On a recent sunny day at Lake Wilderness Park in Maple Valley, 200 people gathered to hear local KCLS librarian Sharon Chastain read¬ books on the week’s theme: monsters.
The children, parents and grandparents who laid out blankets and brought picnic lunches were all in for Story Time. Part of KCLS’ Summer Reading, the “Story Lady” held books aloft for all to see as she made the pages come alive, mimicking character voices and monster moods. Delighted children laughed, growled, shimmied and sang along with her.
Chastain, a long-time children’s librarian at Maple Valley Library and a former teacher, has a proven passion for children, literacy, reading and libraries. Deeply rooted in the Maple Valley community, she is known as the “Story Lady,” “Library Lady” and “Bubble Gum Lady.” Before the COVID pandemic, her outdoor Story Times drew 400 people, and her indoor programs even more. Those numbers are starting to return.
“We love her, kids love her,” said Amber Braun, a regular Story Time attendee with her friend Brianna Smith and their children. “She’s the best. She’s amazing. Her voices, her reading, she just knows how to engage everyone.”
Smith, the mother of two twin boys, said Story Times have had a big impact on her sons.
“It has helped them so much; I’ve seen a huge difference in them,” she said. “They were both very shy, and now they are talking more and are more outgoing with other kids. Sharon is so engaging and really puts on a show; children pick up on that.”
The crowd lingered, with kids blowing bubbles and playing while parents continued chatting, and Chastain felt the flush of success.
“It’s such a good sign,” she said. “There was a time when people would sit, listen, then leave the minute the program was done. So to see people stay, and to see kids playing with those they don’t even know, it’s like watching our community and library health return.”
Chastain is all about making reading fun. But she also knows that literacy is a critical skill for academic, professional and personal success. Research shows that reading and math test scores dropped during the pandemic, along with decreased communication and other social-emotional skills.
Mark Pursley, executive director of the Greater Maple Valley Community Center, said Chastain’s passion for literacy and her dedication to building community have had an undeniable impact. The Center awarded Chastain a prestigious Community First Award, which recognizes positive contributions and “outstanding services to the community, society and humanity.”
Pursley, who spent 20 years in the gang intervention and violent crime prevention field, has no doubts that early literacy can change the course of a child’s life. On the other hand, not knowing how to read can have devastating consequences for the child and society at large.
“The gang members I met who could read at age level were few and far between,” he said, noting that the average prison inmate reads at a fifth-grade level. “A lack of reading skills makes it virtually impossible to obtain a living wage job, thus leading to higher criminal activity.
He added that illiteracy also plays a role in recidivism, because felons who cannot read or read well are more susceptible to violating the conditions of their release and reentry plans.
“If kids can’t read, they are going to be facing an uphill battle for the rest of their lives and society is going to pay the cost,” Pursley said.
So in addition to Story Times, Chastain has built a number of community partnerships, including with teachers for kindergarten readiness. She also gives presentations at grade-school assemblies, discussing the joy of reading and urging library visits and library card sign-ups.
While Summer Reading ends August 31, KCLS hosts a range of Story Times and other literacy programs all year. Story Times include those for babies, toddlers and families. There are also Story Times in multiple languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Chinese and Spanish.
Chastain will hold her last Story Time of the summer at Lake Wilderness Park on August 3, but she will also lead a Story Walk there on August 19.
“I do have a passion for the kids and for families,” Chastain said. “I’m funny and try to be wildly entertaining, but for me the goal is to keep a lot of kids reading. The combination of literacy and books and libraries is really powerful.”