activity can help reinforce some of the themes and vocabulary in the stories. After doing several craft sessions post-storytime, I found that keeping it as simple as possible was key. Elaborate crafts that end up being done mostly by parents or tossed at the end of the session didn’t do much for the children.
3. Choose books and stories: Because this is probably the hardest part, it’s best to keep a few things in mind:
- Find books that are not too long, preferably no more than one sentence on each page, or shorten the phrases to accommodate the short attention spans.
- Test the books out on your own children if possible-- sometimes books that resonate with adults don’t always translate well with children.
- Illustrations are just as important as the words! Books with vivid images will help children visualize the story and stay engaged.
- Consider finding a common theme across 2-3 books to help reinforce certain concepts with children. This doesn’t have to an obvious theme-- for example, you might have 3 books that take place in different seasons, so you highlight that part and do a seasonal craft. Or find books that have animal characters and practice their names. Another theme can highlight feelings that characters experience, such as excitement, sadness, or fear. (Our book selection is tagged, so you can find titles related to family, pets, counting, emotions, and more!)
Asiya told us, “The stories that worked best for all the kids, whether they knew Arabic already or not, were stories with many pictures of things they were familiar with, such as trucks or balls, with words that were repeated over and over again.”
4. Prepare: If you are going to be reading the books or telling the stories, make sure you practice, practice, practice! Read the books several times in the days leading up to the storytime-- this will make you more comfortable with the story-- you can look away from the pages and use your own words as needed, and you can add character to the story with special voices, changing your pitch, and other engaging movements.
For songs, you might want to print out the words for parents to sing along with you or play the songs on a speaker to help everyone follow the tune.
For the crafts, make sure you give this some thought in advance and prepare as much of the materials as possible to keep the craft simple enough for toddlers and preschoolers.
5. Go for it! Starting something new is always nerve wracking, but keep your expectations in check and aim to get others involved to help you improve and customize the program for each group of kids. When I organized my first storytime, I had grand expectations that all the children would sit quietly as I read each word off the page and fall in love with every story I read. In reality, there were children jumping in front of my face (my own included!), some crying, some running off and distracting others, and some not really engaging with the story. I learned to choose shorter books, use my own words sometimes, stop and ask the children to point to things on the pages, and make other modifications as needed. And yes, there were many children and parents who loved the storytime and made it all worth it.
We’d love to hear from you if you have organized or attended a storytime in your area-- share your best tips below! And if you are hosting a public storytime, let us know the details and we’ll keep a running list of Arabic storytimes around the country for others to explore!