Jeremy's aunt knitted him a scarf three miles long that she expected him to wear around town.

Imagine the embarrassment.

Until ... until ... the day he threw it like a rope to a girl drowning in the river.

And then ...

Children listening to Bonnie Gilfillan read the story lean forward in anticipation. Eyes widen. They're preschoolers, prone to squirming, but they're locked onto the tale now.

It's story time at the Rosalie E. Wahl Library in Lake Elmo.

But the kids know the end has come -- not just for Jeremy's story, but for Lake Elmo's story time.

"Heartbroken" is how Gilfillan describes families' reactions to the county's decision to end the program.

Lake Elmo is the latest small Washington County branch library to lose its story time in a wave of staff reductions. Story time already disappeared from libraries in Newport and Marine on St. Croix. Lake Elmo's weekly program ended Friday, and the Valley library in Lakeland could follow soon.

The county's new approach? Consolidate story times at its larger libraries in cities like Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Forest Lake, which draw the most people. County records show that overall attendance at story times at the nine branch libraries has grown by 20 percent since 2005, much of it driven by the larger libraries.

"The programming actually has never been greater for the kids in our system," said Joe Manion, the library's public services division manager. "You just take a look and understand where the resources belong."

But that reasoning doesn't sit well with parents who relied on the Lake Elmo story time at a small comfortable library where their children know each other.

"It's not a surprise but it's disappointing," said Joanna Coyle, who brought her 4-year-old son Kaden to story time. "It seems like story times are a staple to libraries."

Another parent, Larry Green, came with his daughter Rachel, 4.

"All these kids know each other. They're a peer group. The parents know each other," he said. Green, a persistent critic of how the county manages its Lake Elmo library, said he's convinced that county Library Director Patricia Conley wants to concentrate libraries in a few larger cities and replace the smaller libraries with book kiosks.

"It's losing human contact with someone who's trained to do this," he said of the demise of story time in Lake Elmo.

Conley defends the end of story time in Lake Elmo as part of a trend toward consolidation that now allows the five largest libraries to stay open seven days a week. "They were very unhappy we closed on Sundays," she said of customers at the larger libraries.

The future of the Lake Elmo library, now open 20 hours a week but closed on weekends, remains under discussion, she said.

Last spring, because of tension with the county, the City Council voted to start its own library. County and city officials have since agreed to work together to find a better solution.

"By no means is it easy for us to be reducing any story times," said Dawn LaBrosse, the county library's children's services coordinator. "Story times are something we take very seriously here at Washington County."

Story times for children of all ages -- even babies -- represent a major tool to promote literacy, she said.

Literacy is why Coyle brings her son to the Lake Elmo library. The Coyles live in Stillwater, but she said her son does better in Lake Elmo's smaller, more intimate group. The family borrows 50 books a week from libraries, she said, but she recognizes how an expressive librarian can draw kids into a good book.

"Hearing it from Mom and Dad is one thing, but hearing it from a librarian is different," she said.

LaBrosse said parents in Lake Elmo can now take their children to Woodbury or Oakdale for story times or to "associate" city libraries in Stillwater and Bayport. All metro libraries share the same story time format, she said, which means that children would recognize the common approach to combine words, music and pictures to help them become better readers.

"It's just not about sitting there in a rocking chair reading a book, then reading another book," she said. "It's now interactive, more fun."

Attendance at the Lake Elmo story times more than doubled that at the Valley branch in the first six months of the year, according to county figures. The 513 children participating in Lake Elmo also exceeded the turnout in nearby Oakdale.

That's what angers Green, who said the county refuses to consider how its library decisions hurt Lake Elmo residents. An appeal by residents to move story time to evenings, or to Saturday mornings when more parents could attend, went unheeded, he said.

"What we got was a self-made argument that the traffic doesn't justify it," he said.

Manion said story time could continue in Lake Elmo if the county could find and train a volunteer reader, although Conley said the employees' union might have concerns.

On the second to last story time, five preschoolers snuggled on red, blue and green cushions as Gilfillan read "Jeremy's Muffler" and then "Hickory Dickory Dock." Subbing for regular storyteller Peggy Moore, who was sick, Gilfillan said the group was smaller than usual on a rainy day.

Sometimes, Green said, as many as 50 children have attended the story time.

On this day, as Lake Elmo's story time headed for its final chapter, the kids listened intently as Gilfillan related the rest of the story about Jeremy. After saving the girl in the river with his superlong scarf, everyone wanted one. All the stores stocked it. And the mayor told Jeremy that he wanted to put the hand-knit scarf in the town's museum.

Said Green, as the kids loaded up with books to take home after the story time:

"We lose the sense that we're able to do this in our own community."

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342