Monday, January 6, 2014

An Author a Day: Coleen Salley

January 6

I first met Coleen Salley (August 7, 1929-September 16, 2008) during an American Library Association convention held in New Orleans.
I was invited to a small luncheon, held in a wine room of a prestigious restaurant -- don't ask me which one as I don't know.  But the dinner was lots of fun and several authors were in attendance - well as many as possible with a guest list of only 12 which had to include some of us librarians.  Coleen was a master storyteller and held reign at the University of New Orleans for over 30 years.  She WAS an institution.  She was a guest lecturer at numerous colleges along the way, spoke at many conferences and in general was heralded as a children's literature.
She was known for "selling" children's books to audiences of all types.  But one thing she said at that luncheon, in response to a question regarding what books she was recommending during the current book season.  She said, loosely quoted, "I never booktalk a book by Tomie dePaola, he doesn't need me.  I spend my time on those new upcoming authors and illustrators who need me.  The Eric Carles, Steven Kelloggs, they don't need me but there are plenty that do."
 I've never forgotten that sentiment -- what a wise woman.  It is a little like a teacher reading aloud ALL the books by Lemony Snicket during a school year.  No, if the book is good enough -- read one and then the children don't need to be introduced to another one.  Move on to a book that needs you.

I did not meet Coleen again until several years later when the conference was again in New Orleans and my publisher was holding a rather large party -- and it was to be in Coleen's townhouse right in the French Quarter, on Chartres Street.  The get-together was shortly after the publication of Anne Miranda's To Market, To Market (1998).  The picture here is of Coleen, at that party, with her hat (constructed just for her) for the book.  The illustrations in Miranda's book were created by Janet Stevens and used Coleen as the model for the woman who visited the market.  Later I found out that Coleen had been the inspiration for illustrations of Old Befana in Tomie dePaola's The Legend of Old Befana (1980).

Coleen's house was filled with touches of authors that she had met and befriended.  There were autographs and comments on a door way, signed illustrations, little touches everywhere one looked.  The house was a wonder - and Coleen Salley was full of energy and enthusiasm for all sharing new stories that she loved.  And she read a bit of To Market, To Market.  Rosemary Wells was there that night along with other notables.

By 2002 (when Coleen was 72) her first children's book was published and four more were written before her death in 2008:  Epossumondus; Epossumondas Saves the Day; Why Epossumondas Has No Hair on His Tail Who's That Tripping over My Bridge, and Epossumondas Plays Possum.  Her final book, Epossumondas Plays Possum was published in 2009, a year after her death in 2008.  Janet Stevens wrote the dedication for that book, it reads: "For my dear friend Coleen. I miss you."  That same year Eric Kimmel dedicated his 2009 book, Even Higher to Coleen's memory with these words, "In memory of our dear friend Coleen Salley. Life is well worth living." Her long-time friend Terrace Young published an article in Booklinks in, 2010 about Coleen Salley and her tales about the little possum she called Epossumondus -- and who is the main character in Coleen's versions of the five noodlehead tales that she tells.  Down load that article at


Sharron L. McElmeel Papers, University of Iowa's Special Collections, Iowa City, Iowa.
for author visits

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