Children dancing during the Arabic multilingual storytime at the Beaverton Library. (Photos by Megan Zabel Holmes for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette)

Parents and their children gather in a community room at the Beaverton Library on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone is excited to participate in the library’s brand new Arabic storytime. Little ones as young as two, read books, sing songs and dance with colorful streamers. Families connect with one another and celebrate their culture together. 

It’s all part of a new series of multilingual storytime programming launched by Washington County Cooperative Library Services (WCCLS) with help from United Way and our Early Learning Washington County Hub. Across Washington County, libraries will now offer storytimes in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese. 

It’s been an “all hands on deck” effort to get the program up and running.

Washington County Cooperative Library Services launched their Arabic storytime in the new year.

It all started when the WLCCS received feedback from immigrant and refugee communities. More and more parents were requesting culturally-specific books and programs in their native languages through their local library. Parents wanted the library’s help in sharing their culture with their children, and they wanted their kids to be able to check out books with characters that look like them and reflect their traditions.

WLCCS worked with United Way’s Early Learning Washington County Hub to recruit the multilingual storytime presenters. More than just storytellers, the presenters would need to serve as ambassadors, helping to spread word of the new storytime in their communities and encourage families unfamiliar with Washington County’s libraries to attend. The Early Learning Hub works to ensure that children 0-6 get the support they need to thrive in kindergarten – and early literacy is a key component.  

Pei-Yu Shih shares stories and songs during the Mandarin storytime for Washington County Cooperative Library Services. 

Pei-Yu Shih is one of the newly trained storytellers. In addition to recruiting families to participate in the new storytime, she’s also taken care to help select the stories and activities for each session. “The Mandarin Storytime will share the love and joy of reading Chinese stories, rhymes and fun activities as a way to maintain our cultural heritage,” says Shih. 

When it comes to multilingual storytimes, there’s really no such thing as one size fits all. It’s about meeting the needs of each community. As WCCLS explains some cultures are more focused on academics and so their storytime might include school-like activities at tables and chairs. Storytime for a community with strong oral traditions may gather kids on the floor to tell stories and sing songs.

“The Mandarin Storytime will share the love and joy of reading Chinese stories...” says Pei-Yu Shih

Once the storytellers were selected and trained, then came the biggest hurdle of all – purchasing enough good books in each language. 

Books in languages other than English, even kids’ books, can be much more expensive. United Way awarded WLCCS a Catalyst Grant, a one-time investment up to $5,000. With United Way’s funding, WCCLS was able to purchase children's books in Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese along with culturally appropriate storytime materials, like musical instruments, streamers and puppets. 

Nearly 70 kids and caregivers have attended the new multilingual storytime sessions.

“We are very pleased with the collaborative work we’ve done with United Way and their Early Learning Washington County program to address the needs of immigrant and refugee populations in this county,” says Stephanie Lind, Program Supervisor for Outreach and Youth Services at Washington County Cooperative Library Services. 

Nearly 70 children and caregivers have attended the new multilingual storytimes so far. Eventually, the multilingual storytime materials will be assembled into kits so that library staff will be able to check out the kits and offer culturally-specific storytimes across Washington County.

United Way's Early Learning Washington County Hub also helped the Beaverton City Library expand their multilingual collection of books for kids and adults. Books in that collection have been circulated 19,970 times - showing just how much communities are wanting multilingual books. By continuing to develop relationships with immigrant and refugee communities, library staff hope to identify how to improve the library system and make families feel more welcome.  

“We are thrilled with the outcomes for children in our community from these collaborative efforts,” says Lind. “As a whole we are way more than the sum of our parts.” 

“We are thrilled with the outcomes for children in our community from these collaborative efforts,” says Stephanie Lind, a program supervisor at WCCLS

Learn more about how United Way's Early Learning Multnomah and Washington County Hubs are helping kids show up ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. 

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