The world of Preschool Storytime is not for the faint of heart. You have to know who you are and play to your strengths.
“There are some Storytime readers who have such a nurturing, calm vibe,” said Kate Newcombe, the Top of the Town winner in the new category of Best Librarian.
“They can read these heartfelt stories to the kids, but I know I can’t sell that,” she laughed. “The kids know me, and they know that I’m going to read them something funny.”
Although she describes herself as “a terrible singer, a terrible dancer,” Newcombe incorporates plenty of both, plus music, as she delights preschool children through her storytelling.
“I’m a total introvert everywhere except at Storytime. It’s there that” — she paused before continuing with a sly smile — “my other personality comes out.”
The other winners for Best Librarian were Jill Abood, Capital Area District Libraries’ community engagement specialist, who finished second, and Cassie Veselovsky, or “Miss Cassie,” of the Foster Library and Storm Kopitsch of the Fowlerville District Library, who tied for third.
Top of the Town voters wrote in many comments about “Miss Kate,” calling her “a hidden gem,” “the best storyteller” and “a rockstar in the world of Storytime for little kids.”
So, what’s been wowing her fans lately?
“There’s a book I’m so in love with right now, it just came out this year, and it’s called ‘Mr. S,’ by Monica Arnaldo.” In the book, a group of kindergarteners are waiting for their teacher on the first day of school, but all they can find is a sandwich on the front desk and the name “Mr. S” written on the whiteboard. “I don’t want to spoil anything, but they start to wonder if their teacher is the sandwich.”
When looking for a great children’s book, Newcombe chooses books that children will love and adults will want to read again and again. “That repetition is so important, and kids crave it. So it’s essential to pick something you want to read at least 20 times in a row.” Much of the story in “Mr. S” is told through pictures in the classroom and parallel action taking place outside, visible through the window. “It’s one of those books that you really have read multiple times and pay attention. It’s really clever.”
But for parents who are overwhelmed with children’s book choices, she said not to sweat it. “When you’re in this profession, every book is equally valuable. If you’re reading it, that’s better than not reading at all.”
For the uninitiated, the Haslett Branch of the Capital Area District Libraries is in the old Meridian High School, right between the elementary school, middle school and high school campuses off Marsh and Haslett. When I went to interview Newcombe at 3 p.m., the place was overrun with youth.
“We don’t get a lot of high schoolers here,” she said. “They’re doing their own thing. But on an average day, we have at minimum 30 middle schoolers hanging out after school. We’ve become sort of an infamous spot between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.”
Newcombe has worked at the Haslett branch for 15 years and in libraries for 25 years. She grew up in Greater Lansing and said that her first really positive experience was using the downtown branch of CADL. After moving away to Vermont for college, then graduate school in Illinois, Newcombe eventually settled back in her hometown. As the youth services librarian, her focus is primarily preschool-aged children and Storytime out in the community. But she said that, like with most jobs, she does a lot of other duties as assigned. “I do everything, if I do say so myself.”
That tenure has allowed her to experience the transformative power of literacy at many levels. One project she has been proud to participate in is called Connections in Corrections. Available only to staff at CADL, the program brings librarians to the Ingham County Jail to meet with incarcerated parents and grandparents. “The people who are incarcerated can choose a book from the library we have created there — a big, beautiful closet filled with brand-new books — and we record the person reading this book to their child or grandchild.” The recording is then sent to the family in whatever format works best for them.
As someone who understands deeply the importance of reading to children, Newcombe described the program as “one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had.”
After her first visit to the jail, she was struck by something that stays with her. “I think that people might make assumptions about someone in that situation, like if they are incarcerated, they may not care about their child’s literacy, or whatever. But so many people in that program say to me, ‘My child is a great reader. My child loves to read.’ They are so proud of that aspect of their child’s life. And that pride is universal.”
In addition to being beloved for her Storytime performances, fans of Miss Kate also describe her as deeply caring, dedicated, passionate and deserving.
“I feel super connected to the Haslett community,” she said. “When I got my job, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll do this for a year, and then I’ll move somewhere else.’ Now it’s 15 years later, and this community is so nice and so supportive and loves its library so much that I can’t leave.”
Newcombe and I ended our conversation back on the topic of reading with preschool-aged kids.
“Sometimes I think it’s hard to talk about librarianship without sounding a little corny,” she said. “But that age is just so receptive, enthusiastic. They’re learning so much so fast. I have watched kids grow up.”
She’s not exaggerating. “I have kids who used to come to my Storytimes who now are in college. I get to meet them at that age, and then, if I’m lucky, I stay in touch with their family because this is a really close-knit community. I get to watch people grow up, and that’s a privilege.”
We paused for a moment. Then Newcombe added, “It’s also just completely and purely fun to sit up there and read silly books and jump around and dance.”
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