Bilingual story time at Baltimore County libraries makes reading fun in any language.


The fairy tale begins with an older couple who make a little girl from snow - sort of a variation on "Frosty the Snowman." But in the Russian version, the magical transformation involves polka music, a ring dance and tossing puffs of cotton "snow balls" around the room.

A dozen toddlers are enchanted.

"The Snow Maiden" was read in Russian during the midweek story time at the Pikesville library, but it was clear from the expressions of delight on their faces that the children understand the plot.

One nanny said she told her two charges in English that were going to make a picture of a snow girl, thinking they might not have understood the Russian instructions. But the boys quickly informed her they knew all about the coming craft project.

"They've been here a few minutes and already they know another language," said Asia Pawelec, who cares for a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old in Mount Washington.

The bilingual story time is the latest offering by the Baltimore County Public Library system, which is also amassing several foreign language collections to respond to the changing demographics in suburbia.

With more than 10,000 Hispanic, 21,000 Asian and nearly 9,000 Eastern European immigrants living in Baltimore County, according to census figures, it's become necessary to adjust local programs, county officials say.

The Department of Aging, for example, offers information about senior centers, transportation programs and Medicare prescription benefits in seven foreign languages, from Spanish to Farsi.

The Health Department has hired an ethnic and minority outreach coordinator to help encourage non-English speakers to get immunizations and regular checkups. The county executive also created a 15-member Ethnic Diversity Advisory Council to make recommendations about other programs that could better serve minority populations.

"That old adage about Baltimore County being a bedroom community for the city has long since past," said Dunbar Brooks, a demographer and vice chairman of the advisory council. "We really are a diverse county. ... We have the largest Hispanic population in Central Maryland and a wide variety of Asian populations."

At the libraries, there's been an increasing demand for bilingual programs and materials, said Jim Fish, director of the county's library system. "As the public has changed, what we offer at our libraries is changing," Fish said. "I think it has a lot of benefits to making people feel welcome."

Spanish, Korean and Russian books are available at seven branches. And several Spanish story times are planned, including Jan. 12 and Jan. 13 at the Rosedale branch and Feb. 9 at the Reisterstown branch.

Baltimore County public schools officials are thrilled about the bilingual story time at the libraries. There are 2,338 non-English speaking students in the schools, said Susan Spinnato, coordinator of world languages for the Baltimore County public school system. A decade ago, there were 1,424.

The most common languages among the non-English-speaking students are Spanish (spoken by 748 students), Urdu (194), Chinese (195), Korean (138), Tagalog (127) and Russian (97), Spinnato said. And many of these children are in kindergarten or prekindergarten, which is exactly who the story times are geared toward.

"You might think we want these families to be reading to their children in English, but a lot of parents don't have the English language skills," Spinnato said. "We encourage them to read to their children in their home language. When they get to school, they'll still have a good language basis."

The Reisterstown library began offering Spanish story times every few months about a year ago and has seen the popularity of the programs grow, said branch manager Alene Crenson. "We have a large and growing Hispanic population in the Reisterstown area," she said, noting that a nearby church offers Mass in Spanish. "We knew we needed to find ways of attracting our Spanish speakers."

One of the librarians at the Reisterstown branch speaks Spanish. And the library has 340 children's books in Spanish, which are very popular, Crenson said. Building the adult collection of Spanish materials is a priority, she said. Spanish collections also are available at the Towson and Catonsville branches.

The Pikesville library has more than 5,000 books and other materials in Russian, said Monty Phair, the curator of the library's Russian language collection and an unofficial guide for local immigrants in Pikesville, where one in five residents is of Russian ancestry, according to census figures.

Phair invited Tatiana Lashkevich, a teacher at the Center of Intellectual Development, a preschool and Russian language school in Pikesville, to lead the library's first bilingual story time last week.

She surprised the group of 2- to 6-year-olds by playing polkas on the accordion and then having them join in with tambourines and rattles. She also showed them how to do a Russian ring dance and played video clips to accompany "The Snow Maiden."

"I'd love them to continue this," said Debbie Blair, a lawyer from Catonsville who recently adopted a daughter from Russia. "I wanted her to be able to hear something familiar ... but you could tell everyone understood it. It was wonderful."

Sun staff researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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