Appreciating How to Fail: A Library Storytime

When brainstorming topics for my weekly Family Storytimes at the public library, I like to browse the Brownielocks site for unusual holidays. I’ve spun storytimes out of the likes of Squirrel Awareness Month, National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, World Vegetarian Day, and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.

October 13, as it turned out, was The International Day For Failure. There are a lot of commemorative days that do not make good family storytime topics, and at first glance “International Day For Failure” seemed like a pass. It sounded like a cynical joke, a day to fail. By the bemused looks on the faces of everyone who saw the week’s topic when I scheduled it, this is a common reaction.

But when I read what http://dayforfailure.com/ had to say about it, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.
Without the possibility of failure there is no success: they go hand-in-hand. After all, failure means you have grabbed the opportunity to succeed…. So let’s celebrate our shortcomings and failures, share our experiences and promote the understanding of failure as a learning experience.”

I thought of my son slamming his pencil down in frustration as he struggled with homework. I thought of my daughter holding back, whispering “I can’t,” when we finally arrived at her much longed-for first piano lesson.

I thought of me: the kind of kid who didn’t have to study for tests and excelled at everything she really wanted to do, who then grew up with no idea how to work toward a difficult goal and a debilitating fear of failure that kept her from trying. You can’t accomplish much of anything if you’re afraid to even try.

Is fear of failure innate or learned? Whatever your inhibitions at the start, society certainly does its best to reinforce the idea that failure is bad. So the sooner somebody counteracts that idea and helps kids learn to accept or even embrace their failures, the more likely they’ll learn to persevere.

To turn this into a family storytime, though, I first needed to find a few good read-alouds.

Rosie Revere Engineer, Andrea Beaty, David Roberts, Abrams
Image: Abrams Books

Book #1: Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty. It was this review here on GeekMom that convinced me to buy this book for the library, for this very reason. When I ran a direct subject search for “failure” in our catalog, this was still the only picture book that showed up. Why aren’t there more picture books that show how failures are really only first attempts?

It does remind me of another story of an inventor embracing his failures until he finally gets it right, Candace Fleming’s Papa’s Mechanical Fish, though in that story Papa is a little more determined to keep trying, at least with the encouragement of his family.

Billy's Booger, William Joyce, Simon and Schuster
Image: Simon and Schuster

Book #2: Billy’s Booger, by William Joyce. I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. This is a “mostly true memoir” from the author’s childhood, the story of how he wrote his first book (called “Billy’s Booger” of course) at the age of ten.

This story reframes failure in yet another way, this time showing that what seems like failure in one circumstance (in this case, Billy’s book completely fails to impress the adults and win him a prize) might actually be a great success in another (Billy’s classmates love the book and check it out more than any other in the contest).

Perfectly Messed Up Story, Patrick McDonnell, Hachette Book Group
Image: Hachette Book Group

Book #3: A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, by Patrick McDonnell. Here is a book about making the best of a bad situation. Someone has not been taking proper care of this book, and it has blemished Louie’s idyllic story. How can he possibly go on when everything around him is so wrong? Or is it really as bad as it seems?

This tied into our activity for the evening: stain drawings. I searched for images of various blots and smudges and printed them out, making what appeared to be some ruined pieces of drawing paper. The challenge was to turn the bloopers into art, letting the apparent failures inspire us to make something awesome. I think we succeeded:

failure art 7, child's art, stained artwork, inkblots
Inkblot Bear. Photo: Amy M. Weir/Frank Sarris Public Library
failure art 6, child's art, stained artwork, inkblots
Inkblot Hair. Photo: Amy M. Weir/Frank Sarris Public Library
failure art 5, inkblot,
Pterodactyl. Photo: Amy M. Weir/Frank Sarris Public Library
failure art 4, jack o'lantern, stain art, child's art
Mug Stain Jack o’Lantern. Photo: Amy M. Weir/Frank Sarris Public Library
failure art 3, child's art, snowman, stained artwork
Mug Stain Snowman. Photo: Amy M. Weir/Frank Sarris Public Library
failure art 2, child's art, flowers, inkblots
Flowers in Flowers. Photo: Amy M. Weir/Frank Sarris Public Library

I had other books on the theme displayed to be checked out. Here are some of the nonfiction titles I found, which don’t make a very good storytime but are great for independent reading or reading together in bits and pieces:

I also wish this post on GeekMom had been posted a week earlier so I could have gotten my hands on 11 Experiments That Failed before the program! But I’ve learned from this mistake, and now I know for next time.

How do you help your kids–and yourself–spin failures into something positive?

Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 9yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 7yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.