Her Facebook page identifies her as “The Story Lady: Live. Laugh. Tell.” Vivian Rutherford may have retired from the Waco-McLennan County Library, but she will forever be Miss Vivian, The Story Lady. She lives big, she laughs loud, and she loves to tell stories. No one is immune from her power — she’s even told stories from gravesites. She owns a T-shirt that reads “Vintage Librarian (noun): Knows more than she says and says more than you realize.”
Rutherford joined the library’s youth services department in July 2000 and made it her own. She served biscuits, she displayed her teapot collection, she got unsure readers to read aloud to Angel Paws dogs. To a lot of kids and parents and grandparents, Miss Vivian is the Waco library. And she’s passionate about making sure every child leaves with a book of their choice.
“It’s a natural thing. We breathe, we eat, we read,” she said.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Rutherford by phone to learn when parents should begin reading to children, how to build a literary foundation, and why it’s OK for a kid to check out a joke book.
WACOAN: I saw WCCC-TV footage of your drive-by retirement party.
Rutherford: Here I was the one that was like, ‘If I get one car I’ll be happy. Who would even want to come?’ It was car after car after car. I got phone calls from those who were out of town or couldn’t get away but still responded. What a tug in my heart!
If nothing else happens in my life, that is it. It means that they purposely got in their car, purposely determined this is something they wanted to be a part of. That speaks more volumes than anything. If nothing else, they passed by and waved.
WACOAN: What was your relationship with reading as a child?
Rutherford: Momma read nursery rhymes, Bible stories and fairy tales to me as early as I can remember. I still have some of those original books. As I reached kindergarten age, she enrolled me in the Dr. Seuss Beginner Book Club. I would receive a bundle of books every six weeks or so, and we read those together. I still have some of those too.
As a teen, I purchased my own books and comics, Mad Libs and ‘Archie,’ with my allowance.
WACOAN: Is it true that your first job was in a library? Back in elementary school?
Rutherford: I was volunteering. I started in elementary school. I’d go in, and she’d have me straighten the books, keep things in order. Kids would come in, and I’d show them areas of interest. I thought that was cool. I felt really big, telling them, ‘Here are some good books. Here are some new books.’ I’d be there watching [the librarian], having that one-on-one time with her.
In junior high I got those electives options, and I chose to work in the library. They gave me a little more responsibility — repairing books, preparing books for the shelves, shelving books. Through high school, same thing. I chose to continue [volunteering in the library]. At that point I knew I wanted to be a librarian.
When I was still in junior high I got to do a story time at the public library. I guess they realized, ‘She’s not going anywhere. She’s gonna stick around. Let’s go ahead and put her to work.’ They gave me a little area, and I’d read books to the kids. That was my baptism by fire: ‘Hey, I like this!’
WACOAN: This was in Houston?
Rutherford: Yes. It helped solidify my love for reading as well. I got more out of it than they did. When you’re giving to others, you’re the one getting back more. It boomeranged me into the profession that I’m in. It was a natural progression.
WACOAN: Tell me about the education required to become a librarian.
Rutherford: For the first part, I got my bachelor’s in history and speech at [University of North Texas]. For the second part, I got a master’s in library science and in reading, a double master’s. Most people go in [to library science] as education [undergraduates] and transition into the library science field.
WACOAN: You were with the library for 20 years. What was the children’s program like when you got there and how did it grow during your tenure?
Rutherford: When I got there Linda Bogusch was the manager. She’d been there a number of years. She was the only one because the other two librarians had transitioned on. Basically, they said [to me], ‘This is your baby now.’
They had story time for the most part on a weekly basis. Stacy Phillips and I started on the same day. When we got there, we decided to branch off into younger ages. We listened to the parents, who said, ‘We need something for the tiny ones.’ At that point we shaped it, and it became Baby Time, Toddler Time and Story Time. We geared it toward those particular age groups.
It was a good thing we did because when you specify a particular age, you can target where that child is. Newborns — they have specific needs. Toddlers, they need to move around. Pre-K, they’re able to sit but they need a little bit more sophistication. Toddlers, it’s above their head if you try to go there.
Then we’ve got those school-agers. We can’t let them fall through the cracks, so we beefed up that program. Then we started bringing in after-schoolers and weekend programs. We got a following. I can’t even think about how it was before. Parents are now used to that kind of a format. Now we’ve added electronics because that’s what the kids are doing.
WACOAN: Were you always based at the central branch?
Rutherford: Home base has always been Central.
WACOAN: You’ve worked with different age groups, each with challenges and rewards. Did you have a favorite?
Rutherford: Don’t even do that! They all are. You’re my favorite, and you’re my favorite, and you’re my favorite.
I needed that for my own personality. If I’d just stayed with one group, I would’ve gone completely nuts. You have so much you want to share — this would be good for this age group, or let me pull this for that one. I have to stay stimulated. Every child is amazing at whatever level they’re at.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about the babies. What are the benefits of reading to an infant who is not yet verbal?
Rutherford: I started Baby Time, and Stacy branched it off. She could tell you more about it.
But with babies, my recommendation is start in utero. Don’t wait till they’re born. They’re hearing your voice, they’re reacting. As soon as they’re born, watch how they react to being read to.
I like big, large picture books with black-and-white [illustrations] for newborns. Their eyes are still focusing, and that’s easier for them to focus on. They can enjoy that snuggle time, body to body. And singing is all part of the [baby] story time. That’s language. You’re already putting that in them, the rhythm of the language. They’re hearing expressions when you’re reading. You’re opening them up and putting the knowledge of appreciation of language in them. It’s the foundation.
By the time they’re older, 1 year old, even 6 months, they’re reaching for the book. They’re familiar with books, they’re comfortable with them. They want to put it in their mouths because that’s pleasure. I recommend getting books that they can chew on. They even make books for the bath. Don’t be saying, ‘No, no.’ They have books that are indestructible that they can manipulate and crawl around with.
Then take them to the library. That’s part of the habit. You’re modeling it.
By the time they’re reading, it’s like they picked it up by themselves. They recognize the words, especially as you read. Show them with your finger so they can read along — that little scribble is words.
I tell kids, we have different languages: a spoken language and what I call the essay language. The essay language is what you use in school. They’ll find that essay language in books. That’s where their vocabulary gets built. When the teacher asks for an essay, you can’t start with, ‘Hey, y’all.’ You can tell when kids have read because the inferences come out. [Adults] will be like, ‘I didn’t know he knew that word!’ It’s from the reading.
A lot of parents say, ‘I don’t know how to get them to read,’ or, ‘How do I get them to learn comprehension?’ The magic word: Read. A lot of the problems can be solved by reading.
We do this when they’re babies, when they’re toddlers, when they’re pre-K, and then we stop when they get to be elementary age. No! We need to continue to read aloud all through their whole lives, even through high school. Yes, read aloud, even when they’re in high school. Who doesn’t enjoy a good story? Even as adults we enjoy telling stories.
WACOAN: And reading to older kids, you can discuss things you can’t when they’re little.
Rutherford: It’s a good time to have wonderful family discussions by reading a book.
My mom was the one who instilled reading into me. She made sure I had encyclopedias and dictionaries at my fingertips to answer and back up any of my reference questions. This is before Google.
I’d ask my mom a question, and she’d say, ‘Go get a book. Go read about it.’ Then she’d ask, ‘What’s your opinion on that? What do you think?’ I was able to discuss my ideas, and she had her ideas. You learn how to stand up for yourself and speak your opinion in a positive, intelligent way. If you don’t have the confidence that comes from a book, you don’t come across as well.
WACOAN: There are parents who don’t understand why kids need the library when they have the internet. What do you want to say to them?
Rutherford: The ones in the library, they’re the ones who are already sold.
My only thing is when some of them are walking out of the library with five DVDs in their hands. I ask the kids, ‘Did you find a good book?’ They’ll say no. I say, ‘Did you look?’ Then the parent says, ‘Well, you know, they just don’t like to read.’ I say, ‘Let’s look at these, maybe just to hold.’
Sometimes the parents will think they’re too young, or they will think it’s the teacher’s job. If they’ll let me, I’ll walk them over to the board books, and the child will find one. And the parents are like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think she’d like that.’ If they get one book, they’ll come back again and get another.
I never try to push it on the parents because they may not be aware. This wasn’t their upbringing. If you’re not raised this way, it’s not a norm. You got clothing, shelter and a way to keep you dry, but reading is sometimes not at the top of the list. It’s never too late. If I can catch them and can get them to walk out of the library with a book, that’s a generation right there!
WACOAN: Earlier you said everyone loves a good story. How can we incorporate storytelling in our lives?
Rutherford: When your kids ask for a bedtime story, tell them a story about your life, you, the parent. Tell them your story. Start there. They need to hear their family story. We have this impression of who we are, and it comes from our stories, our family stories.
I remember my mom and dad gave me two dolls, and they called them Tom and Willie Bell. They’d tell me stories with these dolls, and it wasn’t until I got to be in elementary school that it clicked that Tom was my dad’s name and Willie Bell was my mom. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. These stories are about my parents!’ They were Mom and Dad, but not Tom and Willie Bell.
Start with family stories, and if they want to tell other stories, do that too.
In the old days people would sit on the porch and tell stories of just what happened that day. These stories build us up in our character and our morals. It’s how kids learn. The Aesop stories, you learn how to be good. We don’t have that opportunity now in our society, when we’re so busy. We don’t have the front porch anymore. But now with COVID, we’re sitting at our kitchen tables — what a wonderful place to tell stories.
WACOAN: You go all out for your story times. What are some of your favorite costumes or props?
Rutherford: That’s part of my personality. I have to see it, hear it and feel it, tactile. That’s how I put it out there. If we’re talking about apples, I’ll have something on that’s apple-related. I’ll have apple props. I see things and I collect them — every topic there is, there’s something for it. Seriously! Especially the holidays and the seasonals. I love them all. The whole nine yards.
The stories get built in. Then the crafts get built in. It’s a party every week. The kids come in every week, and they call it their class. I run it like a class.
I like to do things that are based on all five senses. Each kid learns differently. If we could do a tasting, that just solidifies in their mind that particular topic. Some aspect of that is gonna come out later. They’re gonna remember something.
I have one adult who came back and said, ‘I remember the biscuits.’ If that’s what it took to get him excited about cowboy days, then it was well done. Mission accomplished.
Our tea parties were amazing. We did it for years and years. I collect teapots. It started off as a one-time thing. We wanted to thank parents and day cares (because day cares would bring kids too). It was our way of thanking them during the Mother’s Day program. It was set up as a display of the teapots, and we had a little tea party. We’d have food we’d present. We made the room look totally different, very elegant. They’d walk in and go, ‘Oooh!’ and sit down.
The plan was to do it one time, and the parents are like, ‘Are we gonna do this again?’ It became a ritual every year. The kids would practice table manners. It was a well-planned-out program. It gave parents a chance to socialize. I’d tell them, ‘Go do tea parties with your family. Daddies, go have a picnic tea party.’
Incorporate literacy in any form and fashion.
WACOAN: That would include Angel Paws Reading Buddies?
Rutherford: Yes, yes, yes, yes!
I have a dog, Katy. She just passed on the 21st of July. Around 2007 I’d met Tracy Dulock. Her dog, Ranger, was an Angel Paws dog that’s trained to go out and be around kids, day cares, hospitals, nursing homes. I got Katy that training. I went out to day cares with her.
Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if kids could read to a dog? We should do that at the library. Bring a dog in and let the kids read to him.’ It’s become a [popular] thing, but we were one of the first.
Kids come in, they make an appointment. We’d have seven to eight dogs, and the kids would bring a book or choose a book and read to the dog. The whole family would sit together and for 10 or 15 minutes, they’d read their story. We did an evening session and a morning session, so it went on for about six weeks, to get them all in.
The dogs are just listening, they’re not judging. All the kids enjoyed reading to them. Kids who were autistic. Infants would crawl on the biggest dog there was. Some kids came in crying because they were afraid of dogs, but it was magic — before they left they were hugging on the dogs. I heard testimony after testimony from parents that reading to a dog helped their child learn to read. It’s just another strategy to get them to appreciate reading, another tool in the tool belt. They’d go home and read to their dog, their cat, their goldfish.
My hat’s off to Angel Paws. I look forward to getting another rescue pet and training her.
WACOAN: Tell me about the Heart of Texas Storytelling Guild, which you founded.
Rutherford: As a storyteller, that’s part of my nature when I do my programs. I happened to have gone to where the Tejas Storytelling Association [Festival] was held. It’s geared for aspiring storytellers, people who love to hear stories and even librarians who want to become better readers and storytellers. I thought, ‘I need to go check that out.’
There were groups of people called clusters who had founded a club, a guild, of people who enjoy telling stories within different regions of Texas, Oklahoma and beyond. There was one in Mexia, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we have one in Waco?’ Terri Jo Ryan, we’d gone together. She said, ‘Why don’t you start it?’ You open your mouth and there you go! But we did, we started it. Terri Jo was one of our original members. Some have passed on, some are still with us. It’s been going from 2007 on.
The guild is open to people who want to connect and share their stories. Sometimes you just need to talk and not be judged, have someone hear you. Sometimes you need to share stories you’re working on or just be around people and hear stories. It meets once a month at Good Neighbor House on fourth Saturdays, when we can again.
WACOAN: And Oakwood Walking Tales came out of the guild?
Rutherford: Oakwood Cemetery’s Walking Tales. We’re bringing historic stories to life. We’re standing on the site of the individual’s grave and telling their story, either in first person or third person. It’s family friendly, so there’s nothing morbid. But they’re learning about Texas history, history in general, about some sign of the times at that point in history. So many people [buried] out there were founders of Waco or contributors to its history. I would love to see history teachers make it extra credit. It’s that good of a program.
I look forward to putting that on this year, October 17. We think because it’s outdoors, it’s spread out, we ought to be able to socially distance.
WACOAN: What are your retirement plans?
Rutherford: I hope to continue growing the guild. I’m looking for more opportunities to continue sharing stories.
I’m not out of kid game. I’m out there, ready to present. I’m ready for teachers to call. I can do workshops.
I still have my church, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Downsville. I am a musician — there’s an organist, and I’m on piano. We’ve got several choirs, specialty choirs.
My family, we’re always doing things, and I’ve got a grandbaby coming, so I’ll be burning rubber on the road to hang out with them. She’s having the baby in September.
WACOAN: What does it mean to be part of a student’s ‘literary character’ or ‘literary foundation,’ both phrases I’ve heard you use?
Rutherford: At this point I’m getting kids coming back to me that were little or teens when we started, and they’re bringing their kids or coming as young adults, telling me, ‘Because I learned so much, I want my child to experience that,’ or, ‘We’re doing those things you taught us.’ That is the most satisfying feeling in the world to hear a child say, ‘Because of you I love to read.’
Or the parents will come back and say, ‘My kid is starting to read.’ Good job, you! Let me give you a sticker!
One father told me their little one went to kindergarten and told the teacher that they already knew a color because ‘we had to sing about it at story time.’ That’s a great transition into school. And isn’t that the whole point? That bridge and connection at each level.
WACOAN: Is there anything else you’d like to say to parents?
Rutherford: I always tried to make sure that when parents come into the library and I hear them saying, ‘I want you to get a good book or a big book,’ and the kids are saying, ‘I want to get a graphic novel,’ or ‘I want to get a picture book’ and they’re older, let ’em do it. They’re saying, ‘I want to read.’
They’re being told what to read all year long, and they’re classics, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ve got to have a choice. As long as it’s nothing that will hurt them. I want [parents] to be flexible with the kids and let them enjoy books.
Maybe it’s an old friend, like a picture book that you just want to read again: ‘Pete the Cat,’ ‘Amelia Bedelia,’ ‘Magic School Bus.’ Allow them to have that freedom to choose one they really, really want to read. If they say, ‘I just want a joke book,’ then if you say no, then they say, ‘I don’t want to to read anything then,’ and it turns reading into a negative. Kids love to hear jokes. Jokes are stories.
That’s my soapbox. I see it so much. The parents, they think they’re doing a good thing: Go get ‘War and Peace.’ No, get a comic!