Anyone stopping in at the Serendipity Café (3222 W. McGraw St.) in the heart of the Magnolia village, on a Tuesday morning is soon aware of the little kids back in the children’s play area. They all quiet down when Janet Haltom-Ames begins to tell a story.

Outside, on the sidewalk, is a chalked message on a small sandwich board that proclaims, “Every Tuesday — story time at 10 a.m. with Janet — Best Day Ever!”
Janet Haltom-Ames is the “Story Lady.”

Haltom-Ames has spent her professional career in education. The priceless skills she teaches open the world of the printed word to children and adults.

The diminutive, spunky and intense woman with gleaming eyes and a playful smile usually has on a blue sweatshirt with “Rrrr is for Reading” written across it, along with examples of individual letters in both their capital and lower-case forms. The sweatshirt, she explains, is her teaching uniform: When she’s got it on, she’s in teaching and storytelling mode.

From under her sparse, flaming-red hair, she looks at you with eyes filled with enthusiasm and concentrates on your every word as you converse with her. She pays the same amount of individual attention to children as she does to adults.

Haltom-Ames feels that being “height-challenged” gives her an advantage with children because she’s not as intimidating and is down on their own level.

An inspirational upbringing
Haltom-Ames was born in Spokane, Wash., but because of a staph infection she caught immediately after her birth, she would not leave the hospital for four months.

She grew up within the developing city of Spokane as a “townie” and not one of the children who grew up on one of the nearby, outlying ranches. She proudly points out that both her grade school and her high school are still standing.

Her inspiration, she told me, was her grandmother, who lived with her and shared her bedroom. Her grandmother also shared her collection of McGuffy readers, which were schoolbooks dating back to the 1800s.

Haltom-Ames’ grandfather fell in love with teaching and traveled east to attend the University of Michigan, then returning to Washington state, where he became a professor at Eastern Washington University in Cheney in 1900 and taught chemistry and math for 36 years. He also received a scholarship to Harvard University.

It is also proudly acknowledged that all three of his children, seven of his grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren are all college graduates.

Haltom-Ames graduated from Whitman College with a bachelor’s degree in child psychology and enrolled at University of Washington graduate school in Creative Dramatics for Young Children. She began teaching first grade at Sacajawea Elementary School in North Seattle.

She then married Robert Ames in 1962, and they had three children: Dr. Kenneth Carl Ames, Helen Marie Ames-Gorman and David Haltom-Ames.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Haltom-Ames has had a long list of accomplishments and awards. She has spent 51 years in Magnolia. She has been the Story Lady at Serendipity for five years. She has, truthfully, given back to the Magnolia community.

Sharing her passion
In 1980, Haltom-Ames established “Rrrr is for Reading,” a reading support and tutoring service for preschool children to adults who lack reading skills. She estimates that she has taught more than a thousand people to read.

When it comes to other diversions and hobbies, Haltom-Ames first mentions her love of books and reading. When pressed harder, she admits a love of drama and that she was in the Spokane Children’s Theatre long ago. She also collects dolls and even has a couple that date back to the Civil War.

Haltom-Ames also has a cat, “Lady Buttercup,” which is also the name of a puppet she uses in her lessons.

She continues to write, publish, teach, support, volunteer and love children of all ages, especially in the Magnolia community.

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