On April 24 and 25, the small university town of Frostburg, Md., located in the state’s western mountains, hosted 268 educators, librarians and university students during its 33rd annual Spring Festival of Children’s Literature. Four featured authors and illustrators – Scott Campbell, Brian Floca, Deborah Hopkinson, and Matt Phelan – presented programs to an avid audience, who also attended professional development workshops, purchased autographed books, and participated in a silent auction.
The Festival does more, however, than promote children’s books to education professionals. In keeping with its tagline “Building the Passion for Lifelong Reading,” a key component of the event is bringing books and authors to local schoolchildren. Hopkinson, whose book Titanic is part of Allegany County’s seventh-grade curriculum, spent the week preceding the Festival visiting seven middle and elementary schools, presenting four sessions a day at each one. On Friday, each of the other authors offered programs at schools and libraries throughout Allegany County, where students had been reading their books and creating projects based on them in preparation for the visits.
“We estimate that we reached approximately 2,500 children over this past week,” said Dr. William Bingham, founder of the Children’s Literature Centre (CLC), which organizes the Festival. Dozens of book-related projects – from model Titanics to robot-hugging machines (a nod to Scott Campbell’s Hug Machine) and construction paper racecars (referencing Brian Floca’s The Racecar Alphabet) – were displayed throughout the auditorium where the authors’ presentations took place. “To see so much creativity inspired by our books was truly great,” said Phelan. “The third-graders I met with presented me with a book they had created of their own hugs after reading Hug Machine,” recounted Campbell, who spoke to Cash Valley Elementary School students. Floca, whose program was attended by 160 fourth and fifth graders from Frostburg’s Beall Elementary School, answered most of their questions, declining only to give sales figures for his Caldecott-winning Locomotive when pressed by a persistent student.
The Festival, which predates the CLC, was first held in 1982 as a means of honoring two retiring professors in the Department of Educational Professions: R. Margaret Hamilton and Betty Roemmelmeyer. The Centre boasts a collection of approximately 7,000 children’s books, most of which have been donated regularly over the years by major publishers and other donors. The collection is open to the university community as well as the public. Under director William Bingham and associate director Barbara Ornstein, the CLC is manned by a team of five graduate assistants, who are instrumental in organizing the Spring Festival. Each visiting author/illustrator is assigned to one of the students, who acts as his or her facilitator, doing everything from travel arrangements to introducing them on stage at the Festival.
The event drew attendees and professional development presenters from all over Maryland, Pennsylvania, northern Virginia, and West Virginia, with a few from as far away as Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York. A majority were repeat attendees, with some boasting 25-year participation badges. First-timer Trista Calhoun, a first-year writing teacher at Maugansville Elementary School in Maryland, was attracted by the opportunity to interact with celebrated authors and illustrators, as well as the chance to earn credit towards her Masters in Reading. “I love to get their books autographed and, of course, to get a picture of myself with them!” she said with a laugh, adding, on a more serious note: “I also take every opportunity I can to learn how to better help my students express themselves in writing.” To that end, she participated in a workshop on strategies for deepening student writing and creativity led by author Mary Quattlebaum and illustrator Joan Waites.
Other professional development workshops included several focusing on technology and books, one on using children’s books for classroom management, behavior therapy and intervention and one on informational books, offered by Deborah Taylor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, the 2015 recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Practitioner Award for Lifetime Achievement. Maryland and Pennsylvania educators could earn credit for participating in the workshops.
In their presentations, all the authors offered a detailed look at their creative and research processes. Campbell talked about his background in video games as a way of learning storytelling and how to build a world. Floca offered his own approach to finding the ideas for books like Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 and Locomotive: “Write what you want to know.” Phelan shared the inspiration for his graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, while Hopkinson gave the audience a preview of a few of her upcoming books, including Beatrix Potter and The Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, illustrated by Charlotte Voake, scheduled for publication in January 2016.
At this year’s Festival, the CLC recognized several contributors to its goal of promoting literacy. The CLC Book Award, honoring a picture book that embodies the attributes of compassion, love and courage, was awarded to Vern Kousky for Otto the Owl Who Loved Poetry (Penguin/Paulsen). Kousky, who appeared via video, will be honored at the October CLC Book Award Banquet. The Betty Roemmelmeyer Advocate Award, presented to a teacher, librarian or other children’s books advocate who exhibits a love of children’s literature and strives to share it with others, went to Ann O’Hare, librarian at St. Matthias the Apostle School in Lanham, Md.
With attendance up by nearly 100 from last year, the Festival was buzzing with excitement about spreading the love of children’s books. “There was a very inspiring spirit surrounding the Festival,” Phelan noted. Ornstein said, “We were very pleased to share this weekend with fellow children’s literature advocates, and are energized to continue our mission to build a passion for lifelong reading.” She and Bingham hope for even more growth in attendance, and are already lining up authors and illustrators for next year’s Festival, scheduled for April 29–30, 2016.