Storyteller pours her talent into books

January 16, 1994|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,Staff Writer

Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard thought if she told good stories showing families loving each other, maybe people would be interested in reading them. The popularity of her picture books for children has proved her theory correct.

Not only are her books, such as "Chita's Christmas Tree," in demand, but so is she. She rushed from one library to another in New Carrollton, Hyattsville and Annapolis on Thursday to tell her stories to waiting audiences.

"I have lots of wonderful memories about the Baltimore region," Mrs. Howard told about 85 children and adults in the meeting room of Eastport-Annapolis Neck library.

She was born in Baltimore, but moved at a young age to Boston with her family. The mother of three grown daughters and the grandmother of two lives with her husband in Pittsburgh.

"All of my stories have been family stories and I suggest everyone here save the stories in their family. If they don't get published, make books for your own family," she said.

Mrs. Howard did not begin writing and publishing her books until she was a grandmother. Then she turned out "The Train to Lulu's" in 1988, "Chita's Christmas Tree" a year later, "Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later)" in 1991 and "Mac and Marie and the Train Toss Surprise" last year.

Mrs. Howard graduated from Radcliffe College and earned her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh. She retired last year as a professor in library science at West Virginia University to concentrate on writing picture books for children ranging in age from preschool to early elementary.

She uses personal memories and her family's history from the turn of the century for plots. Although her books are laced with fiction, all of them are based in Baltimore because the majority of her relatives are from the city.

Mrs. Howard said she does not have a favorite book of the four.

She likes "Train to Lulu's" because it was her first book and because the little girl protagonists are based on her and her sister, Barbara.

She likes "Chita's Christmas Tree" because it helps her relive old Baltimore. And she is partial to "Mac and Marie" because she had good times with her father, Mac, while he was telling her the story. And, of course, "Aunt Flossie's Hats" holds a special place in her heart because she loved her mother's sister.

Mrs. Howard's inability to pick a favorite was quite evident at the reading in Annapolis. She brought the stories to life by choosing children from the audience to re-enact them. She brought a box full of her Aunt Flossie's treasured hats and a seashell wrapped in white paper and string, much like the surprise in "Mac and Marie."

As she told her stories, children stood to get a better look at the illustrations and some even followed her around.

Brendan Giardina, 8, said he thought Mrs. Howard's stories were funny. He said he enjoyed the personal experiences she added when she told the story.

Brendan's mother, Chris Giardina, said she had "a double dose" of Mrs. Howard today. Ms. Giardina teaches special education at Eastport Elementary where Mrs. Howard read earlier in the day.

"She is such a dynamic speaker, I could have gone for triples," Ms. Giardina said.

Joan Rhodes of Annapolis brought 12 children from the congregation of Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church for its monthly youth night to hear the storytelling.

"I wanted them to hear stories about other African-American children," she said.

Janet Henery of Annapolis said she has read Mrs. Howard's books to her 6-year-old daughter, Ashley, and her 4-year-old, Chelsea.

"I like seeing positive books about African-Americans, especially the historical references to how they lived a long time ago," she said.

Mrs. Howard agreed there is a gap in the number of books about black children's experiences.

"I find it necessary to fill that gap because I grew up in a time when there weren't any books about African-Americans," she said.

Mrs. Howard has sifted through memories, stories family members have shared with her and family heirlooms to find material for three more books. The first, "Papa Tells Chita a Story," is due later this year.

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