If you’re a toddler or preschooler, the place to be on a Wednesday evening is Clovis Regional Library.
At 6 p.m. each week, craft supplies are set out on each table in the children’s section of the library and kiddos of all ages are invited to create a masterpiece. Afterward, the children are invited to dance, sing and listen to a story or two.
Last Wednesday, 4-year-old Paige Collins worked on her scissor skills as she cut the center out of a paper plate. Her 2-year-old brother, Finn, sat in their father’s lap. Josh Collins helped his son color a paper plate that within minutes — and a little glue — would turn into a flying disc.
It was hard to tell who was having more fun.
“My husband likes to come to Family Night after work and kind of color out his frustrations,” said Leslie Collins, who has been bringing their children to Family Night for so long that she serves as the right-hand woman to the Family Night coordinator.
Running the whole show is an expert in story time.
Her name is Shonda Graham, but most people call her Miss Shonda. Her official title is library assistant, but most refer to her as “the storytime lady.” And for good reason — she’s been the storytime lady for two decades.
Actually, it’s been longer than that.
“I’ve been doing story time off and on since I was 16. I started in (Valley) Children’s Hospital,” Graham said.
When Graham’s daughter was born 21 years ago, she brought her to the library and found that there weren’t any programs for little ones — so she created one herself. Graham volunteered to host story time for the library branch in Auberry.
When a position became available, she applied and was hired in 2003 to work in the Doris Gates Room in the Fresno County Library’s central branch in downtown Fresno.
“It was different there than it is here,” she said. “Down there it was nothing for me to have 10 kids with 10 different languages, so I developed a different style of story time to include everybody, which is how family night kind of came about.”
Graham started working at Clovis Regional Library in 2006 and was in charge of preschool story time. She found that for many families, weekday morning story times are inconvenient.
“A lot of people were coming to me and saying, ‘I would really like to do something with my kids, but I work.’ And it was a big crowd of people that were left out, including a lot of single fathers who wanted to do things with their children,” Graham explained. “Family night sort of evolved from a very casual get-together where you do something with your kids. It’s very laid back.”
The program, like all library story times, is free.
Many of the craft supplies are purchased by the Friends of the Clovis Library, a nonprofit group that raises funds for various library projects.
Family Night is a huge draw for the library.
Once, Graham recalled, 75 children and their families showed up to family night and took over half the building.
And they’re not just families from Clovis.
“I have families drive all the way from Sanger or the other side of the 99 for Family Night,” Graham said.
The Collins family has consistently attended Family Night and many of Graham’s other story times for four years, since just after Paige was born.
“We’re often here three to four times a week,” Leslie said.
Josh said the programs have given Paige a big head start, both academically and socially.
“She already reads and writes,” Josh said.
“We thought she was memorizing books until we picked a book off the library shelf and she just read it,” Leslie explained. “She went into her 3-year-old preschool class already reading.”
Leslie recalled taping a piece of paper to the table and handing Paige a fat Crayon for her to scribble with. Now Paige is on to more adventurous crafts — including last Wednesday’s paper plate flying discs and a cup-and-ball game — and has become dexterous with scissors and all writing utensils.
On June 29, donated cedar cigar boxes will be decoupaged with maps to become treasure chests for children to keep trinkets they pick up during their summer travels, Graham said.
If decoupage proves to be too much for some of the younger participants, coloring pages are always available to keep their hands busy.
“Shonda tends to have a whole bunch of different activities and really tailors it for kids of all ages,” Leslie said, noting that 2-year-old Finn loves to color and has begun using scissors. “We just give him a piece of paper and let him have at it. Sometimes Dad and I do the craft and they do their own thing.”
Julien Ros has been bringing her children to story times and Family Night at Clovis Regional Library since her family moved to Clovis. Jilien Mo, 3, and her 5-year-old brother Odie Mo enjoy creating crafts and dancing to music, Ros said.
For Ros, Family Night takes the stress out of hands-on activities.
“It’s helpful for me because when I have to supervise a painting activity or an arts and crafts activity, I’m like ‘Oh, gosh.’ It’s hard — the cleanup, and you’ve got to go get the supplies,” she explained. “I love arts and crafts, but sometimes I don’t have the energy to plan it. So this being available is perfect.”
Ros plans to homeschool her children, so Family Night and the library’s other children-oriented events give her family a chance to get out of the house and mingle with other families.
“I’m thinking I need to find some opportunities for them to interact with other kids, and this is great. It’s organized,” she said. “They need hands-on activities. I’m good with the curriculum, academic planning, the language and the math — my husband and I are both teachers — but with the hands-on, the music, I need help with that.”
The wide variety of childrens activities offered at the library help promote literacy by drawing in kids with other activities, Ros said.
“For some kids, reading is not a buy-in. But they come for the arts and crafts or the dog that listens to you read or the magic show or the reptile show,” she said. “And while they here they’ll see the books and they might get interested.”
Graham also brings in special guests, like the Fresno Monsters hockey team and Clovis Fire Department firefighters to read to the kids and help them with crafts.
Family Night tends to run a little longer than its allotted hour because the families and children love to hang out with each other.
“We see a lot of the same families,” Leslie Collins said. “Some come and go, but it’s nice to see everyone grow up.”
Her family has even traveled to other library branches where Graham has hosted Family Night programs on different weekdays.
“If it wasn’t for Miss Shonda, I don’t think we’d come,” Josh Collins said. “She keeps us coming back.”
Graham is in charge of Books and Bibs for children up to 18 months, Wiggles and Giggles for those 18 to 26 months, Toddler time for 2- and 3-year-olds and Preschool Readiness for 3- to 5-year-olds. (Visit www.fresnolibrary.org for a calendar, or see listings on page 2A of The Clovis Independent.)
Graham took a library-sponsored Spanish class to be able to reach out to more families in the area.
“It’s a young community and I’m trying to evolve with them,” she said.