SIMPLE, FOLKSY, live and something of an anachronism in these days of VCRs and MTV, storytelling still holds a basic appeal for kids. And during the coming month there's a little something for any kid with a bent for a yarn.
For tales taken largely from picture books, head for the library. You might try, for example, the weekend story time at the Mount Pleasant Library in Northwest Washington, where, in a second-floor children's room lined with books, kids and parents gather at 10:30 a.m. each Saturday.
Fidgety and shy at first, the kids -- ranging in age from under two to over five -- soon are absorbed in the stories. When librarian Kirk Perrow calls for them to contribute animal sounds, the room fills with a barnyard chorus.
Perrow also plays to the crowd with a filmstrip, but books remain the key. eading aloud from them, Perrow says, "pushes the fact that this magic is coming from a book."
Afterwards, Perrow invites kids and parents over to the picture book section. Before long, crooked piles of books build up on the floor, and children sit amid them, wallowing in pictures and print. "Book," says a pink-sweatered toddler, grinning.
A similar scene is enacted before story time at Noyes Children's Library in Kensington, where children head straight for a low shelf of "Spot the Dog" books.
Housed in a snug clapboard building, Noyes is reminiscent of a one-room schoolhouse. And it harbors a dedicated storyteller, Joan Nelson.
"I feel strongly that storytelling is the basis of everything we do," says Nelson, because it is a way of sharing literature.
The folk tales she draws on provide an easy "course in sociology," says Nelson. Whether the tale is from Czechoslovakia or Scotland, it will deal with age-old emotions and predicaments -- anger and kindness, rejection and love.
"It just gives a lot of wisdom to the children," Nelson says. "They're having these emotions for the first time. They need to know that other people have these feelings, too."
Like other librarians who tell stories to young children, Nelson is realistic. "Children are very visual," she says. Filmstrips, miniature stages and felt cut-outs of characters supplement the storytelling and satisfy kids' need for illustration.
Nelson is also realistic about the energy level of her audience. She gets them moving and participating with dances, songs and finger plays. So Noyes is as likely to be filled with small, dancing bodies as with upturned faces.
Relaxing after story time, Ches Garrison of Chevy Chase, nearly four, plays with the library's toy castle, which he frankly admits to liking better than the tales. "But I like the stories, too," he adds firmly.
Besides that, a trip to Noyes is fun in itself; the small scale is just right for children, and most kids enjoy visiting a library that is all their own.
Outside the library, there are several other opportunities in February to hear stories -- at the Museum of African Art, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater and the National Portrait Gallery.
Among the most intriguing are performances by Jon Spelman, the charismatic teller of "Family Features" -- now playing to packed houses on Saturdays at the National Portrait Gallery.
Some storytellers recount their tales verbatim; Spelman does not. "I used to have a guilt about changing things," he says. Now, "taking existing material and twisting it, changing it, thinning it out to make it better" is his style.
Every storyteller's goal is to breathe life into a tale. And there's no doubt that Spelman succeeds in his "Family Features." A gaggle of children cluster round, eyes wide. Spelman is telling a scary story; the beast is coming in search of its tail. It seems very real indeed, and the crowd is holding i breath.
Aaarrgghh! The creature grabs its tail; the crowd jumps, then laughs. It was fun to believe in the "tailypo" for a while, but it's also a relief to look around and realize that it was, after all, just a story.
And in this age so devoted to screen entertainment, it's also different. "It's simple and direct and person-to-person," Spelman says.
Spelman gets excited, too, about imagination. He believes something wonderful is happening when people are free to visualize for themselves the way a story looks.
That's only part of the wonder, though. The other part comes from sharing the spell. "When you sit and listen for a while, you drop some barriers," Spelman says. "You can notice it more with kids. Their mouths fall open; their faces go slack.
"That's an enormously pleasurable experience. To know you are doing it and others are doing it and it's safe. And you can laugh together." WHERE TO FIND THE STORIES
The coming month holds a lot of listening pleasure, from library story times to animal tales recounted at the National Zoo. Following are some story programs open to all during February. They are free unless otherwise noted. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
MOUNT PLEASANT LIBRARY -- 16th and Lamont streets NW; 727-1361. Story time for ages 3-5, every Saturday at 10:30. No registration necessary.
DIAL-A-STORY -- Call 638-5717, 24 hours a day, and you get a three-minute folk tale. It's changed once a week, on Monday morning. Provided by the D.C. Public Library system. MARYLAND
LONG BRANCH LIBRARY -- 8800 Garland Avenue, Silver Spring; 565-7410. Story time one Saturday a month through May -- with related activities such as crafts and songs -- for ages 3-5. Next program, February 8 at 11 a.m. No registration required. To get to Long Branch, go north on Flower Avenue from the intersection of Flower and Piney Branch. Take a right onto Arliss and then left onto Garland. The library is on the left.
NOYES CHILDREN'S LIBRARY -- Montgomery Avenue and Carroll Place, Kensington; 949-3780. Story time for ages 3-6 one Saturday a month through May. The next program, on February 22 at 10:30 a.m., is "Friends Are Not," in honor of Valentine's Day and Black History Month. Register well in advance to ensure a place. From Chevy Chase Circle, head north on Connecticut Avenue, and keep going beyond the Beltway entrances. Just after passing a "Welcome to Kensington" sign, fork right; then turn right onto Baltimore Street. At Carroll Place, turn left, stay on Carroll Place, and you will see Noyes in a few hundred yards.
SPECIAL NEEDS LIBRARY AT DAVIS BRANCH -- 6400 Democracy Boulevard, Bethesda; 493-2555 (TDD- equipped). Signed story time for ages 7-10, February 8 at 11 a.m.: "Anansi, the Spider" (told and interpreted for hearing-impaired children) and "The Blue Dashiki," a captioned film. Pre-register. The Special Needs Library, which serves the learning disabled and handicapped, has its own entrance on the lower level of Davis. From its intersection with Old Georgetown Road, go one long block on Democracy Boulevard. Take a left onto Bells Mill Road; the library is on the left.
TWINBROOK LIBRARY -- Meadowhall Drive, Rockville; 279-1980. Story time one Saturday a month through May for ages 3-6. Next program is February 22 at 1:30 p.m.: "Stories About Foxes," plus a penny theater production of "The Neighbors." (Penny theater is a play enacted by tiny, puppet-like figures on a miniature stage.) Pre-register. The library is in the Twinbrook Shopping Center at the intersection of Viers Mill Road and Twinbrook Drive. VIRGINIA
ARLINGTON CENTRAL LIBRARY -- 1015 North Quincy Street, Arlington; 284-8217. Every Saturday at 10 a.m., picture books for children 3-6. No registration required. This Saturday, "My Favorite Clothes"; February 8, "All the Colors of the Rainbow"; February 15, "Happy Valentine's Day"; February 22, "Munch, Munch, Munch." The library is between Fairfax Drive and Washington Boulevard.
THOMAS JEFFERSON LIBRARY -- 7415 Arlington Boulevard, Falls Church; 573-1060. Stories, games and crafts for children 3-5 at 11 a.m. on February 8 and February 15. The February 8 story time has a Valentine's Day theme; children may bring a teddy bear to the February 15 story time, "Happy Birthday, Teddy Bear." Pre-register. The library is on U.S. 50, inside the Beltway. KING'S PARK LIBRARY -- 9000 Burke Lake Road, Burke; 978-5600. "Films for Fledglings," story and film series for ages 3-5, every Saturday in February at 10:30 a.m. Children attend all four parts of the series, either with or without parents. Call to sign up for the series. From the Beltway, go west on Braddock Road for about three miles; then left on Burke Lake Road. The library is in the second block on the right.
SHERWOOD REGIONAL LIBRARY -- 2501 Sherwood Hall Lane, Alexandria; 765-3645. Feby 15, 11 a.m., "Songs and Tales from Afro-America": stories, chants, songs and rhythms for the whole family by poet and folklorist Alice McGill. Free tickets available two weeks in advance. Sherwood Hall Lane is between Fort Hunt Road and U.S. 1; the library is across the street from Mount Vernon Hospital. OTHER FEBRUARY EVENTS
AFRICAN FOLKTALES -- For children of all ages, at the Museum of African Art, 318 A Street NE, 287-3490. Storytellers mingle folktales with fables, myths, riddles, proverbs and legends, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., on the first and third Saturday of February. No reservations required, but it's a good idea to call first. This Saturday, from 2 to 4, there's also a special children's preview of the new Tabwa art exhibit that includes a search for art objects, puzzles and refreshments.
ANIMALS IN STORY AND ART -- At the National Zoo, February 16, at 1:40 and 2:55 p.m. Storyteller Sharon Butler will tell animal tales from other lands, including "Mumbele and the Goats," from Africa; and "Aniello," an Italian tale. No pre-registration is necessary for the storytelling, but call 673-4717 for more information or to register for mask-making, another activity on the program.
FAMILY FEATURES: STORIES FOR EVERYBODY -- At the National Portrait Gallery, F Street at Eighth NW; tales by Jon Spelman. This Saturday and February 8 at 1:30. Registration is necessary; call 357-2729. The program is popular, so make reservations as much in advance as possible. If the date is booked, you can come on a standby basis and have a fair chance of getting in.
Also, for ages 12 and up, Spelman leads "Personalia: Portraits in Memory," this Sunday and February 9 at 1:30. The audience is invited to participate by bringing in family memorabilia that triggers stories.
SONGS & TALES OF AFRO-AMERICAN FOLK CULTURE -- At the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater, in the Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW. Alice McGill will tell tales for pre-school through third grade, this Saturday and February 8, 15 and 22, at 1 and 3 p.m. Adults $3; children under 12, $2.50. Reservations are required; call 357-1500.
TALES OF PEACE -- At All Souls Church, 16th and Harvard streets NW. Saturday at 3, hear folktales, legends and international tales of peace from storyteller Floating Eagle Feather. Call 536-6380.