Lyn Ford never knows which story she's going to tell until after she meets her audience.
"I write down about four or five titles before," said Ford, who has been a professional storyteller for two decades. "But I don't select exactly which one to tell until I've seen their faces and feel their energy."
On this particular May morning, faced with a relatively quiet, even somewhat sleepy audience of fifth graders from New Albany Elementary School, Ford goes for the story of Cecil the Caterpillar. It's a tall tale about an elephant-eating worm, told with American Sign Language and vividly punctuated at the end with the sound of Cecil upchucking the elephants.
The story was a hit and got the children excited and engaged for more storytelling, both from Ford and themselves.
Ford, 59, was born and raised in Sharon, Pennsylvania, part of an "Afrilachian" family (a geography term that describes African-Americans who are from the Appalachian region). She is the fourth-generation storyteller in her family and now lives in Reynoldsburg, which has become home base for storytelling travel all over the world.
Ford is a quiet and thoughtful woman by nature and, during her performances, speaks softly and slowly, amplifying her well-chosen words with clearly defined gestures. Even when sharing the silly stuff - like the very tall tale of a great grandmother who visited the moon each night to collect moon dust she sprinkled under her pillow where it turned into the stories she would tell - the effect is hypnotically soothing.
"I'm considered a traditional storyteller," Ford explained. "I mostly tell my family's versions of folk tales."
The oral traditions of her family obviously had a huge impact on Ford.
"I didn't see a TV until I was going on 6 years old," she said. "The outdoors and my family's stories were more interesting to me."
Ford also credits two would-be handicaps with prodding her into the storytelling profession: She's hearing-impaired in her right ear and she has fought a stutter most of her life.
"Because I couldn't hear as well, language fascinated me," Ford said, "and being a bit of a stutterer, I found that the storytelling helped because I was mimicking the speech patterns of others who shared stories."
Ford had been sharing her gift for years with family and friends, when, about 20 years ago, her three children and husband urged her to try doing it professionally.
"My children were always volunteering me to come into schools to tell stories," Ford said. "Now I'm the first one in my family to make a career of it."
Her talents are still in high demand in schools. Most of the time Ford is performing before children in the preschool through fifth grade range, but she also travels to storytelling and arts festivals where adults make up much of the audiences. Later this year she's headed for the fourth time to a festival in Hawaii.
"It's interesting how as (the use of) technology has increased in the world," said Ford, "the popularity of storytelling has also increased. There's something about the oral narrative, the face-to-face stories, that people seem to want more of now. It's part of our humanity."
Tell Me a Story
Here are some local locations in June and July when Ford will be telling stories. All of these are Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) branches, and attendance is free and open to the public. For information about other appearances, visit Ford's website at storytellerlynford.com
• Thursday, June 9 at 2:30 p.m., CML Whitehall branch, 4371 E. Broad St.
• Tuesday, June 28 at 10 a.m., CML Shepard branch, 790 N. Nelson Rd.
• Thursday, June 30 at 2 p.m., CML Martin Luther King, Jr., branch, 1600 E. Long St.
• Monday, July 25 at 2 p.m., CML Franklinton branch, 1061 W. Broad St.
• Wednesday, July 27 at 2 p.m., CML Dublin branch, 75 N. High St.
• Thursday, July 28 at 2:30 p.m., CML South High branch, 3540 S. High St.