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Following the Captain 

Coleen Salley is on a mission for children's literacy in New Orleans.

Ozzy Osbourne has nothing on storyteller Coleen Salley. She begins most shows by being swallowed whole by a boa constrictor, courtesy of a Shel Silverstein poem. And unlike the aging rocker, "Miz Salley," as she is affectionately known by scores of parents and children, doesn't have to rely on live animals, pyrotechnics or personal trainers. She doesn't fret about makeup to hide the advancing years or costumes to conceal her physique. Her only requirements are a chair and a sack full of children's books.

"You can get old and you can get fat, and the older and fatter you get, the more you look like what people think a storyteller should look like," says Salley.

The 72-year-old is holding forth on this mild spring day in her French Quarter garden patio, where she enjoys her retirement from more than 30 years as a professor of children's literature at the University of New Orleans. However, she isn't leading the quiet life. Already this year, she has published her first children's book, Who's That Tripping Over My Bridge?, a clever Louisiana retelling of Three Billy Goats Gruff. The book features illustrations by Amy Jackson Dixon, and it's Pelican Publishing's best children's offering in years. A second book is planned for this fall; she will be part of numerous children's literature festivals, and this week she will be making her annual appearance in the Kids' Tent at Jazz Fest. This leaves little time for rest, but she's fueled by her passion for children, books, and literacy -- and doesn't mince words about her mission.

"What I really want to say when I go into schools is, 'Listen, if you don't learn to read, you are dead meat. You are gonna die,'" Salley says with a hiss. "But the teachers wouldn't like that even though [the children] are going to be dead if they don't. The most important thing that you can learn in school is how to read. I'm convinced that if a child learns to read by the third grade and learns to love books, they can survive bad teachers."

Fortunately, for the many students Salley taught at UNO -- including a vast number of current New Orleans teachers and librarians -- bad teaching wasn't one of their worries. "I taught children's literature and I didn't teach it as an education class -- I taught it like a survey course," says Salley. "We read a lot of books, many authors, and we really looked at everything. I used to tell my students, 'One thing's for damn sure, you might never find a use for trigonometry in your life or sociology, but I'll tell you right now, after this course, you'll sure know what to buy those kids at Christmas."

As her classes became more and more popular, she recognized her gift, like that of a fervent preacher, to convert entire classrooms to a love of the word -- the word according to such children's writers as Mem Fox, William Joyce and Robert San Souci. Then in 1975, a former student who was teaching kindergarten led Salley to the job that would allow her to preach her gospel to children. She asked Salley to read to her class. Salley became a storyteller, but not the kind that physically portrays the characters and recites the story from memory. No, "Miz Salley" would sit and she would use her books.

"To me storytelling is leading children to books. I always use books and I always have them with me. I never go anywhere without my books," Salley explains.

Funny thing, it wasn't a book that led Coleen Salley to children's literature, it was television: Captain Kangaroo, once the longest-running TV children's show of all time (1955-84). As a young mother in the late 1950s, Salley regularly watched the show with her own kids.

"Captain Kangaroo was the one who got me interested in children's literature," she remembers. "Every morning he read some wonderful book. He got me hooked. So when I went to graduate school and I took children's literature, I knew every book they were talking about. I had met them on Captain Kangaroo. It used to piss me off that they never gave him an Emmy. I always adored him."

Coleen Salley knows, just like The Captain knew, the power of sharing books with children.

click to enlarge Seventy-two-year-old Coleen Salley's debut children's book, Who's That Tripping Over My Bridge?, is Pelican Publishing's best children's book in years.
  • Seventy-two-year-old Coleen Salley's debut children's book, Who's That Tripping Over My Bridge?, is Pelican Publishing's best children's book in years.
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