Rapunzel Jonae Hill doing story time. Abiba Biao Photos.
With her hair full of flowers and a copy of Harriet Gets Carried Away in her hand, Rapunzel made her way to the corner of the children’s reading room at the Ives Main Library. As a princess, she had the power to summon children, who scrambled towards her and made a circle. A hush fell over the group, as they attentively watched her turn each page and read aloud. Then the comments started.
“I read a book about you once!” one kid shouted.
“Really? You read about all my adventures from getting the tower to Corona again?” Rapunzel asked. “Yeah, that was pretty fun and scary but fun, especially the boat.”
The magic and book joy came alive last Saturday, as the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) hosted the last of five Summer Reading Challengekickoff events at its main branch in downtown New Haven. The event, which seeks to spark literacy in a city where reading is in crisis, rolled out with reading, face painting, mini golf courses, and a craft exhibition from the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA).
The challenge runs from June 10 to Aug. 26, with the goal of getting children to read at least 1200 minutes over the summer, according to incoming City Librarian and Public Services Administrator Maria Berhney.
Library Aide Shanece Lape, Teen Librarian Emily Raymond, Public Services Administrator Maria Bernhey, and Children's Librarian Sarah Quigley.
“Our summer reading theme is ‘find your voice,’’ she said. “So it really is discoveringfinding out about yourself, learning about your culture, learning who you are, and we hope that that really empowers children so that they feel welcomed, loved, respected in the library, but everywhere in society.”
In addition, the library wants children to read over the summer to prevent the “summer slide,” a term that describes students forgetting what they have learned in the previous school year.
“Children that read all summer long actually start off better academically in the next school year, rather than kind of losing any of the skills that they've developed over the school year,” Bernhey said.
Upstairs in a flowing lilac gown, Rapunzel Jonae Hill was making some serious princess magic happen in real time. As kids crowded gleefully around her, she read through several titles, including Jessie Sima’s Harriet Gets Carried Away.
In the book, a costume-loving child dons a penguin suit—and becomes so convincing that she is swept away by literal penguins. As she read, young readers giggled, squealed, commented on the book, and soaked in the story.
Between groups, Hill said that it’s a joy to bring her magic into spaces like the NHFPL. In 2019, her start in the princess profession came while cosplaying at an anime convention, where someone asked if she could do a Moana cosplay for kids.
Since then she’s continuedto do children’s performances. While the hardest part about her job is prepping the costumes—princess Jasmine takes two hours—she said that the work gives her joy.
“I've had some events or parties where the kids couldn't care less what you're reading,” she said. "But either way, it's funjust interacting with the kids. They're hilarious. They make me laugh all the time.”
“We put a lot into making the magic happen for the kids,” she added. “There's a lot of research that goes into it.We make sure we know every single lyric, we make sure we know every single fact so that the kids can catch us out for questions because they do try.”
Kids playing mini golf between the isles of bookshelves turned into makeshift courses.
Nearby, Ella Terrone and her mother Corinne looked through titles, finding the perfect ones to take home with them.
Ella, a fourth grader at Green Acres Elementary School in North Haven, said it was her first time attending a summer reading kickoff event and was looking for books to take home. She stumbled on Honest June, by Tina Wells.
Corinne, who asked to use only her first name, remarked on the library's extensive services.
“There's really a lot to do at the library,” she said. “It's not just coming here for books, there are other things and parents and kids should start checking it out more. I really believe that being slumped over on the computer all day or in front of a TV [isn’t good].”
Ella said that her favorite genre is fantasy. She likes to read books like I Survived, by Lauren Tarshis and Dogman, by Dav Pilkey. For her peers who are less interested in reading, she suggested thinking about the things they enjoy doing, and finding books on those topics.
YCBA educator Matthew Capezzuto explaining how to make the craft move.
In a separate room, YCBA Educator for K-8, Family, and Access Programs Matthew Capezzuto led a workshop on creating a dancing paper puppet. He said that because the YCBA’s physical building is closed, the staff is working to do more work in the greater New Haven community.
He added that he hopes that community outreach becomes a recurring initiative even after the museum’s reopening.
The illusion of the dancing puppet derives from a slit on its back that fits on top of the wire. The wire is a piece of string, secured to one end of a table with tape and let loose on the other end.A tug on the wire causes the pipe cleaner limbs of the puppet sway making it appear like it's dancing.
“There's some magic to it because you have to animate it yourself to make it work,” Capezzuto said.
Ella and YCBA freelance educator Bailey Bruce.
Nearby, YCBA freelance educator Bailey Bruce guided Ella through the creation process.
“So now if you want you could use markers and draw a face, " Bruce said to Ella. “ You can use any more of the sticky shapes and add them, you can add hair with paper; do whatever you want.”
After adding a heart sticker to the center of her creation’s shirt, Ella was finished, giving her the name “Ruby.”
“I liked the colors that I picked,” Ella said before heading to the front of the room with Bruce to make Ruby bust a move.
Abiba Biao is a graduate of the Arts Council's Youth Arts Journalism Initiative and has stayed on with the Arts Paper as a freelance writer and photographer. She is currently a rising sophomore at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).