A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Puppetry at Its Best: How Three Billy Goats Can Reinvent Your Early Learning Role

by Peg Pond, Kelley Gordon, Pat Kohler, Erin Snell, & Dorothy Stoltz on January 22, 2014

Imagine sitting in a library meeting room bustling with excited young children and their caregivers. The house lights go down, a hush falls over the audience, and lively music fills the air. The stage lights fade up on colorful scenery and . . . action!

(Polly the Pony approaches bridge and says with the audience)


(Troll jumps out and startles Polly, who neighs loudly in surprise)

Troll: Stop right there! Who’s that trip trappin’ over my bridge?

Polly: Howdy, y’all. It’s just me, Polly the Pony. I’m heading back to Chincoteague Island to see my friend, Misty. Now Mr. Grump, what are you stopping me for? This is a free bridge.

Troll: Maybe before, but not anymore! (Sing to tune of “Old MacDonald”) I’m the Troll so pay my toll. Ha ha, ha ha, ha! It costs a buck, so hey pay up. Ha ha, ha ha, ha!

Polly: That tune sounds so familiar.

Troll: Familiar, shamiliar. Where’s your money, honey?

Pony: Well, I do have a quarter. Is that enough?

Troll: Twenty-five cents don’t make a dent. When you get a dollar, give me a holler. (Goes back to booth)

Polly: (To audience) Oh my, what am I gonna do now? I’ll never get over that bridge.

(Enter Billy Jean, the Billy Goat, representing herself and her two Billy Goat brothers)

Billy Jean: Hey Polly, you want to cross the bridge too, right? We don’t have enough money for the troll toll either, but we’ve got a great idea.

Polly: I sure do. What’s your idea?

Billy Jean: We’re looking for a few folks to put their money with ours. We’ll cross together in a CARPOOL! Why don’t you join us? When we have a dollar, we’ll cross the bridge together.

Polly: Whoop-dee-do! I do believe I will. Here’s my quarter (flip quarter down attached to stage edge). Now, do we have a dollar?

Billy Jean: Let me see . . . our quarter plus your quarter . . . How many is that, kids? (Audience shouts) Right, that’s only two, and that equals fifty cents. We need four quarters to make a dollar. It looks like we’ll be waiting here awhile longer.

Polly: Oh, well.

Billy Jean: Polly, we’ve set up a wading pool. It’s right over there (motions off stage with hoof). Why don’t you take a dip and stay cool while we wait? I’ll stay here and see who else comes along.

(As Polly jumps off-stage into the “pool,” water squirts into the audience.)

Do you want to spice up your children’s programming? Are you aware of a simple yet ingenious hook that will engage children and energize parents to make the library a routine stop in their weekly activities? How can you strengthen your community partnerships and give them more reasons to collaborate?

Most of us in the library field have a tool box filled with many utensils we use to enhance our storytimes and programs. There is often one unused tool in the box. It is overlooked because we haven’t tried it. It’s not used because we may feel self-conscious about using it. Maybe it lies there because we aren’t sure how and when to use it. This fabulous, no-fail tool is a puppet.

Why Should a Librarian Use a Puppet?

A puppet brings immediate focus to the subject matter and can teach without seeming to do so. Puppets are inherently funny. They are first-rate storytellers. They can say things more directly than the storytime librarian can, and get the program started and moving quickly. They can be used to repeat primary concepts without boring the children. Puppets can discuss delicate matters and even discipline without being severe.

Children immediately relate to puppets as friends. It doesn’t matter if they are made of white cloth, black cloth, purple micro fiber, or some substance from outer space. Puppets talk back to children with hilarious results. They can talk back to adults with equally uproarious effect. They can speak with a Punjabi or French accent or affect a southern drawl. Puppets may be silly or serious, smart or dumb, messy or meticulous, determined or wavering. They can adapt to any idea or culture. The more versatile a puppet is, the more effective it can be.

As Polly the Pony might say, “Whoop-dee-doo, let’s explore how librarians can use puppets too!”

Puppet Shows

Puppet theatre has been part of Carroll County (Md.) Public Library’s (CCPL) offerings since 1975. Currently six outreach librarians participate in the creation and delivery of nearly 150 shows each year in branches and community settings. Performed in winter and summer for the public, and in the spring for 2,000 kindergartners visiting their local branches as part of a school/library partnership, the shows draw on public domain stories to enchant the smallest lifelong learners and connect them to the library.

The scripts are created in an atmosphere of sheer fun and joy and leave plenty of room for improvisation. Many classic stories (such as The Little Red Hen, Three Little Pigs, and Cinderella) are tweaked to appeal to children and adults alike and to maximize giggling and chuckling. Each show contains a scene involving water to enable the puppeteers to present their signature gesture of squirting water into the audience. Puppet animals are used to represent the characters. Local points of interest and pop culture references are inserted to increase audience appeal. The preceding excerpt from the show “Three Billy Goats Go Down the Ocean, Hon!” is a prime example. Carroll County is part of the summer migration to the Atlantic Coastal beaches wherein you have to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and pay a toll. Did you notice how often the audience was asked to participate in the story and interact with the puppets?

The outreach and programming department is housed in an old church rectory adjacent to the Westminster Branch Library. The production room, a.k.a. the “puppet” room, makes a comfortable home for over fifty puppets. If you are in the vicinity of the production room during rehearsal time, you may hear surprising accents, lots of laughter, and unusual sounds and directives. “You two should butt heads.” “I know, sniff your armpit!” “Dippity doppity doo!”

Our practice of puppetry has evolved over the years. Loosely based on Bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, library puppeteers dress in black to reduce their presence on stage. The action takes place in a dark room on a makeshift stage consisting of a board placed on top of plastic boxes set on a table. A black cloth transforms these simple materials into a sturdy stage with the performance height, width, and length for audiences of up to one hundred. Each show contains custom-made puppet characters, costumes, props, and portable stage lighting. When the lights focus on the stage the puppeteers seem to disappear.

Although CCPL’s puppet shows are performed by two librarians, one-person shows can be easily developed as well; see Denise Wright’s One-Person Puppet Plays (Libraries Unlimited, 1990). Our shows strive to bring what is important in classic stories to the stage. Many of these shows have become the modern counterparts to Aesop’s Fables. They are not just tales about ponies and billy goats. They are stories about confronting the challenges and joys of life. The puppeteers connect with the art of human living while inspiring their audiences to think and to have fun.

Why Use Puppets with Children?

Puppets inspire kids. They bring the tales and fables of storytime to life for children to behold. They can likewise be used to elicit higher level thinking skills, such as problem solving. Puppets can be used to encourage interactive conversations and, in turn, nurture healthy social and emotional growth. Consequently puppets help develop listening skills and self-expression. When a child plays with a puppet, he strengthens fine motor skills, imagination, and creativity. A child builds self-confidence when using a puppet to re-tell a story. The narrative skills this develops help prepare children for school experiences. Puppets appeal to children with visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles.

Research shows that healthy social and emotional development lays the foundation for all other learning. Who better to teach children social skills than a puppet? What better way to help children learn to respond to and control their feelings or to understand the effect of emotions on others? Puppets can take children through a wild, delightful adventure and encourage them to safely use their imaginations to control emotions and manage their thoughts. They can grapple with a lesson of consequences for not minding a parent.

Puppets can teach timid children that, as they learn and grow, it is okay to be shy and afraid sometimes. Often when our puppet heroes confront feelings of shyness and fear they develop courage and confidence. Puppets can show how to overcome a grumpy mood and cultivate the ability to giggle and laugh. They can demonstrate how to recognize and value one’s own strengths and those of others. Role playing with puppets provides a safe testing ground for new roles and behaviors.

How Do You Get Started?

A great way to start is by using puppets in storytime. You do not need special training to animate a puppet. But still for some of us it’s not easy to put that thing on our hands. A common question is, “Which hand should I use?” Try both hands and put the puppet on the one most comfortable to you. Just think of it as “dressing up.” There are simple glove puppets which you put on like mittens. Some have mouths that open and some don’t. Some have arms that can be moved. There’s no right or wrong way to stick your fingers in these spots. Figure out what feels best and is easiest for you. There are finger puppets and stick puppets, which are both very singular forms and equally engaging to the audience. Can everyone easily see the puppet? Full-body puppets require both hands to manipulate, as do glove puppets with rods. To begin with, choose something with few “parts.” Be aware of the size of the puppet in relation to the size of your audience.

Now the Magic Comes

Once you put the puppet on, you must cease to exist. All focus is on the puppet. It doesn’t matter that you move your mouth when you speak. Once in a while a child prodigy will complain if you do. But it’s easy enough to respond, “we’re having such fun, let’s pretend together.” There is an enchanted place in the imagination where disbelief is suspended. You go to it when you read a story, and you and the group fall into the pages, “living” with the characters until the story ends. Puppets help make this happen.

Easy Ways to Gain Mastery

Be sure to treat the puppet with care and respect and avoid unsupported movement. When bringing a puppet out in front of an audience, animate it as soon as possible as the puppet “enters” from its bag or special spot where it’s been hiding. You may ask the children to say hello to the puppet or even bow to the puppet to help establish that element of respect and rapport.

Speak normally and freely when the puppet is on your hand. Look at it when it is speaking—glancing back to confirm the audience is with you—as you would do to anyone who was speaking. Angle the puppet so it is making “eye contact” with the audience, just as we look into the eyes of one who is speaking. Focus on the puppet. Use your free arm as an anchor or stage for the puppet, by placing the forearm horizontal to the floor, or cradling the puppet as you would any small creature you are holding. Developing a distinct voice for the puppet adds another element to its character. A rule of thumb is that the mouth will open on vowels and close on consonants and at the end of statements. Speak a bit more slowly than usual. If all this mouth movement causes you concern, you might have the puppet “whisper” in your ear and share what it says. This particular ploy is reassuring to shy children.

If you are feeling a little shy or unsure of your skills, puppets will bring the focus away from you. They take center stage. Puppets ignore mistakes. Funny puppets can set mistakes right. They can listen attentively, ask polite questions, highlight material needing explanation, react at key moments, or lead a transition to another activity, song, or book. Puppets can create problems or be the ones who do not understand. The children love to help a puppet solve problems.

If the puppet is an animal, think about how it behaves in its natural environment. What personality does your puppet have? How does that look and sound? Begin to add these details to your animation. A cat often washes its whiskers and ears. A dog pants. A fish opens and closes its mouth
regularly. A shy puppet hides its face in the crook of your elbow. A good listener nods its head slowly as others speak. Take time to observe animals and children—not to mention trolls.

Puppets are only bits of cloth, until they are animated. Keep them moving just a little. Living things are only absolutely still when dead. A puppet’s head can move slightly from side to side, up and down, or look around. Animation is contagious. It’s not just for puppets; it will get the children
moving as well. Their movements will bring the storytime tales and fables to life.

Puppets in Your Early Learning Spaces

Puppets are the perfect prop for parents to interact constructively with their children. For less than $200 a library can purchase a small 28-inch wide and 45-inch high puppet theatre and two to four puppets for hours of family fun—retelling a storybook or making up their own stories.

Puppets in School Readiness Kits

Another project is to create circulating school readiness kits based on folk and fairy tales and containing puppets. These kits should be easy-to-use. A story, a few puppets, a CD, and a simple prop or two will appeal to adults and children alike. Include an idea sheet with how-to-use tips. By making a kit available to families you are offering parents and caregivers the opportunity to talk, sing, read, play, and listen with their children. A simple tip sheet might suggest the following:

  • Read the story aloud
  • Look over the puppets
  • Practice putting on the puppets with your hands and your child’s hands
  • Play by moving the puppets
  • Try speaking in different voices
  • Have fun retelling the story or making up your own!

Puppets Reinventing the Role of the Library in Our Communities

Have you tried puppetry? If yes, fantastic! What might you add to take it up a notch or two to reenergize your programs and services? If the answer is no, how can you introduce puppetry into what you are already doing? Puppets can enhance your library’s potential to revitalize its role in the community you serve. Whether you are working in a one-person storefront setting or a library system with several branches, using puppets can invigorate children’s learning through play. You can tap the power of puppetry in the ways we’ve described and come up with new ways all on your own! We encourage you to discover its joys. Whether you are a new or seasoned librarian, puppetry can bring out your creative best. Give it a try! The children will love it!


What’s that?


That’s the sound of Polly and the Billy Goats finally crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.


That’s the sound of you opening that tool box to pull out a puppet.