In recent years, children’s and teen book festivals have taken off as children’s specialty bookstores and large stores with strong children’s sections try to get more kids reading. Many stores partner with local schools and libraries to create successful festivals; others serve as official booksellers to established festivals, including one of the country’s largest, the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Though each event might be distinct, there are a few key elements that each one shares: to be successful, a festival needs authors, volunteers, financial support, a good venue, and young readers in droves.
It Began as an Experiment
Now entering its 10th year, the Texas Teen Book Festival began “as an experiment,” according to Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer at Austin’s BookPeople and blogger for PW. The festival was the brainchild of local middle school librarian Heather Schubert, and BookPeople was there at the start.
“The first year was the most challenging,” Goel says. “Heather used her discretionary budget for her library for the first year to fund a lot of stuff. She used her connections to get our venue from the [school] district, supplies, and snacks.”
By partnering, the organizers were able to use the skills of their respective trades to set the foundation for the festival. Goel worked on “building relations out,” establishing connections with publishers, securing authors, and handling book sales. Schubert forged ties with librarians, young readers, and teen volunteers.
Since 2009, the festival has grown significantly and drew 4,000 readers for 38 author events last year. The organizers have also found new partners to provide financial support and stability. The festival now has a home on the campus of St. Edward’s University and is sponsored by the Texas Book Festival.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Like Goel, Kim Krug, owner of Monkey See, Monkey Do... Children’s Bookstore in Carpenter, N.Y., found herself at the helm of a book festival somewhat by accident. “We have a huge literacy problem in Buffalo,” Krug says. After attending the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, she thought, “We need that. We want that in Buffalo.” In 2014, Krug decided to apply for a James Patterson grant to start a small festival.
The store received $8,500 from Patterson and raised an additional $25,500 from community sponsors to launch the Western New York Children’s Book Expo. Since then, the festival has grown rapidly. Buffalo’s mayor has declared the week before the festival a children’s literature week. A nonprofit group has been formed to raise funds, and Media College has stepped in to provide financial resources and curricular support that helps school teachers prepare their students for author visits. The festival also offers a dedicated day of workshops for 150 public school teachers; the sessions count toward professional continuing education credits.
Even with a background in corporate sales and marketing, Krug says that the one drawback to the festival is, paradoxically, its success. “It’s a strong passion of mine to see that the Book Expo continues,” Krug says. But she finds it “a juggling act” that leaves her too little time to focus on her own store. Recently she began partnering with Read to Succeed in hopes of handing off some of the organizing work. “We need more help and resources so that the bookstore doesn’t suffer,” Krug notes. “It’s a full-time job and then some.” The next festival takes place on November 10.
Only Getting Started
Having just completed the inaugural year of the Children’s Festival of Stories, Denver bookstore owner Dea Lavoie already has her eye on how to balance growing an annual festival in a sustainable way. When Lavoie and her husband opened Second Star to the Right (a children’s bookstore and toy store) three-and-a-half years ago, they recognized the need for a festival for young readers. With donated space from Denver Arts and Venues, Lavoie created a one-day festival with an emphasis on diversity to reach inner-city school students.
The festival, which took place in March, drew more than 1,000 readers, and 155 educators attended the opening reception with authors. Lavoie will continue to organize the festival next year, but with the store in the midst of planning a move and expansion that will triple its retail space to 3,000 sq. ft., she hopes to have a nonprofit in place to manage fund-raising. “I’d love to be the main bookseller,” she says, “but with more volunteers.”
Partnering for Success
At Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., finding the right level of involvement is crucial. The bookstore sells books for the Gaithersburg and National Press Club festivals each year along with the National Book Festival, for which it became the official bookseller in 2014. “It helps that the three occur at different times of year. It also helps that we’ve been involved with them for several years now, so we know what to expect,” owner Bradley Graham says.
Still, the National Book Festival stretches the store’s capacity, requiring a staff of 70. To do it while keeping the store open, Graham says he relies on help from partners, including Ingram, book publishers, and the staff of the American Booksellers Association.
Close partnerships have also helped nearby One More Page Books, located in Arlington, Va., carefully manage its participation in the NoVa Teen Book Festival, which first took place in 2014. The festival was created by author Danielle Ellison, then an employee at the bookstore and a youth services librarian at Arlington Central Library. Book buyer Lelia Nebeker now leads the bookstore’s participation in the festival and cultivates relationships with publishers and publicists so that she can help the festival set up author programming early.
After four years, Nebeker says that NoVa “has reached the point where it has become a profitable venture.” Next year it will move from Washington Lee High School to a larger venue.
Money, Money, Money
Goel says profitability has to be a constant consideration. The teen book festival has “always been profitable” for BookPeople, according to Goel, but that’s nothing to take for granted. “As bookstores we have to be conscious all the time about what we are committing to and how much labor and inventory and cost we are investing in an event,” she says. “Offsite events especially can be less profitable than you think sometimes.”
With profitability comes the opportunity to do more creative work as well. BookPeople just launched a new program to promote reading for pleasure in partnership with the Austin Independent School District: the 5 Book Dive Summer Reading Challenge. “It’s the partnerships that have helped us do so many other things throughout the year,” Goel says. “It creates an interesting dialogue that never really dies down; it creates a new dynamic.”
A panel titled “Planning and Executing Successful Book Festivals” will take place on Thursday, June 21, 1–2 p.m., in Grand Chenier.