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Brooklyn Librarian Becomes Unlikely Star With Her Bilingual Story Time

Tenzin Kalsang's in-person story times in Tibetan and English on were held at the Williamsburgh branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system.
Tenzin Kalsang's in-person story times in Tibetan and English on were held at the Williamsburgh branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system.

When Brooklyn librarian Tenzin Kalsang's story time for kids — in which she reads in both Tibetan and English — moved online last year, she was so nervous she couldn't sleep the night before.

"I was like, oh, my goodness, how am I going to do this?" she said. "When I get shy, my face turns really red."

Kalsang was used to reading stories in person at the Brooklyn Public Library.

But she did it. Kalsang set up a colorful corner of her apartment complete with potted plants and kid's books like "Llama llama red pajama" open and on display. Just like they would be on library shelves. She then turned the camera on herself and streamed her stories live on Facebook.

"Hello, good morning everyone!" she greeted viewers as they logged on.

Her story times soon attracted viewersfrom around the world, from countries as far away as Australia and Switzerland.

Like almost everything these days, libraries are having to move their services online. Books can be reserved and picked up in person, movies streamed and other offerings like career counseling and ESL classes attended virtually.

Since the pandemic hit the Brooklyn Public Library has been offering a number of bilingual story times online including ones in Russian, Spanish and Chinese.

But Kalsang's have been a huge hit. One has been viewed twenty thousand times. That's like selling out Madison Square Garden. For a library story time, that's fall off your chair success.

Still, Kalsang was right to be nervous the first time. She had a pretty tough audience to impress. Like Tsojung Yerutsang, a precocious 9-year-old with shoulder-length hair, a pink t-shirt with a heart and one dimple.

"Well, first I honestly thought it was for babies," she said. And even if not, she worried it would be below her level, she said, "because you know, in like American reading levels, I'm very high. Like above my class, like not to brag or anything."

Kalsang's bilingual story time has appealed especially to families like Tsojung's, among the tens of thousands of refugees from Tibet who scattered around the globe following the 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet.

Activists say China is trying to destroy Tibetan culture and fear their language will be lost.

"Without language, culture cannot survive. I'm worried she will lose our culture," Tsojung's mother Tsering, a traditional Tibetan herbal healer, said about her daughter.

Tibetan-American Tsojung Yerutsang, 9, celebrating Tibetan New Year
Tsering Yerutsang / Tsering Yerutsang
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Tibetan-American Tsojung Yerutsang, 9, celebrating Tibetan New Year

"I want to teach her, but it's not easy. She has to go to school. Everything is English, and her friends and everyone speak English." Tibetans are a minority her mother explains. She says even at the library finding a book in Tibetan isn't possible.

As for Tsojung - she says Kalsang's story time has made her feel closer to Tibetan culture.

"I really like to watch her now. It's very educational. She does, like one page in English. And then she reads the page again, in Tibetan. It's really nice."

Kalsang says bilingual story times signal to people that libraries celebrate diversity. And fourth-grader Tsojung agrees that's an important goal.

"I think everyone's country should be remembered and shared to everyone, because then we can all be remembered," she says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.