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Steve Ross (AKA Mr. Steve) doing story time at Roman's Books in Pasadena.Steve Ross has worked at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena since 1989, but chances are good that if you call the store and ask for him by his first and last name, the employee on the phone will think you have the wrong number.

That’s because Ross is known simply as Mr. Steve, as in Mr. Steve’s Storytime, a Vroman’s staple that takes over a bright corner of its voluminous children’s book section twice a week. Since taking the helm of Storytime in 1993, Ross has become a store icon whose image is captured in life-sized cardboard cutouts displayed around the store.

Ross reads up to 10 books and starts the hour with basic board books, ending with longer, more advanced books. He does voices and encourages participation, but kids who just want to listen are welcome too.

Ross also handles remainder buying for the section, which boasts more than 18,000 titles ranging from picture books to young adult.

Steve Ross (AKA Mr. Steve) doing story time at Roman's Books in Pasadena.Over the years, Ross has learned what slays with the PB&J crowd, what’s tried and true, and how the market has evolved. He shared some of what he’s learned with Kite Tales.

EV: What are the oldies but goodies that have stood the test of time?

SR: Fish Out of Water (Helen Palmer and P.D. Eastman) is one of my favorites. The pages are double the average picture book, but the kids totally know what’s going on. There’s escalation, conflict. For a story so simple, it really knocks it out of the park.

I really enjoy the Ezra Jacks Keats books, Whistle for Willie and Peter’s Chair.  And the Mo Willems pigeon books. You wouldn’t think they’re that old. Definitely those.

EV: What are the elements that make a picture book timeless?

SR: I like the ones that are like telling a joke with a setup and a payoff and some good characters. It sounds very simple, but is much harder to do than most people think.

EV: The books you read during Storytime have a tough audience to please. What do you look for in your selections?

SR: I’m playing to the third row, as in the third row of three rows. If the pictures are too small or too detailed, the kids can’t follow.

Steve Ross (AKA Mr. Steve) doing story time at Roman's Books in Pasadena.EV: What kinds of stories or scenarios elicit the most responses from the kids?

SR: It’s stuff that kids run into as they’re growing up, like making new friends, experiencing new things, seeing a new place. I love talking animal stories, especially if you want to tell a story and you don’t want to deal with boys or girls. And then stories about treating people the way they want to be treated.

They like fantastic scenarios as well, but there has to be some kind of grounding they can relate to, like Where the Wild Things Are.

EV: What are some of the most fun to read books?

SR: The Giant Hug (Sandra Horning & Valeri Gorbachev), Hug Machine (Scott Campbell), the Jon Agee books like My Rhinoceros, the Mo Willems books, A Visitor for Bear (Bony Becker & Kady MacDonald Denton).

Steve Ross (AKA Mr. Steve) doing story time at Roman's Books in Pasadena.EV: What are the elements that make a great picture book in today’s market?

SR: They are the same as a great movie or novel. You need characters people care about, a conflict you want to see a character overcome, or not. For me, personally, some kind of punchline or resolution that doesn’t necessarily need to teach a lesson but you have to ‘oohhhh’ at the end of it. But you have to tell it in a very clear and concise manner.

Learn more about Vroman’s at www.vromansbookstore.com. Catch Mr. Steve’s Storytime at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

All photos by Miguel Vasconcellos.

Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she is writing — and rewriting — a picture book and a middle grade novel. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda

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