It’s no secret that I think award-winning Nili Yelin is the coolest person around. She's combined her professional theatre career with mommyhood to create The Storybook MomTM.
Using an interactive, educational and highly amusing style, Ms. Yelin likes to call her story-telling, “Sit Down Stand-up.” Founded on the high-minded principle that children like to see a grown-up act silly, Yelin entertains a hard-core audience of two-years olds—and their fatigued moms and dads. She delivers a full performance of the written word, even though the words are few, rhyming, and surrounded by pictures.
Along with her many weekly storytimes, Yelin regularly hosts the annual Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest Children's Stage. She story-tells for the Field Museum and their podcasts for children in association with The Crown Family Play Lab, The Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, and various venues around Chicago and the suburbs. Yelin has expressed the lofty goal of having “every kid in Chicago know their ABC’s backwards before they enter pre-school.”
Ms. Yelin’s outreach includes after-school programs with the Chicago Mayor's office, homeless shelters and domestic violence centers; The Center for Companies That Care on their corporate literacy initiative, Terrific Tales, performing in schools and libraries on Chicago’s South Side; Bernie's Book Bank, a not-for-profit organization that collects and distributes books to low income schools; and Creatively Caring and Sunrise Homes, storytelling for children with autism and special needs and older people with dementia.
Yelin has appeared on WGN TV News and in numerous magazines, newspapers, websites and blogs. Awarded "Best Storyteller" by Make It Better Magazine and Time Out Chicago Magazine, Yelin is currently working with Storyola (tm) on a storybook app. She is also writing her debut book on techniques of storytelling.
I'm so delighted to host her!
How did you get involved with storytelling for kids?
In 2000 there was an actor’s strike and I was unemployed for 6 months, I saw a sign in a baby store looking for an Opening Day Storyteller so I called and was hired! I had read in my children’s preschools so I just brought a bunch of books and my kids and went for it! The store owner asked me to do it weekly, people saw me, and word of mouth spread thanks to the Mommy Network and it just blew up into a full time thing! I found my passion combining my love of books and kids and with my schedule of carpooling it worked right into my schedule. I had taken my kids to STORYTIMES and was usually bored and thought that kids should be exposed to real performances of words and as a trained actress and stand up comedian I just meshed it all together to create my own”sit down, stand up” style of storytelling. The hours are much better than when I was doing standup too. I used to joke that I wish I could sit down and do comedy in the daytime and lo and behold that is what I ended up doing! Also taking care of a little being is hard all day long so I wanted caregivers to be able to laugh and drink some coffee together too,
How is storytelling for kids different than for adults in the less obvious ways—and tell us about the “giggle level” AND about the photo on your website of a baby dressed as Raggedy Ann with a red nose?
Performing for babies takes being so present in the moment and using focus and energy to keep their attention. They are he most honest audiences in existence, and you feel when they are engaged and believe in you and the feedback is immediate. I truly get in the zone and feel more alive and free when I interact with babies and toddlers and they respond to my total openness and lack of self consciousness,. The sillier and more spontaneous I am the more we connect, I really believe I am a 4 year old, for some reason that is my golden zone. I learned English when I was four, having come to NYC from Israel and I believe my relationship to words and my love of words, and books really solidified at that age.
I used to write some of the Wishbone Books, based on the PBS series about a little dog who wisecracked his way through classic literature, and I remember how much I used to love to go to bookstores to talk to kids. The energy is so different than standing in front of adults! You get such an appreciative audience. So my question is now about to segue into babies. How do you engage a group of babies with storytelling?! How are you able to get them to interact with you?
My core fan base is 2-5 years old and babies are a whole different ballgame. I first did a fully baby aged STORYTIME at Monica + Andy 5 years ago and I remember it took all my 30 plus years of training and experience to keep them engaged. At that young age babies cannot sit still and listen to stories but they parallel play so it’s all about using tone, rhythm, energy and lots of physicality. I remember being drained after the first 45 minute STORYTIME with all babies because I had to use my body a s voice more actively but it is also exhilarating and establishing a connection with love and books at that young age is powerful. I put out board books for them to hold, and they eat them up, literally. I love that babies are so physically curious about books and I encourage tactile interaction. I spend a lot of money replacing board books but it’s worth it.
You also tell stories at Monica & Andy, which has some of the most adorable kids clothing I’ve seen. Want to talk about that?
I learned about this incredible baby and toddler organic clothing brand when I read an article in Forbes or Crain’s about this new brand opening in Chicago in 2014 and that the founder, Monica Royer wanted to create an experiential retail experience with classes and events, including STORYTIME. I was the biggest storyteller in Chicago, (and there weren’t many to begin with), and I was thinking, “Who is going to be their storyteller.? I met with Monica and she said let’s try one and see and as soon as I did the one she asked me to come back every week.
She was one of 12 weekly clients and I was doing festivals and parties every weekend and after 18 years of that I was thinking it would be great to do this all the time but would love to do it in one place with a salary and benefits.
Monica and I became friends and started meeting for coffee and she saw something in me that she wanted to help nurture, to help me grow as a business and as a brand and then all of a sudden the manager position in the new New York City location opened up and my gut told me to seek the position of returning to my old Upper West neighborhood where I had lived in the eighties and nineties and as long as I could still do STORYTIME as part of the job I was in!! It was a huge risk and life change but I knew I had to go for it. I felt so torn to leave the community and work I had built in Chicago but I felt with my own kids grown up I wanted to go back to my hometown and explore my roots. When I first moved to America we lived with my grandparents on the Lower East Side and it has also inspired me to write a children’s book about that area and my grandparents.
I got a rush when I saw you read No, David by David Shannon, and Click Clack Moo, which I used to read to my son when he was little and I still remember the drawings and the story. I believe stories imprint on us, don’t you? And do you think that is part of why it’s so important for kids to hear stories? And, what’s yoru favorite storytelling book now?
Yes, this is everything! Books from our childhood and the books from our children’s childhood are treasure boxes of memories and who we were when we read these....my Dad was a voracious reader and just seeing him in the act of reading colored my entire world. Books are friends, you can take them with you, they open up the world and make you feel less alone. I love the moment when you read something and are blown away that the author put in words a feeling you had and identified it deeply.
My current faves are always all books by the late and great Amy Krouse Rosenthal, my mentor and muse. Also Mo Willems, Matthew Cordell and the Pete The Cat series.
I love quirky, funny, and dramatic emotions which also center on huge life lessons. Since kids are always falling down and over during STORYTIME I get to I,port the biggest life lesson which is When you fall down you just get back up....
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am writing my first picture books, I consider myself an adapter and dramatist of picture books and have read thousands for decades so I believe what I write has to be worthy of the best that I have encountered and the precision of the words and story has to be spot on,...having done voice over work and been directed on individual performance of words is a great example of the detail and specificity a picture book demands, and I have been working in various ideas for years. I get sick of a lot of them and get stuck and put them away but I currently have been working on a book that I feel great about, and have the feeling I get when I read my favorites aloud so persistence and perseverance may pay off yet. I have a childlike optimism, idealism and hope that despite numerous obstacles, rejections and disappointments is still going strong.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I love the questions you asked, and the only through line to all this that I missed is my love for Emily Dickinson, the poet. The Belle of Amherst, the one woman show about her was my senior acting project at Northwestern University and as I performed the show certain lines impacted me for life....my mission statement is “A word is dead when it is said, some say, I say it just begins to live that day.
I met Julie Harris, the actress who played Emily in this show to much acclaim and one of the actors who I long admired and one of the reasons I became an actress at the time I was working on this show and also named my daughter for Emily Dickinson.
Last year I got my first tattoo of an open book with my children’s initials in Emily Dickinson’s handwriting.
My next may be a mermaid,