When Children Drive the Boat at Storytime

I’ve often said that the best learning and most meaningful experiences with children happen unexpectedly.  And, it happens all the time, especially with picture books.  You just have to seize the moment and be ready to let go of the scripted text, the one that’s in your head.

I’d like to tell you about two outstanding books where this happened, each with very different experiences:

The First Book

Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La… and Gaston.  Yes, reading those words from Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio to the children started it all.  They cracked up (it really was funny), so I read it again.  More laughing, and I laughed, too.  The words in the text repeated the dogs’ names.  I paused, looked at the children, and read the names again- this time with a voice and an accent.  Well, we roared, together.  I couldn’t stop laughing.  My tears blocked seeing the words in the book.

Was this planned?  Of course not.  It just happened.  Why was this important?  It made their teacher (me) more human.  It was a class bonding moment.  If anyone was having a bad day, they weren’t any longer.  Laughter is the best medicine.  Next, we finished reading the book, and we learned a few impromptu words in French.  Oui, oui.

The story is about Gaston, who is clearly not at all like his sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La.  The dogs meet another family, Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and Antoinette, who is not like her brothers.  The two mother dogs discuss what appears to be the obvious, a dog in each family that doesn’t belong:

It seems there’s been a terrible mistake.  Whatever shall we do?  I guess we’ll let them decide.

What happens next is a story of diversity, belonging, and love.  Laced with humor, the book appeals to children and adults.  It certainly appeals to my children!  Belly laughing made it a memory.  Oh, we now sing  “Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston” as a catchy tune.

The Second Book

Sometimes a simple text can be powerful.  I discovered just that when I read aloud Life, by Cynthia Rylant.  The book starts with these words:

Life begins small.  Even for elephants.  Then it grows.  Beneath the sun.  And the moon.  Life grows.

Powerful, indeed.  I read the words slowly, taking time to stop and let the words sink in, and show the illustrations.  Children were silent.  The story depicts not only the elephant, but many other animals.  In a matter-of-fact way, it tells the tale of how things are not always easy.  Life.  Yet, there is always hope and wonder ahead as we go through life.  The book ends with these words:

And it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen.  Because life begins small.  And grows.

When I finished reading to this silent group, I clutched the book to my chest and paused.  I said, “I love life.  What do I like the most?”

Long pause and thinking.

“Singing!  I love singing.  Everyone knows Jennie loves singing.”

And then I looked at all those little faces, looking at me.  I knew what I needed to do; I asked each child what they love about life.  I was stunned.  I never expected to hear these answers:

  • Allie: “Hearts and love.”
  • Emmett: “Legos.”
  • Lincoln: “Trees.”
  • Tessa: “The moon.”
  • Ella: “Dancing.”
  • Lucca: “Santa.”
  • Savannah: “Hearts.”
  • Alex: “Rainbows.”
  • Quinn: “Big hearts.”
  • Kate: “My big sister.”
  • Jayden: “Playing with Alex and Hunter.”
  • Will: “My big brother.”
  • Adam: “My Mom and Dad.”

My goodness!

No wonder this book has been recommended as an alternative to Dr. Seuss’ book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, as a graduation gift.

If you think books and words and stories aren’t powerful, think again.  When you seize the moment as you read a book aloud, and follow your instinct and heart, you will make that book far more meaningful for children.  Whether it is filled with humor or worldly advice, it really doesn’t matter.  You will make that book come alive.  You will make a difference.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty-five years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I was a live guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. I am highlighted in the seventh edition of Jim Trelease's million-copy bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital, and the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
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47 Responses to When Children Drive the Boat at Storytime

  1. D. Metzke says:

    Yes! My kids loved the dogs names too! Life is on my TBR list.

  2. Meg says:

    How wonderful it is to make the space for listeners to respond to words read aloud, to play and laugh together.

  3. Beautiful reviews of the two books, Jennie and so pleasing to read for children. Children need to read such wonderful books for their overall growth. Great post.

  4. beetleypete says:

    Another heartwarming story about the power of words, reading, and learning.
    I was pleased to read that Emmett like ‘Lego’ the most though. Someone should remind him of that answer, when he has a family of his own. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Pete. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I’ll probably tell Emmett’s family and the other parents so they can have that memory. Best to you, Pete.

  5. GP Cox says:

    Those children will remember those moments with you and the books the rest of their lives.

  6. Dan Antion says:

    I wonder if these books would help some adults I know…

  7. Darlene says:

    I love the answers the children gave when you asked what they loved most about life. It is amazing what is important to them. Two excellent books to read aloud.

  8. Lisa Stafford says:

    Beautifully said, Jennie!! I love life, too, especially with young children!!

  9. Tina Frisco says:

    Oh how I wish I’d had a teacher like you, Jennie. You not only understand children, but you also inspire them. They will never forget you ❤

  10. L. Marie says:

    My niece and nephew loved when I read aloud to them on long car trips. They have a love of words now because of those moments.

  11. John Fioravanti says:

    You’re absolutely right, Jennie, to help the children learn, sometimes you just have to get out of the way!

  12. This sounds like a marvelous book, Jennie. I will have to find a copy.

  13. reocochran says:

    The two books have great themes and I am so glad you shared them, Jennie. I really enjoyed Cynthia Rylant as an author. I enjoyed the laughter in your classroom! Fun times and always good memories. 😊🙂😊

  14. Norah says:

    Gorgeous post, Jennie. I would have loved playing with those dogs’ names too. Sounds like a delightful book. But I really love the sound of “Life” and these words at the end: “And it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen. Because life begins small. And grows.” What a book filled with hope for all of us. I’m ordering copies right now. Thank you. 🙂

  15. dgkaye says:

    Thanks for sharing this fun and informative post Jennie. I’m bookmarking for my little great niece 🙂

  16. jannekecalle says:


  17. Thanks once more for letting us sit in on your classroom, Jennie. These kids are so fortunate to have an adult in their life who is clearly enjoying her career. I’m sure more than one child brought home a story of how their teacher laughed so hard she cried. 🙂 An adult who respects children and treats them as equals is truly a wonderful thing. As for Dan’s comment, yes, there are many adults who could learn a thing or two from picture books!

    • Jennie says:

      My goodness, Marcia. Thank you for your kind and wise words. Treating children with respect and equality is enormous. There’s no me-and-you-wall. When I read to children on this level, wonderful things happen. Yes, children go home and tell stories about Jennie. Actually, that inspired me to write newsletters to parents, explaining learning and what we do. Those newsletters were the foundation for my blog. So, reading aloud is grounded in what I know to be #1 for children. And, Dan is so right!!

  18. srbottch says:

    Outstanding commentary, Jennie!

  19. Great post! Thank you!

  20. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    I can’t help it…

    I must share some of the last words of today’s re-blog—to encourage you to read it all 🙂

    “If you think books and words and stories aren’t powerful, think again. When you seize the moment as you read a book aloud, and follow your instinct and heart, you will make that book far more meaningful for children.”

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