In a training room above an Asda supermarket in Birchwood, Warrington, Cheshire, 60 grown-ups are pretending to be four-year-olds. It's story time, and like all the responsive four-year-olds who have ever listened to Jill Murphy's Peace at Last, these listeners are good at joining in the refrain.
Daddy Bear can't sleep. Mummy Bear's snoring in the bedroom; the tap is dripping in the kitchen; wherever he tries to sleep something disturbs him. On every page Daddy Bear groans (with a chorus of 60 on cue): "OH NO, I CAN'T STAND THIS!" The grown-ups work at the check-outs, customer service counters, stock rooms and admin offices in Asda stores throughout the North-west but this morning they're on an uproarious voyage of discovery. "SPLASH!" they shout when The Pig in the Pond jumps into the water in Martin Waddell's story. "Swishy-swashy, swishy-swashy" they chant as they weave through the grass in Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Using their thumbs (Mr Wiggle and Mr Waggle) they go jauntily "up the hill (thumb pointing up) and down the hill (thumb pointing down)" over and over again. The instructor, storyteller Sally Tonge, is impressed by their enthusiasm.
What's going on here? Is Asda experimenting with some way-out corporate psychological analysis, taking its staff (or "colleagues" as they call each other) on a therapeutic trawl through childhood? Well, no. These adults are training for The Big Read, which runs from next Monday until June 13. Asda has gone into partnership with public libraries to promote the reading habit, with the aim of catching parents as they shop and impressing on them the benefits - and the fun - of introducing children to books. The stores will display a range to attract readers of all age groups. The role of the "colleagues" will be to help catch them young in the story corners set up for the fortnight. To learn the art of story-reading, as early-years and primary teachers know, there's nothing quite like putting yourself in the shoes of a four-year-old.
Checkout assistant Anne Zamora sees her store in Westbrook, Warrington, as one big treasure trove of settings for stories. Anne's face glows with animation as the trainees practise on each other (she was once told she should be an actress, and now wants to dress up for the performance). She is planning to read The Gingerbread Man in the bakery and The Pig in the Pond at the butcher's counter, and for This Is the Bear and the Picnic Lunch it has to be the fruit display.
She reckons the forthcoming fortnight will be lively. "Asda has many extrovert characters. The possibilities of what we could do are endless." Anne trained in catering, but stopped working to bring up her daughter. She is now looking again at how to develop her career, is organising PR for her store and looks on the storytelling as a chance to build up skills.
The two-week reading promotion is part of a wider campaign called Reaching Parents run by LaunchPad, the library development agency, to update the public on what libraries have to offer and to cultivate new audiences who currently do not have time to visit them regularly.
LaunchPad is hoping longer-term relationships will develop between stores and libraries. Six million people a week shop at Asda - libraries can only dream about getting that many users through their doors. Libraries represent service to the community, which a highly competitive supermarket chain is keen to emulate - although LaunchPad hopes the long-term beneficiary of this mutual back-scratching will be the habit of reading.
During the Big Read fortnight, mobile libraries will appear in Asda car parks. The librarians who have helped with the story training will visit stores to give out information and do some story-reading themselves. They are also recommending and lending books to the stores for their story corners. Libby Tempest, a senior librarian for North Manchester children's libraries, is running the training session at Birchwood.
She admits that taking on Asda staff has been a "bit of a leap into the unknown. We didn't know how keen they'd be, or whether they'd been coerced into coming along. But we were bowled over by their enthusiasm. They were very keen to listen and learn. I felt the commitment was genuine. This is an important initiative for us. Everybody goes to the supermarket, but not everybody comes to the library. It's where we should be."
Ms Tempest and Sue Maddock, head of youth library services for Cheshire, have brought a huge range of deliciously colourful picture books to the training session. They have also came armed with basic advice: use a book that allows children to join in; use a book with repetition, especially for small children; don't be disheartened if children get up and wander off or start telling you about their new shoes in mid-sentence - they usually come back to the story; don't be afraid to shorten a text if it's too long; read the book beforehand to see if it's appropriate, and practise reading it aloud; if a child looks hell-bent on causing trouble ask the parent to stay - it's not a cr che but a story corner; if disruption gets really bad, stop reading.
Gareth Robinson, an Asda administrative clerk in Llandudno, says he might have to practise on his cats. He's got seven at home, but no children. But he plans to visit his old primary school in nearby Glanwybban to read to children there.
Gareth became particularly enthused at the training session when he found a pop-up book featuring jungle animals which he felt would offer great scope for audience participation. "I didn't know anything about children's books," he says. "All I can remember from my own childhood are the Mr Men. I have never really thought about the importance of developing reading from such an early age. It has been an eye-opener to me but I want to get involved."
Gareth started working for Asda part-time at 17, while he was studying for a BTEC National Diploma in business and finance at college. He says the company encourages staff to have a go at roles outside their normal duties. Apart from his core job, Gareth is also kept busy as events co-ordinator for his store. The day before The Big Read begins, for example, he is doing a 10,000ft free-fall parachute jump in an Asda effort to raise money for the National Children's Deaf Society. But he regards the opportunity of learning to read to children as good personal development. "It will come in useful when I have a family of my own."
Libby Tempest tells her audience that reading a book to a child is "the greatest gift you can give". She warns them not to be alarmed if children want to get close. She says: "I once read to some nursery children. One little girl was totally engrossed. She got closer and closer and began systematically to unbutton the front of my skirt without realising what she was doing. It could happen to you."
* 'The Pig in the Pond' by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Jill Barton; 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury and 'This Is the Bear and the Picnic Lunch' by Sarah Hayes, illustrated by Helen Craig, are all published by Walker in standard and big book editions.
* Kick Off!, another Reaching Parents campaign from libraries working with the world of sport, gets the ball rolling from tomorrow for fathers and sons reading together. Football and fishing clubs, leisure centres and gyms are taking part and Random House has produced linked book lists. More details from participating libraries (in Buckingham, Doncaster, Hull, Milton Keynes, North Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Portsmouth, Rotherham, Sheffield, Wiltshire and Windsor and Maidenhead)
When in doubt...
Senior librarian Libby Tempest's choice of top ten "never-fail" books, which are guaranteed to enthrall when read aloud For small children: Peace at Last by Jill Murphy (Macmillan) The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr (Collins Children's Books) Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Puffin) Owl Babies by Martin Waddell (Walker) Lullabyhullaballoo! by Mick Inkpen (Hodder) What's the Magic Word, Max? by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins (Viking Kestrel) Sally's Amazing Colour Book by Paul Dowling (Andersen Press) Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski (The Book Service tel: 01206 256000) For older children: H. Prince by Dick King-Smith (Out of print, but available in some libraries) John Patrick Norman McHennessy: the boy who was always late by John Burningham (BeaverArrow)