There was a lot on the agenda for Vanessa Little’s story time.
She taught kids about Father’s Day, Pride Month, Juneteenth and black music, because June also marks African-American Music Appreciation Month.
It’s all important — too important not to talk about — to Little, who hosts the monthly storytelling series she calls Lil’ Miss Story Hour. It’s usually held at Hooked on Books but has moved to Zoom because of the COVID-19 crisis.
“My goal is to expose kids to literature that they’re most likely not going to see in school or at home,” she said. “I want to bring that diversity to kids, so they can see themselves in the books.”
For this story hour, among other books, she chose “I Am Perfectly Designed,” written by “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown and his son, Jason.
Little does a little bit of everything. She calls herself a “literacy-themed entertainer.” She plays and teaches the piano and writes songs and poems.
Teaching, in some form, has been one of her longest gigs. For more than 20 years, she’s been Miss Vanessa.
After getting her teaching degree, she decided to move away from home in Colorado to put it to use.
“I wanted to give back and teach in repressed, low-income communities,” she said. “I was in my 20s and I was ready to go somewhere new.”
So she moved to Washington, D.C.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Little said.
She stayed for 11 years. While she was in D.C., she taught elementary school and later college math at George Washington University and American University.
She also got a part-time job at Barnes and Noble, where she led story hours.
Parents came up to her, asking, “Miss Vanessa, my kid has a birthday next month. Will you read something at it?’”
Little thought, “Maybe this is a thing.”
Things were going well there. Then she got sick.
In 2015, she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a disease that requires your heart to work harder to pump the blood to your lungs.
She suddenly found it hard to walk up stairs. Her stamina was shot. Teaching full days was nearly impossible.
She moved back to Colorado to be closer to home and for the drier air, which helps with her symptoms.
With traditional teaching off the table, Little began looking for other ways to make money.
Along the way, she found something else: Inspiration. She started going to events put on 719 Poetry, a group that “fosters and supports the freedom of self-expression in spoken and written word through community connection,” according to its Facebook page.
“I got the idea to do something that’s like this for kids,” Little said. “Something that is a sense of community for parents and kids like this poetry community is for me.”
She brought back Lil’ Miss Story Hour.
For each story time, she packs in several book readings, music, hands-on activities and special guests like local poets and artists. She pulls titles based on Women’s History Month or Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. She reads “Firebird” by Misty Copeland and “Little Melba and Her Big Trombone,” about the African American jazz musician Melba Doretta Liston. She asks question after question about the pages she reads. “What does it make you feel? What do you see? What are they trying to say?”
Her audience ranges from infants to 8-year-olds, so conversations aren’t always heavy hitting. But Little hopes to get kids thinking.
“I highlight a lot of books people haven’t heard of and authors that are Black or Indigenous,” she said. “I want to read stories about people overcoming something, so kids can see that they can do it, too.”
People tell Little she reminds them of a “modern day Mr. Rogers.”
“That’s high praise,” she said. “I remember loving Mr. Rogers as a child.”
Little doesn’t remember seeing or reading anything about Black girls like her, though.
“I didn’t see myself in books or on the radio,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to share that with kids now.”
Recently, her childhood has inspired her personal poetry and songwriting.
Her parents moved to Germany before she was born, in part to escape their hometown in Mississippi.
“My dad wanted to leave a lot of the pain he experienced from the South behind,” Little said. “I remember once he said that he wanted us to have a better life away from the blatant racism of the South.”
Growing up in Germany until the age of 9, Little wasn’t surrounded by many people of color.
All of the other families at church, for example, were white. She remembers putting a clothespin on her nose, hoping to make it pointier, “because my nose didn’t look like my friends.”
They moved to Falcon, outside of Colorado Springs, and lived on a farm. Little learned to snowboard. She listened to classical music and country western songs. At the same time, her mother passed on family stories and a love of singers like Nina Simon and Etta James.
“There are a lot of things I love that some people think are typically for white people,” Little said. “Sometimes I didn’t feel like I was being Black enough.”
She has learned to embrace everything she loves. And the person she is.
“I have a lot of experiences of feeling a little bit ‘other,’” she said. “I have had to blend these two worlds I come from.”
From her Colorado Springs home, she now runs three Instagram profiles. One is for her piano lessons and another is for Lil’ Miss Story Hour. The third is where Little shares her own stuff. She shares original poems, like one called “Enigma” that opens with a question: “When will my Black voice matter?” She shares a video of her playing the piano and singing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” In the caption, she writes about the singer Nina Simone. “She’s very dark skinned like me, trying to make a name for herself as one on the complete opposite end of the color spectrum from white. This song to me is struggle and hope personified.”
This song, Little also writes, brought her comfort when she was child.
She hopes her Lil’ Miss Story Hour brings that to kids.
Since her story hours have been virtual, she’s had kids from around the world join her online community.
That’s why even when she returns to in-person story times, she plans to continue it virtually too.
“I see the need for these kids to grow up with something like this,” she said.