Now in its 14th year, the Rochester Children’s Book Festival has grown from a small, church-basement event to an all-day celebration with five to six thousand visitors. Held this year on Saturday, November 6 at Monroe Community College, this year’s festival featured presentations, readings, and book signings by 42 authors and illustrators, plus a craft area with projects designed especially for the festival’s featured titles—more to do than even the most energetic participants could take in.
Fans in the packed presentation hall were treated to an experiment in real-time illustration as featured author Jane Yolen read her new manuscript, How Do Dinosaurs Get Mad?, while illustrator Mark Teague drew an impromptu sketch for it. “This is the first time I’ve read this in public,” Yolen said, “and this is the first time Mark has heard it.”
After listening to the description of what a young, angry dinosaur might do (“Does he slam the door?”), Teague grabbed a black pen and started roughing out a figure on a flip-pad. He said that he often “sees” an image projected on the blank paper in front of him when he first reads a book; as he spoke, an angry-looking Tyrannosaurus Rex and a pint-sized door bulging with the force of a dinosaur slam took shape on the page. His creation won a round of enthusiastic applause. (Yolen, meanwhile, was already making edits as a result of the test read.)
Next up were Matt McElligott and Larry Tuxbury, two upstate New York writer/illustrators who described co-writing Benjamin Franklinstein Lives! (Putnam) while managing to remain friends. Along with goofy slides of the two with their hands around each other’s throats, McElligott laid out a process consisting of shared web pages, 10-hour days at coffee shops, many rounds of revisions and—the pair’s top-secret weapon—a secret club called “C.L.A.W.” Against a slide of an evil-looking red hand, McElligott claimed that the time they spent before every writing session deciding what the letters would stand for that week—“Covert Lunacy and Wizardry,” perhaps, or “Conspirators in League Against Work”—provided a great creative warm-up.
The festival’s venue also happens to be the alma mater of the hero of Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park’s new novel, A Long Walk to Water (Clarion); in an afternoon presentation, she shared his story. Salva Dut was 11 when war engulfed his village in Sudan and he escaped to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. When that camp was emptied, Dut led 1500 other Sudanese boys on a trek hundreds of miles to a second camp in Kenya. Now an adult, Dut runs a nonprofit organization that drills wells in Sudan. Each well saves village girls from the “long walk to water” of Park’s title—often a four-hour round trip, a journey made twice a day. The book’s other hero, Nya, is one such girl; her story and Salva’s, interwoven throughout, form the scaffolding of the novel. Park’s admiration for their courage was contagious; she invited the audience to return for the book’s formal launch at the college on December 6.
The next presenter, James Howe, spoke about writing Addie on the Inside (Atheneum), the third of four close-up views of the characters in his earlier novel The Misfits. Finding an authentic voice for Addie proved to be a challenge, Howe said. “Letters from readers are more important than you know,” he told the audience, and said a letter he’d received from an eighth-grader helped him frame her story. “I love Addie,” the eighth-grader wrote, “but I don’t know how many readers get to see her soft side.” Drawing on this observation and on memories of his own daughter’s adolescence, Howe was able to begin; unlike the other books, this one emerged in verse. He said that the theme of bullying and name-calling was present not only in The Misfits, but in all of his work—even the venerable Bunnicula, his book about the vegetable-juice-sucking vampire rabbit. It was a reader’s letter that brought this home to him, too: “Bunnicula,” the fan wrote, “taught me about not judging other people.”
Authors and illustrators are the most visible of the festival’s attractions, but behind-the scenes workers make essential contributions, too. The festival is staffed year after year by a squad of dedicated volunteers. Jeanne Steinbrenner, a children’s librarian at Pittsford Public Library, spent her shift in the Read-to-Me Corner, where 14 authors (and a local drivetime radio host) read books to rapt young listeners. “It was amazing!” Steinbrenner said. “You never view a book the same way again after you hear an author read it. They have a way of bringing their books to life, and it’s so neat to see kids’ reactions to them. There were lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ Rafe Martin (Banyan Deer) was wonderful, Michelle Knudsen read Library Lion, and Mark Shulman (Gorilla Garage) was hysterical. Rochester is fertile ground for children’s literature; we have so many good writers here.”
Bookseller, author and blogger Elizabeth Bluemle spent the day meeting readers and signing books in the venue’s largest hall. Her praise for the festival’s organizers was generous: “They were really thoughtful about providing opportunities for the authors to get to know one another, and they’ve thought of so many things to do aside from the standard reading and signing—they have a woman who spends months coming up with a special craft project for each one of the festival’s featured titles. It’s got the best feeling, this festival; it’s such a happy place to be.”
Co-organizer Elizabeth Falk was filled with gratitude for the festival’s many supporters. “Monroe Community College donates the space. We get great support from WXXI, our public television and radio station. This year we did radio spots with kids reading from their favorite books. Vivien Vande Velde [the Rochester author who put the original festival together] put together “Festival to Go,” a program of free author visits to Rochester city schools that can’t afford them otherwise. Altrusa, a service organization, donates new books for us to distribute at the visits.”
Falk, co-organizer Kathy Blasi, and Vande Velde are members of Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators. The organization, limited to published authors and artists, has more than 70 members and mounts a full presentation every month of the year. “SCBWI has told us that it’s unusual for a group to meet that often, and to have that kind of structure and commitment. We have so many great people, well-published people who are incredibly generous about sharing their experience and knowledge,” Falk said.
After several years spent juggling festival organization with the rest of their responsibilities, Falk and Blasi had promised themselves that they would pass the organizing baton on. But by 10:30 on Saturday morning, after just 30 minutes of seeing festival visitors surge into the hall, the two decided to sign on for another year. “It’s just too exciting an event to even consider not being part of,” Falk said.