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Standing in front of a camera in his living room isn’t where Channing Kennedy wants to narrate a children’s book.
The Oakland Public Library storytime volunteer would prefer to read in a preschool classroom where the floor is packed with children squirming to catch a glimpse of the book’s colorful pictures, and where the sounds of their laughter and excitement echo throughout the room.
Social distancing guidelines have limited the number of volunteers allowed in early learning programs in Oakland, effectively shutting down in-person storytimes where people read books to children and engage them in interactive activities. But Kennedy hopes to continue entertaining children by uploading storytimes to his YouTube channel and Instagram page, “Good Morning Mr. Channing.”
“I realized there was no way for me to reach these kids unless I started recording my storytimes (and posting them),” Kennedy said.
Prior to the orders restricting in-person learning, Kennedy conducted weekly storytimes in multiple East Oakland preschools as a volunteer for Books for Wider Horizons, an Oakland Public Library program that trains and places storytime volunteers in early learning centers throughout the city. For now, Books for Wider Horizons has been suspended due to COVID.
But Kennedy wanted the preschoolers he visited to be able to listen to his storytimes even during quarantine. And since creating “Good Morning Mr. Channing” last March, his channel has accumulated 73 subscribers and more than 5,000 views.
Every few weeks, Kennedy uploads a 15- to 20-minute video of himself reading a children’s book. He sometimes includes a short skit in which he acts out a scene from a book or sings a nursery rhyme to signal the end of his video.
Kennedy said he tries to make his videos similar to his in-person storytimes, although the experience is not the same.
“For me the really viable things (about in-person storytime) was asking kids questions like, ‘What do you think about this book?’” Kennedy said. “They would share what they were feeling and thinking. That’s something you just can’t recreate with online storytimes.”
Books for Wider Horizons Coordinator Rochelle Venuto admires Kennedy’s efforts to create weekly videos on his own time.
“I was amazed at how much effort and dedication he was putting into (making these videos), with only hoping it was going to reach these kids,” Venuto said. “That for me, is typical of Channing.”
Venuto met Kennedy when he joined Books for Wider Horizons in 2015 and said she appreciates how dedicated he is, both in leading storytime and helping other volunteers.
Although Kennedy’s intended audience for the video is Oakland preschoolers, children outside of the city also watch his videos.
Pittsburg resident Sophie Wodzak said she and her 4-year-old daughter watch his storytime videos as often as they can.
“Sometimes (my daughter and I) will go a while without watching his videos, but other times we’ll binge and watch seven in a row,” Wodzak said. “I think we’ve seen all (of his storytimes) by now.”
Wodzak said her daughter likes Kennedy’s silliness and sense of humor when he reads.
“Channing talks to kids (and reads) in a serious way, (but he is) kind and patient and can be goofy,” she said. “It’s really thoughtful and well done. Not all content for kids does that.”
Kennedy said that while it is important that kids be entertained by his storytimes, he also wants them to relate to the characters in the book.
“I want kids to feel like reading is something about them,” Kennedy said. “I want them to see a kid (like them) doing something brave or making mistakes … or doing something silly.”
One way he hopes to achieve this is by reading children’s books with diverse main characters.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a research program part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, analyzes diversity in literature. According to an analysis of 3,717 children’s books completed by the center in 2019, 41% of main characters were white, 12% were Black, 8% were Asian, 6% were Latinx and roughly 32% were animals or inanimate objects.
Kennedy said the lack of representation in children’s books motivates him to pick stories with characters that come from various backgrounds and cultures.
“I made a rule for myself that I don’t read books that have white (people) as the main character,” Kennedy said. “That instantly strikes out a lot of good storytime books that I would love to be reading. It’s a little more work for me, but a big benefit for the kids that I read to.” Plus, Kennedy says, when children read books about themselves and different people, they can learn to be empathetic towards one another.
“I want kids to learn about each other … and feel empathy for other people,” he said. “That’s the foundation of how people start to care about each other. I hope that I can achieve some part of that with preschool storytimes.”
Venuto said before Kennedy made his storytime videos, he would always encourage the program’s volunteers to pick books that reflected the diverse backgrounds of the children they read for.
“Back when I got involved with the program, (choosing books with diverse characters) wasn’t part of the volunteer training,” said Venuto . “With Channing, we’ve tried to make that a priority. It’s a really positive thing what he is doing and advocating.”