Exploring Children’s Literature, Writing Processes, and Libraries with Rob Reid

 Image: Volume One

Image: Volume One

by Chloe Ackerman

Librarians open doors and create portals to thousands of possible worlds. Rob Reid has worked much of his life to show to young kids that libraries are fun places. When he worked as a librarian he toured libraries and performed raps that he wrote using the names of children’s books. Now he’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he teaches how to use children’s literature to future educators.

Rob Reid explains his process and motivation for writing the songs, activities, and musical activities for his new book, 200+ Original and Adapted Story Program Activities, in this interview.

CHLOE ACKERMAN: What has had the most influence on you as a writer?

ROB REID: I have always been a writer but not always a published writer, and I found that my published niche was writing for my peers. Before I came to the university where I teach children’s literature, I was a children’s librarian in public libraries both here in Eau Claire and in Pueblo, Colorado. I came up with a lot of original ideas to kind of encourage kids to come to the library and hopefully make them lifelong book lovers. Then I found out that my peers were really interested in what I was doing. Then I made a connection with the American Library Association. They have a publishing arm called ALA Editions and they bought my book Children’s Jukebox which was a subject index of children’s recorded music. So if a daycare worker came in and said they want a song about friendship or frogs there wasn’t any research tool like that out there. I listened to about 200 children’s recordings and divided up the subject headings. I found the publisher then when that book was published they said, “what do you want to do next?” Which is something you want to hear an editor say. Then I was doing multigenerational story programs for grandma and grandpa or mom and dad and the kids and we called it family story time. That was the second one. I was lucky to find that publisher because then they kept saying what’s your next idea and so I have published 13 books with the ALA. This is my 20th book overall and 13th with them. The marketing editor and I are calling it the lucky thirteen. 

What is your writing process?

I basically pitch an idea to an editor, they say let’s go with it, then we set up a deadline that looms over my head for a year. I don’t write well without a deadline, and sometimes I do other kinds of writings too, so I do my own little deadlines. I find that kind of crucial for me, and it helps to be in a teaching environment as well because you have deadlines all the time. It helped my writing to quit the library field and come over here to UWEC because I used to work a nine to five job. I had four kids at home, they are all grown up now, and once everybody was done eating and in bed, I would try to write at night and I was exhausted. Over here at the university, I can have an early morning class, a mid-afternoon class, and in between grading and meeting with students I’m still fresh, and I have an hour or two to write. So that is helpful. 

What is your process for writing the songs, dances, story programs, and activities that go into your books?

I sit in a chair and a lot of the material comes because I want to match an activity with a particular children’s book. This is what librarians do with story programs and then follow it up with a finger play, musical activity, or a movement activity. You probably grew up knowing “The Wheels on the Bus” and “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” and I got tired going on a bus or going on a bear hunt over and over, so I started “We’re Going on an Elephant Hunt” and it created that new version of that old thing or instead of the wheels on the bus it’s “The Wheels on the Sports Car”. 

It’s not all just adaptation, it’s a lot of original stuff too. I’ll have a picture book in mind, and I’ll think back and I go “what would be a fun activity to do with it?” I like to fill up a legal pad with just broad ideas, then put them together, go to the computer, and take different verses that work well together then read or sing them aloud. It takes several passes before I finally have something. Then I like to test it on somebody besides myself. When my kids were little they were around so I could test it out on them. My wife is, unfortunately, the person now. 

As I say, in one of my books I get as much satisfaction coming up with a little four-line poem as I do with a 50,000-word book. A lot of it is poetry, it’s almost all poetry if you boil it down. I get a lot of inspiration from camp songs and things like that. I do a lot of audience participation stories where the kids make sound effects to an original story. A lot of it is just sitting back in a chair and just having a pen and a paper and just starting to scrawl stuff. 

Are there any lessons that you hope the teachers, librarians, parents, and kids who use your programs and activities will take away from this book? 

The main thing is that the library is a fun place to go. I did a lot of outreach as a librarian with these activities and stories. I would get in front of groups of kids, and if nothing else if they see me and say, “hey, there’s that guy from the library,” and tell their parents, “let’s go down to the library.” You try to make lifelong library users, and, I’ve written about this in Volume One, libraries are as relevant today as they have ever been despite everybody thinking the internet’s here, we don’t need it. You know the L. E. Phillips Memorial Library had 400,000 people go through their doors last year. Almost half a million people, so don’t tell me the library is not relevant. 

Why do you want to write this book specifically?

I used to have a contract with Library Sparks Magazine where in every issue I would have an article, like a lesson plan for Story Time, and I would always like to have original stuff in there. Then the magazine went out of business, and I’m kind of at the age now where I don’t write like this as much anymore; I have other writing projects that I am putting my energy into. So I realized that some of the older books that are 25 years old or so, they’re not necessarily out of print, but people aren’t buying them as much now. This would be kind of fun to pull all that material that people might not have access to anymore and put it in one place, kind of like a one-stop shop 200+ ideas for mostly a children’s librarian, or it could be a parent or a teacher to use with kids. We collected them all together. Like here I have a bunch of “Hello” activities divided up into different themes “animal”, “my world”, and “the literary world”, that’s where I put the library raps. We have some spoonerism stories, that’s where you take parts of words and flip them around so I have some original ones of those. Instead of telling the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, I tell it as “Little Rude Riding Head” and throughout the story, it’s “Once a time upon there was a gritty little pearl named Little Rude Riding Head…” then the kids try to decipher it. Then there are some “Goodbye” activities too, and I have a picture book called Wave Goodbye that’s based on a poem, “Wave high, wave low, I think it’s time, we gotta go. Wave your elbows, wave your toes, wave your arms, wave your nose…” That kind of stuff. We reprinted the lyrics of that in here, too. The idea was that rock star’s have greatest hits albums, so that’s like my greatest hits album. 

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Is there anything else you would like to share?

People will probably gawk at the price a little bit. It’s a pricey book because ALA Editions is a publisher geared towards institutions versus individuals. So schools buy it, libraries buy it, you can get it right now through ALA Editions Publisher, I just checked Amazon they don’t have a price listed yet, but they will have it up there soon. If you gawk at the price, then that’s understandable, it’s $50, but it’s a lifetime’s worth of material especially if you are working with young children.