Pratt brings books where the kids are


There she sits, the librarian in the straw bonnet, alone in the sun as hundreds of children ignore her to swim in a gorgeous pool at Druid Hill Park.

Kathy Walsh has a bag of books.

A box of puppets.

And the authority to issue new library cards to anyone who asks.

But the lure of cool water is too much competition on a hot July day and so Ms. Walsh, near a big yellow tent set up with 20 kiddie chairs for story time, sits alone.

She said: "We'll wait and see what happens."

Ms. Walsh, 45, a schoolteacher, librarian and amateur actress, is the entire staff of a new Enoch Pratt Free Library program aimed at bringing books to the places where kids hang out in the summer: swimming pools instead of libraries.

"Once that school door closes for summer, they don't think of the library anymore," said Ms. Walsh.

So, three times this week, including a "Pratt in the Park" kick-off yesterday at Clifton Park, Ms. Walsh brought books and animal hand puppets to city pools.

Things went well Monday at Clifton Park, with 50 children settling in for stories between jumps off the diving board and about 20 people signing up for new library cards.

"One young lady plopped her little sister down in a chair for a story and went off to talk with her friends. She knew she had a good baby-sitter," said Ms. Walsh, who grew up reading classics like "The Three Musketeers" at the old Hamilton branch of the Pratt.

At Druid Hill Park Tuesday, it went slow until Ms. Walsh -- no shrinking violet -- coiled a snake puppet around her neck and walked around the pool reading a Shel Silverstein poem about boa constrictors.

The Pied Piper of Pratt soon had 30 kids following behind her for a story.

"They just have to get to know me," she said.

It costs $1 to get into a public pool in Baltimore and the rules prohibit toys and radios. Although books are allowed, Druid Hill Park pool officials only remember one kid bringing one along since the pool opened June 25.

"They come here for one thing," said pool manager Daryell Anderson, 42, pointing to the clear water. "But we can help the library get this going. I'll have my workers pass out pamphlets and tell the parents about it. We're teaching the kids to swim; the library can help them read."

Born of a brainstorm between city parks chief Marlyn Perritt and Pratt Director Carla Hayden, the program is reminiscent of a fabled World War II library project inspired by the "a-rabs" who hawk fruit and vegetables from horse-drawn carts.

In 1943, the Pratt sent a wagon of books and a horse named "Berry" (as in "Lie-Berry") to neighborhoods thick with families working in war factories. These parents had little time to take their children to the library, so Berry and a librarian roamed streets with 500 books. A small boy beating a toy xylophone ran ahead to herald the wagon's approach.

In "The Enoch Pratt Free Library, a Social History," Philip Arthur Kalisch wrote that for $12 a week -- most of it in horse feed, no doubt -- "Berry" reached thousands of readers while circulating several hundred books a day.

With a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Pratt, Kathy Walsh is trying to create the same excitement through Aug. 25.

At Druid Hill Park on Tuesday, Ms. Walsh transported at least one child from the middle of Baltimore to Mount Kilimanjaro with a magic carpet of make-believe voices, a hand puppet of an insect, and a wonderful book by Eric Carle called "The Grouchy Ladybug."

Six-year-old Kyle Abbott of Denton sat and listened with his grandmother, whom he is visiting in Bolton Hill. He laughed, giggled and didn't miss a single word.

But before Ms. Walsh announced "The end," Kyle was out of his chair.

He said: "I'm going back to swim."


"Pratt in the Park" will continue through Aug. 25:

* Monday and Wednesday, noon to 4 p.m., near the pool in Clifton Park, 2710 St. Lo Drive.

* Tuesday and Thursday, noon to 4 p.m., near pool in Druid Hill Park, Gwynns Falls Parkway and McCulloh Street.

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