Seattle is a very bookish town. In late September, it will be more so.
The first-ever Seattle Children’s Book Festival is set for September 28, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is the brainchild of Asia Citro, children’s book author and publisher, and mother of two young children.
“It was something I wanted to start two years ago, but at the time I didn’t have a great mental picture of what it would look like,” said Citro, a resident of Issaquah, Wash., outside Seattle, who is the founder and director of the festival.
Seattle and its surrounding communities, of course, are full of books, knowledgeable booksellers, libraries, author events, and more. James Crossley, a bookseller at newly opened independent bookstore Madison Books, and one of Citro’s event partners, said, “We have such a great everyday environment for readers, with independent bookstores in almost every neighborhood and author appearances in multiple venues all over town happening almost continually.”
And yet, the city didn’t have a book festival solely for children—like other major cities around the country—whose express goal is opening the world of words to young people, particularly to those without immediate access to them. To riff on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seattle is a place with books, books everywhere, but for those with limited—or no—access, there’s not a word to read.
“Luckily,” Crossley continues, “Asia saw that we were missing out in a way we didn’t even realize, and she did something about that. Now the book scene in Seattle will be that much better.”
A Celebration of Books and Access
The inaugural Seattle Children’s Book Festival features 45 children’s authors and illustrators of diverse backgrounds and whose characters are also diverse. The event takes place at the playground-equipped Greenwood Elementary School, which is donating its space at no cost. The indoor-outdoor event will be free and open to the public. Citro, who is one of the featured authors, said she expects about 4,000 children and families to join in the festival’s literary love.
It will include author and illustrator meet-and-greets, book signings, individual presentations, panel discussions—run by children’s librarians from another partner, the Seattle Public Library—and booksellers like Madison Books and also Phinney Books. Moderating the panels is Dr. Celeste Trimble of St. Martin’s University.
“I like to think about who’s not there,” Citro said of people often absent from events like hers. “A festival is super-cool,” she continued, “but who’s not here? People who work weekends, lack transportation, don’t have money for books.” Her model emphasizes access beyond folks’ free entry to the festival, even if some have to wait a while for favored books.
Citro explains that attendees have the option to get books they love signed and then buy them at regular price at the end of the day. But they also may pay a reduced price and donate books directly to the Seattle Public Schools. The festival then distributes those donated books to the district’s schools that are most in need of filling their classrooms’ and libraries’ shelves.
Also, the festival’s booksellers are donating back to the festival 20% of regular-priced sales. And Citro’s small press, The Innovation Press, is covering the majority of the overall $4,500 festival price tag; some grants Citro applied for and won are making up the difference. With this model, she explained, “Pretty much all the money raised can go toward putting on free book fairs.” (She hopes to raise $6,000.)
Citro is grateful for the grant money she has been awarded and others’ generosity with their time, space, and resources. “Book access is important at school, but so is book access at home,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re addressing both of those needs with our book donations.”
Ruthanne Rankin of Greenwood Elementary, the festival’s host, said, “As a librarian who has worked concurrently in both ‘have’ and ‘have not’ schools, I’ve witnessed the sharp contrast in the quality of book collections, library-to-library, in Seattle public schools.”
Citro, who has a master’s in science education, has taught elementary through high school students, and has written 12 books, added, “I knew that some Seattle public schools were really hurting for books; I saw a great opportunity for the festival to help with that.”
Access to books—and particularly high-quality, exciting books—is a great determiner of school readiness and academic performance. “The more books in the home, the more kids are reading at grade level,” said Erin Moehring, children’s services librarian at one of the Seattle Public Library’s 27 branches. “There’s just so much power in having your own book in your hand. Having even one book in the home [that a kid] is excited about makes a big difference.”
And this is exactly what Citro wanted for her region’s kids. The long-running Princeton Children’s Book Festival was her muse. She attended the event last fall and walked away determined to bring a similar model to Seattle.
Like Seattle, Princeton, N.J., “is a town of readers,” said Joanne Farrugia, co-owner with partner Dean Smith of jaZams books and toy store and a bookseller for the past nine years at her town’s book festival for kids. Also like Seattle, Princeton has its share of children on free and reduced lunch; for [their families], book purchases come after food, medicine, and clothing, if at all.
Princeton’s festival, too, is free and is intended to be a book haven—and an inspiration—for all comers, Farrugia said. “Kids are just euphoric afterward,” she said. “Books come to life when children meet an author of the book they’ve fallen in love with. Kids come in excited about an author and then want more to read by him or her. And it can go on forever.”
Back in Seattle, author-illustrator Ben Clanton, who designed the new festival’s poster and website banner with some of his own book characters in mind, said his city is long overdue for a reading-frenzy event. He looks forward to meeting the kids and their parents at the September affair, which is an opportunity he wished he had as a child and budding artist and storyteller.
“I hope they come away inspired to read, to create,” said Clanton, father of two young children.
Fellow festival author LeUyen Pham agrees, “I think when kids get to see who makes the books, and the thinking behind them, and the origin stories of these writers and artists, the exposure will remind them that anything is possible.” She adds, “Not every school can afford to have an author come, and a festival is an amazing way to provide that access.”