Overworked parents employ many strategies to occupy their kids. The Jersey City Free Public Library has offered an option, for nine years, of letting parents and kids call in to hear stories read by city officials – even one former mayor who has passed away – before they go to bed. And the kids are taking them up on it.
In 2004 Priscilla Gardner, director of the Jersey City Free Public Library, came up with the idea for Dial-a-Story, a free service that allows people to dial a city number and select pre-recorded children’s stories ready by library staffers and city “celebrities.”
The offerings are unique. “The Adventures of Mayor-Man,” read by the late Mayor Glenn Cunningham, has had a total of 3,981 callers since 2004. Cunningham died suddenly of a heart attack the next year, but his story was kept on rotation on the Dial-a-Story service. (An excerpt from the story, written by former council aide Greg Malave: “It was the end of a long, rainy day in Jersey City. There was still one man working at City Hall. Mayor Glenn Cunningham was at his desk trying to keep the taxes low for the people.”)
During the month of October, Cunningham’s reading of The Adventures of Mayor-Man elicited 23 callers.
But it was not outdone: Mayor Steve Fulop got 256 calls that month for his rendition of Rodrigo Folgueira’s book “Ribbit!”
A number of parents said they are grateful for any child-oriented entertainment that isn’t TV.
“Some parents don’t have time to read to their children. Some people don’t feel comfortable reading aloud,” said Michele Dupey, spokeswoman for the Jersey City Free Public Library, explaining why Gardner felt it was important to offer Dial-a-Story. “And not everyone can read [fluently] in English if immigrated from another country.”
Since making its debut, the service has received about 37,029 calls, an average of more than 4,114 calls a year.
Many parents interviewed in Jersey City were surprised to hear about the program.
“That seems odd,” said Gwen Dyson, a mother of three teenagers. “It’s like telling your kids, ‘The mayor has time to read to you, but I don’t.’ When my kids were younger, I didn’t read to them as much as I should have. But I don’t know that I would use this, even if it had been around when they were younger.”
Laura Winger, another mother of three, laughed when she was told of Dial-a-Story, although she added, “Realistically, though, how is it any different than audiobooks? I think there are audiobook versions of children’s books available now. And I could see myself downloading audiobooks for my kids. What’s the difference?”
Betsy Poole, mother of 5-year-old twins, who also laughed at the Dial-a-Story service at first. She said, “I think what I find funny is just the image of my son and daughter with the phone. They understand Facetime. But they don’t really get how a normal telephone works. I wouldn’t be able to get them to sit for any length of time with a phone and listen to a story. They would put the phone down and walk away before the story was over.”
A number of parents, however, said they are grateful for any child-oriented entertainment that isn’t TV or video.
“My son is three and we limit the amount of time he can watch TV or videos on my Kindle,” said Donna Masaro. “And he has tantrums when it’s time to turn them off. Dial-a-Story might only keep him quiet for a few minutes, but at least it’s not more TV.”
Masaro, who was not familiar with Dial-a-Story, said she would give it a try, as did Barry Barths after hearing that some stories are offered in Spanish.
“Me and my wife, who is from Chile, are trying to raise our daughter to be bilingual. But my wife was mainly raised in Brooklyn. Her own Spanish speaking skills are somewhat limited,” said Barths. “This could be a fun way to help our daughter feel more comfortable with Spanish and pick up things like pronunciation that even her mother sometimes struggles with.”
To hear the current line-up of Dial-a-Story books on rotation, call the Jersey City Free Public Library at (201) 547-4604.