The 15 or so children sitting on the stairs in the small amphitheater at the Boise Public Library’s main branch can’t help but stare intently. The show is about to begin.
Azam Houle, 62, sits at the front of the semicircle. She’s looking at children ranging from toddlers to kindergartners, and their parents are here as well.
Houle has worked at the Boise library for 20 years and has performed “storytime” nearly as long. The beloved storyteller has garnered quite the following over the years; parents bring their children specifically to her readings. She has rightfully earned the reputation as a performer rather than a run-of-the-mill storyteller.
After two decades of spending her days making youngsters laugh, Houle retired Thursday. Her ability to weave stories, music and dance into a 30-minute time slot spread her popularity throughout the city. Her warm, genuine personality has kept parents and children coming back for years.
Vakula Ellendula has taken her two daughters to Houle’s readings nearly every Saturday for two years. Ellendula said her children get angry if they can’t go or if they are running late. She enjoys it, too.
“My kids love her,” Ellendula said.
Leslie DaMour has taken her children to Houle’s storytimes off-and-on for years. She was at Thursday’s class with her youngest, taking in Houle’s magic one last time.
“She really loves the kids. I’m going to miss her,” DaMour said. “I haven’t found another one this good.”
As much as children have enjoyed watching her imitate voices, read stories and dance over the years, no one has had more fun than Houle.
“This is what gives me energy. This is what inspires me,” she said with a bright smile. “That’s what has made my life worthwhile. That’s where I feel like I’ve made a difference.”
Charting her own course
Houle has always been interested in children’s stories, dating back to her childhood in Iran. Though she comes from a medical family, Houle was always drawn to literature and, specifically, literature geared toward children. She vividly remembers being a teenager and opting to sit with her younger cousins and read.
Houle spent a year studying puppetry in Iran before moving to the United States at 19 to pursue a medical career at the University of Massachusetts. That didn’t last long, however.
“I started my pre-med program, but then I became fascinated with everything else,” Houle said. “It was so exciting to be able to read and do anything I wanted. I settled on economics because it was the one area I felt like I didn’t know anything about.”
She married Arthur Houle, a traveling musician who worked at universities. Wherever Arthur went, Azam went. And in each place they stopped, one of the first things she did was find a library where she could volunteer.
“Libraries, for me, just put everything together, particularly children’s libraries,” she said. “I find it so rewarding and so fulfilling.”
Houle and her husband moved to Boise in 1997; she worked full time at the library while he taught at The College of Idaho.
Linda Brilz, the youth services supervisor at the main library, hired Houle as a page 20 years ago. She knew right away that Houle was a keeper.
“Her knowledge of books, her interactions with customers … the love of what she does (makes her different),” Brilz said. “She loves to connect kids with books and information.”
Houle’s husband was laid off from C of I in 2003, and he moved to Colorado to teach at Colorado Mesa University 11 years ago. Houle chose to stay in Boise and see Arthur a few times a month.
After leaving Iran as a young adult and living around the country earlier in her life, she yearned for stability – and found it in Boise.
“I always longed for a place to call home. Boise is home,” she said. “We are both very lucky to have jobs that we absolutely love. ... It was not an easy decision to live in separate cities, (but) we ultimately found a way to make it work.”
‘Storytelling is theater’
“Let’s clap 10 times together,” Houle says to the room full of preschoolers. This, along with “The Greeting Song,” have been Houle’s customary hello for decades.
After the children sing “The Happy Song” and “The Rolling Song,” the latter aptly named for the accompanying hand motions, it’s time to read. The literature is “Cock-a-doodle Quack! Quack!”
The story on this day profiles a young rooster who does not know how to awaken people and learns to make the wrong sounds from other farm animals. There are several characters in the text who try to teach Baby Rooster how to do his job; Houle has a specific voice for each of them, ranging from high-pitched to baritone.
“Come on everybody. Let’s be pigs!” she suggests. The children oblige, giggling as they frantically oink.
“Part of storytelling is theater,” Houle said. “When you vary the voice and put a little more of yourself in it, the characters come to life.”
In all her years as a librarian and storyteller, she said she’s never had a day where she did not want to go to work. Her love for the work is part of the reason she has built such a following.
“It’s like a cult,” Brilz said with a laugh. “She has kids that are now in their 20s, and they come back when they’re here for the holidays. She’s left an indelible mark on a lot of people.”
In recent years, Houle taught one class a day, four days a week. One of those, a movement and dance class, had as many as 150-200 people, Brilz said.
Houle is more than a storyteller. Brilz refers to her as a “magnet” who has a natural connection with everyone she meets.
“People truly are drawn to her. When people leave here, they know they have left after talking to a friend,” Brilz said. “She’s not just the library lady.”
DaMour and Sharla Nelson have brought each of their children through Houle’s storytime. Though they believe all the librarians are stellar, Houle is on another level.
“There’s usually a lot of screaming children and busy babies, and she just takes it in stride,” Nelson said. “She knows how to engage the little ones and the medium-age ones ... She’s a saint.”
Can’t stay away
Houle said she could keep performing her library duties and storytime. Simply put, though, she is ready for something new.
She wants to write. She wants to contribute to social justice causes, addressing racism and homelessness – causes she didn’t previously have time for. She wants to spend time with her two sons, both of whom are software engineers, and her two grandchildren.
“(We) can have home family puppet shows,” Houle said.
But as she embarks on this new chapter of her life, Houle has no intention of being a stranger to the library. She admits she will probably be there a couple of times a week.
“I always say the library is my sanctuary,” she said. “I always feel like I can come to the library and know everybody is understanding and accepting of who I am and what I am. People can come in from all walks of life and be accepted for who they are and respected for who they are. So I’m grateful for that.”
As she wrapped up her final storytime Thursday morning, Houle was emotional. She sang “See You Later, Alligator, After a While, Crocodile” with the children, her voice cracking.
But as always, Houle looked at the bright side.
“I won’t say goodbye,” she said, holding back tears. “It’s ‘see you later.’ ”