Photo: Signs posted around Underwood Park across from the Gadsden Public Library display the colorful pages of “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” by Verna Aardema. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
East Gadsden Public Library is introducing a novel medium for reading with Tales in Our Park, a storybook scavenger hunt in which library patrons and parkgoers alike can read a children’s book while walking along the trail circling Underwood Park.
The park, which sits across from the Gadsden Public Library’s South College Street location, was named in 2021 for Dr. Clarence Underwood, Jr., a Gadsden native, esteemed educator and former Michigan State University athletic director.
Tales in Our Park was created and is facilitated by East Gadsden Public Library Branch Manager LaShunda Williams.
Williams presented the project at the Association of Rural and Small Libraries conference in Chattanooga in September, where she was chosen as one of 30 librarians from a pool of around 180 applicants as “Outstanding in Their Field.” Williams was also the only “Outfielder” chosen from the state of Alabama.
At the time, her program was called Tales in the Park, but Williams said making that subtle change in its title was important to her.
“I want the community to feel like that’s our park,” Williams said.
Tales in Our Park currently features “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” by Verna Aardema, its pages of vibrant illustrations displayed on signs throughout the park.
“It is a book that is deconstructed and put in order in the park, spaced apart on signage, for parents and kids or caregivers and whoever to read as they’re walking through the park,” Williams explained.
These park-sign stories have benefits for both children and adults.
“Kids that don’t like to come outside or don’t like to read, that is like you sneaking it in,” Williams said. “And it’s a good activity for a family. You’re enjoying the outdoors, and you’re also getting to read to your child.”
Williams noted that this way, local kids get the benefits of reading and the benefits of being outdoors at once.
“It’s a beautiful park that we have across from the library,” Williams said. “I just wanted to expand our library outdoors. We’re just not inside; we’re also outside. We’re in the community; we’re for you. We want to make our community come together.”
The library aims to include “take-and-make” crafts with upcoming stories, which parents can pick up inside the building and use to supplement the pages in the park. Children can practice following directions and honing their motor skills with these crafts while absorbing the story.
“And also, since reading is fundamental, you’re getting some education while you’re in there, some fun education for your kids,” Williams added.
Williams plans to post new stories on the signs each season or in accordance with holidays. She said Halloween is next up for the theme.
The Gadsden Public library offers a variety of community services, including a legal advice clinic the second Tuesday of each month and a Women’s Pigskin Discussion led by Timothy Madden, Williams’ coworker at the East Gadsden branch.
Williams has sponsored numerous other projects for the Gadsden Public Library during her 26 years there, including one take-what-you-need program called the “Love Box,” which Williams said has been one of her most impactful projects.
“It’s a newspaper box that’s been painted, and we have one downtown (as well as at the library),” Williams explained. “We put canned goods in there; we put sandwiches. We might put fruit — it just depends on what we have. We have socks that we put in there sometimes with blankets.”
The boxes provide various foods and resources to the unhoused or those otherwise in need.
“I think that really is one of the best things, personally, for our community because people look down on the unhoused,” Williams said. “And they may get that way because they want to be out, or some people may have lost their job, lost their house or whatever. But putting food in the food box, it does my heart good. I like it.”
Williams was recognized by the Association of Rural and Small Libraries for her leadership in the library.
“I didn’t know that many people applied for it; I was just so thankful,” she said. “It’s given me more leadership skills. I’ve learned a lot and made new friends from different other states, so it’s really great.”