Sing-along is music to Cambridge parents’ ears

Librarian has led group for decades

(From left) Brooke Farnum, Hurmann Nasset, Anna Olivieri, and Jack McMannus at Cambridge’s O’Neill Library recently. (From left) Brooke Farnum, Hurmann Nasset, Anna Olivieri, and Jack McMannus at Cambridge’s O’Neill Library recently. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / September 9, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - “So can we have hands in the air?’’ Cindy DiRusso asks the almost 50 children and parents splayed before her on the floor. Like those fast-motion films of blooming flowers they used to show in classrooms, tiny arms sprout up.

Sitting under the paper ice-cream cones hanging from the ceiling, DiRusso leads the group in “Open, Shut Them,’’ which always begins her weekly, half-hour sing-alongs at the O’Neill branch of the Cambridge Public Library.

DiRusso, 51, has been doing her songfests at O’Neill, formally or informally, for 28 years. Neither snow nor rain nor heat has kept her from her appointed rounds of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat’’ - only vacations, holidays, the occasional illness, and two maternity leaves.

On a recent Monday, a gentle wave of voices rolls through the North Cambridge library, singing softly: Open, shut them/Open, shut them/Give a little clap-clap-clap. A little girl giggles loudly at the song’s finale, when everyone hides their hands behind their backs. DiRusso beams at this and other signs that the children are having fun. As on every Monday, she runs her group through much of the canon of childhood ditties, including “Where is Thumbkin?’’ “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’’ “The Wheels on the Bus,’’ “Down by the Station,’’ and “The Hokey Pokey.’’

It is the same order, week in, week out. What might strike some as mind-numbing repetition is a reassuring ritual for young listeners, says DiRusso, who punctuates each week’s singing by reading three books to the children.

Such toddler sing-alongs and readings are common at libraries around the state, says Susan McAlister, president of the Massachusetts Library Association, which has about 800 members working at public and academic libraries. All seven branches of Cambridge’s library system offer toddler songs and/or reading.

What’s not so common is DiRusso’s longevity. It’s an extraordinary run in an ordinary occupation, but it’s not ordinary for the children and parents who pack the library on Mondays. Ranging in age from infant to 4 years old, the children learn the fun of reading and socialization skills. Sing-along can be an informal English-as-a-second-language class for immigrant families, which at the O’Neill can include parents and children from India, Japan, and Korea.

As for regulars (full disclosure: who once included this reporter and his son), they sing DiRusso’s praises.

“Cindy is phenomenal,’’ said Lucy van Beever, who has been bringing her two children since her oldest, now 5, was just 2. “She’s very animated,’’ making the songs and stories seem fresh to her audience, as if she hasn’t been doing them for years. Van Beever grew up using libraries, and the weekly sing-alongs introduce her children to their joys of and the world of reading, she says. Plus she and they get a chance to socialize with the other parents and children.

Kaniz Fatima, a Pakistan native, brought her 7-year-old daughter since she was a baby and now totes two children for whom she provides day care. The weekly sessions improved her English, she said, while “the children can [learn] a lot of information about different things’’ from the words and book pictures.

DiRusso’s longevity as reader and songstress to toddlers was unforeseen despite a lifelong love of libraries. She grew up in Somerville, worked as a teen at her local library stacking books, and still remembers the sting of being turned down for her first library card, when she was a kindergartner. She’d practiced printing her first name for the card but didn’t know they’d ask her to write her last.

Yet DiRusso, who now lives in Stoneham, did not study library science. She majored in elementary education at Gordon College in Wenham and aspired to be a teacher when she graduated in 1980. She took a job paying less than $4 an hour as a school aide in Somerville, but in that day’s weak economy, teaching positions were not forthcoming. When a better-paying job behind the desk at O’Neill opened up in 1981, she grabbed it and became the children’s librarian, doing toddler song-and-read events. She left that job when she became a mother and split a full-time position with another worker, putting in 20 hours a week, an arrangement she has continued to this day.

Almost three decades on the job hasn’t blunted her enthusiasm.

“When I don’t like doing it anymore, I won’t be doing it anymore. Because it won’t be fun for the kids, because kids would absolutely know that you’re not having as much fun as they are. I mean, how can you get up there and do the ‘Hokey Pokey’ every Monday?’’

She still loves watching the interaction between parent and child. There’s a line in “Wheels on the Bus’’ in which the mommies and the daddies say “I love you’’ to the children on the bus.

“For a parent to wrap their arms around their kids - here’s an opportunity,’’ DiRusso said. “I’m sure that they’re doing it at home, but for those that may not be a touchy-feely parent, or maybe from a different culture that they may not do it - there’s your opportunity. For me, I think it’s more than a story time. It’s a learning opportunity for both parents and children. And for me, just being able to impart my knowledge and love of reading.’’

Rich Barlow can be reached at