WAVERLY - Libraries across the Cedar Valley are increasing their staff. Not with paid intellectuals, but with cotton-headed rabbits, fuzzy monsters and a related menagerie of squeezeable soft guys.
"I use puppets to introduce a story. It helps the imagination go and gives the children a focus," said Nancy Heisman, librarian at the Legion Memorial Library in Aplington.
Pat Coffie, director of the Waverly Public Library and Sue Reiher, youth services coordinator, are leading the way. They recently showed other book czars how to make puppets out of stuffed animals, no strings attached. Librarians representing large and small book collections attended the workshop.
"Be careful to buy a dog with short legs. Remember you are using your fingers," Coffie said.
Some brought toys from home, and the Waverly librarians explained how to modify the items. To help with visuals, Coffie brought about 100 of her own imaginary friends.
"I have a lot more at home," she said.
Besides being a librarian and avid puppeteer, Coffie is also a master storyteller. She is past president of a five-state storytelling network and former board member of the National Storytelling Association. On April 23, she will share the true story of her son Christopher's experience at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. Her story, "Mother of the Leader of the Band," will be part of a conference in Madison, Wis.
"You tell a story with a puppet, it holds the audience's attention. It is an extraordinary teaching tool and endless entertainment for children's fertile minds," she said.
It's like having a playground in the classroom, Coffie said, and it was in such a setting that she made her first performance 30 years ago.
Her sons, Christopher and Dan, attended a school with special entertainment activities in Des Moines. The principal asked her to help in the media center.
"He knew I loved to talk," Coffie said.
On that visit, a young student asked when the puppet show would begin: The principal had confused Pat Coffie with another person, Pat the Puppeteer.
"'I'll be back tomorrow with a puppet,'" Coffie told the principal.
She scrounged through her boys' toy box and cut the head off a piggy bank for her first creation. Needing a sidekick, she used a sock to make a fish. That original production of "Swinging on a Star" is part of Coffie's repertoire she continues to perform all across Iowa.
Third grade, Coffie said, seems to be a dividing place.
"Those children are young enough to believe and old enough to wonder," Coffie said. "Folk and fairy tales are great for lower elementary students. Upper elementary kids - especially the boys - like heroes and heroines, myths and legends."
Coffie encouraged her fellow librarians to search thrift stores shelves and go to after holiday sales.
"That's where I found Elvis," she said.
Lori Petersen, librarian assistant at Waterloo Public Library, said puppets are part of new and fun activities at her facility.
"It is easier for kids to interact with a puppet," she said.
Denise Osgood of Waterloo, a student at the University of Northern Iowa, has worked part time at the Waterloo library for nine years. After graduation in May, she will become a staff member. She attended Coffie's workshop for insight into the puppet craft.
"My kids do puppets for me at home," she said. "I wanted to learn how to make puppets for the kids who come to the library."
Dyersville librarian Kim Benton also participated. She said her department has a limited budget, so making their own creatures will help stretch dollars and still add valuable programming.
"When you have a puppet on your arms, kids don't see you, they just listen to the story," Benton said.
Kindergarten teacher Sally Kittleson brought 21 children from Southeast School in Waverly to a recent puppet show at the library. They also listened to Waverly police officer Troy Schneider read "Stanley's Party."
"It was a good experience for me and the kids," Schneider said.
When participants arrived for the morning puppet workshop, Coffie and Reiher had fabric patterns, scissors and thread waiting on tables.
In the afternoon, Susan Sherwood of Cedar Falls, professor of education at Wartburg College, brought students from her language arts class to Coffie's "whys and hows" puppet demonstration. She also asked her college kids to prepare their own puppet stories for presentation at the public library.
"Puppets allow students to express themselves," Sherwood said.
Librarian Lana Clark of Montrose was up before dawn to be at the workshop on time. She left convinced of the power of cotton-headed creatures and assorted monsters.
"We will use puppets in our story hour," she said. "It's an exciting way to learn."
E-mail Gloria Aleff at SBLGram@aol.com.