In Fair Haven, Delight & Connection At Bilingual Story Hour

Elena Unger | October 26th, 2023

In Fair Haven, Delight & Connection At Bilingual Story Hour

Books  |  Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Free Public Library  |  Literacy


Nohra Bernal, a children's author, reads from "Que Viene El Lobo.” Elena Unger Photos.

At 10:29 on Tuesday morning, the Fair Haven Library’s downstairs classroom was orderly and quiet. Foam blocks, wooden puzzles, and plastic play sets were neatly tucked away at the righthand side of the room. The bright rug, ready for play with words in English and Spanish, sat empty. Rainbow-themed bulletin boards waited for young eyes.

Then at 10:30, joyous mayhem broke loose: nearly 40 children between three and five waddled into the room in their winter coats. Adults helped them out of their cold-weather wear, and like veterans, the kids found seats on the carpet. 

It was time for the library’s weekly Bilingual Storytime, also called Stay and Play or “Quédate y Juega.” Every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., longtime volunteer and children’s author Nohra Bernal reads a 30-minute selection of stories in English and Spanish for local families and daycare attendees. Just like any other week, she begins by singing a “Comó Estás” song, inviting the children to reflect on their moods and relinquish some of their frenzied energy before the stories begin.  

For Saula Gonzalez and her daughter, Emily, the routine is familiar. The pair attended Bilingual Storytime regularly last school year and were excited to return for their first time this fall. 

“It is nice for the kids. They practice paying attention and they learn something,” Gonzalez said. Her daughter Emily speaks Spanish, English, and Portuguese. Gonzalez highly values the bilingual nature of Fair Haven Library’s storytime, believing it sets Emily up for “a better future.” 

Emily is an avid fan of storytime as well. When asked if she enjoyed listening to Bernal read, a grin sprouted across her face. “Yes!” she declared. “I learn!”

As the “Cómo Estás” song came to a close, Emily, who had been nestled between her mother’s knees, scrambled to the carpet to find a seat. Bernal began by reading “Que Viene El Lobo,” a story about a sneaky wolf who the reader must shoo away by tilting and turning the book upside down. Bernal read the story with striking dynamism that hushed the rowdy sea of children into a shockingly well-mannered audience.

“They really really pay attention,” Centro San Jose teacher Esther noted, crediting Bernal’s animated readings.

Catholic Charities’ Centro San Jose brings nearly 30 school readiness students to storytime every Tuesday. They walk down Grand Avenue with a red wagon in tow that will eventually pile up with children’s coats. Storytime is one of the kids’ favorite activities, as they get to socialize in one large group, rather than being split into individual classrooms. 

With a packed house before her, Bernal continued to read a series of five animal-themed picture books, each broken up by a song to get the kids moving and give them an opportunity to reset their attention spans. 

A fan favorite of the half-hour storytime was “La Gallina Hambrienta,” a story about a hungry hen that got fatter every day. A fox wanted to eat her, but he knew if he waited one more day, the hen would be even bigger. He waited and waited, but soon enough he was too hungry to wait any longer. In a wildly amusing twist, just as the fox is about to pounce on the hen, the hen gobbles him up. The kids squealed gleefully as the fox disappeared from the page. 

Other reads from the half-hour included “Los Pollitos,” “Me Gusta,” and “El Rebaño.” 

“Most kids are fluent in Spanish and they are interested in keeping their home’s language,” Bernal said, as she spoke on the importance of having a bilingual space for children. 

When the clock struck 11 a.m., Bernal collected her belongings and hustled to a DMV appointment. The end of structured storytime marked the beginning of free play; kids sprawled across the room, their hands overflowing with toys. 

The Fair Haven Library invites families and students to “quédate y juega” or “stay and play,” making use of the classroom space and materials. Bilingual Storytime not only promotes learning and multiculturalism, it opens avenues of social connection between parents, teachers, and children. The program allows the Fair Haven Library to operate as a community center that endows participants with the wonder and richness of both friendship and reading. 

“The kids get the space to get to know each other. They play together. Also, they get to meet other kids from the community,” Esther said, smiling. 

The New Haven Free Public Library puts on storytimes throughout the week at various branches; the schedule can be found here.