She never complained about being a snake's lunch. When Coleen Salley performed children's stories, she liked to open up with Shel Silverstein's poem "Boa Constrictor," in which the narrator is eaten alive. Sitting in a chair, with her hands wrapped around her throat and in her distinct, raspy Louisiana drawl, Salley related the serpent's progress:
It's up to my neck.
Crowds, from 3 years old to 90, would gasp and then roar their approval.
Coleen Salley, a storyteller, children's author, beloved local character and longtime children's literature professor at the University of New Orleans, died Sept. 16 at the St. James Nursing Care center in Baton Rouge. She was 79.
Coleen Cole was born in Ruston, La. After graduating from Louisiana State University in the early 1950s, she moved to Stuttgart, Germany, where she met her future husband, Dr. George Salley. The couple had three children before he died in a car accident in 1960. Salley returned to Baton Rouge and earned a master's degree in library science from LSU in 1962. She moved her family to New Orleans in 1964, when she became a professor of children's literature at the UNO.
For 30 years, Salley taught at UNO and preached the gospel of children's literature and literacy. Her classes were always packed, and Salley took it upon herself to instill in her students teachers and librarians a love for the power of story to transform children into lifelong readers. In 1975, a former student who was teaching kindergarten asked Salley to read to her class. With a sack of books in hand, Salley gave the first of thousands of storytelling performances.
As her fame spread, visiting authors made it a point to visit Salley in her French Quarter home. She became the inspiration for the title character in renowned children's writer Tommie de Paola's The Legend of Old Befana. In 1997, illustrator Janet Stevens immortalized Salley in To Market, To Market.
In 1974, Salley's friends crowned her queen of the Krewe of Coleen, a walking parade that pushed her through the city streets in a grocery cart. The Krewe du Vieux named her queen in 2004 with the theme "Quest for Immorality."
After retiring from UNO, Salley traveled the world as a storyteller and guest lecturer, and at the age of 73 wrote her own children's book, Who's That Tripping Over My Bridge?, a retelling of the classic "Three Billy Goats Gruff" set in West Feliciana Parish. She would go on to write three more books as well as establishing the Coleen Salley & Bill Morris Literacy Foundation. Her estate is contributing more than 10,000 children's books to the De Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Salley is survived by her three children George, David and Genevieve and seven grandchildren. A jazz funeral will be held in her honor at St. Jude's Shrine, 411 N. Rampart St., on Saturday, Sept. 27, at 10:30 a.m. Fittingly, an urn containing Salley's cremated remains will be placed in a grocery cart, which will lead the procession.