Librarian charms children

Storyteller: Little ones in a drug-infested neighborhood listen as a librarian pushes books.

March 09, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In a West Baltimore neighborhood where drug dealing appears to be the major business, Fellisco Keeling sells imagination.

Working at the Hollins-Payson library branch on a recent morning, she entertains a group of first-graders who arrived as addicts staggered outside on Payson Street, dealing with their first high of the day.

"I said the three, I said the three, I said the three bears," Keeling sings sweetly in her soft rap, holding up three fingers.

Her jazzed-up version of "The Three Bears" entrances the children from Samuel F. B. Morse Elementary, but Keeling's real goal for them is behind her: a wall of books.

"There are few children who won't go to the books," said Keeling, a children's services librarian and master storyteller who has worked 18 years at the branch. "And once you get the hunger for reading, you'll read whatever you can."

How much longer Hollins-Payson - or any city library branch - will be open is unclear. The Enoch Pratt Free Library announced Wednesday that it will close five of the city's 26 branches this year, largely for budgetary reasons. As many as five more could close by 2006.

The branches have not been chosen, officials said, although Hollins-Payson could be in trouble because it has the highest repair costs and fourth-lowest attendance. Last year, patrons checked out 10,208 books at Hollins-Payson.

Some city residents are incensed. Closing branches makes it harder for children to get to the library, they say.

And there's this question: Even if a branch closing makes financial sense, what value do you place on the services of a Fellisco Keeling who reads to several groups of children a week?

"She doesn't let anything rattle her," said Lynne Distance, a storyteller and librarian in the Pennsylvania Avenue branch. "There are things that happen around there that end up on the evening news but she disregards that and looks for the positive."

Keeling, a 64-year-old mother of three grown sons, could have retired two years ago. She's worked 26 years for the Pratt. She keeps working four days a week for one reason: impact.

Outside in this tough section of town, ominous figures walk by the glass block wall of the library, casting shadows on the floor as Keeling tells stories. Gang graffiti on the door of the building that the library shares proclaims: "CMB Cash Money Brothers."

"That's what the children coming up here go through" to get to the library, Keeling said in a somber tone. "This is where they live."

Keeling suspects that some of her former listeners have joined the city's illicit drug trade, but they still call her "Mrs. Keeling" out of respect, she said.

She is buoyed by the parents of the new children coming through the library doors.

"Some of the little ones I had are now adults and are bringing their little ones," Keeling said, smiling. "I've been around long enough to know that I've had an impact."

A member of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Keeling attributes her love of storytelling to her father, Douglass Edwards. He headed an insurance company and ended the day in Charlottesville, Va., by telling his only child a story.

"It was a nightly ritual," Keeling said. "Every night when I went to bed, he would come up and tell stories and sing songs and I gained a love for music and storytelling."

Keeling attended Virginia State College because the University of Virginia remained segregated. She majored in vocal music and met her husband of 43 years, Willis.

After graduation, Keeling soon turned to library work and her true love, telling stories.

She squeals in a little girl's voice when telling "Lil' Red," an urbanized version of the famous story, this time with a building superintendent as hero. And she drops her voice to a dull monotone to portray the story villain "Johnny Wolf."

"It has to do with knowing what your talents are," Keeling said. "I can sing OK, but my real talents are with the children."

Alexis Gray agrees. Gray helps run an after-school program in West Baltimore and tries to get her children before Keeling at least once a month. She visited the library the other day to make an appointment.

"We try to stress academics and reading and she makes the library a fun place," Gray said.

Keeling inquires if the class is discussing any particular issue. Gray mentions gardening and the librarian lights up.

"I'll show some of our gardening books," Keeling said. "I'll have them out on display."

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