More than a dozen literary festivals were canceled in less than 24 hours in March due to the new coronavirus outbreak, but at the same time three children’s authors were making sure that one was also born. The Everywhere Book Festival, a completely digital kids’ lit festival, will be held May 1–2 with more than 50 participating authors and illustrators, including keynote speakers Gene Yuen Lang and Nic Stone, along with Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, Meg Medina, Marie Lu, LindaSue Park, and Grace Lin.
Authors Ellen Oh and Christina Soontornvat hatched the idea when word reached them that the Tucson Festival of Books—where they were slated to appear on a panel—had been canceled. “We were so disappointed and started talking about what we could do online to recreate a festival experience,” said Oh, whose The Dragon Egg Princess (HarperCollins) was published earlier this month. The duo recruited Melanie Conklin, who was in the midst of canceling her tour for her forthcoming middle-grade book Every Missing Piece (Little, Brown, May) to come on board. Then Oh sent a tweet out to gauge interest. The response was overwhelming.
“A virtual book festival really has the potential to fill a growing need in the kid lit community,” said Soontornvat, whose The Ramble Shamble Children (Penguin/Paulsen) will be published later this year. “We need to celebrate stories and uplift each other’s voices now more than ever.”
While the logistics of organizing an entirely digital festival are new to the authors, they quickly discovered that the technology was at their fingertips. “Thanks to modern video streaming, it turns out a lot is possible,” Conklin said. For support, they turned to the organizers at WriteOnCon and the Educator Collaborative Gathering, who regularly organize virtual conferences and live-streamed events. “It has saved us weeks of lead-up time by being able to benefit from their know-how rather than reinventing the wheel,” Soontornvat said.
Readers will be able to stream live panels and ask questions, while other panels will be pre-recorded. Oh, who is a cofounder of We Need Diverse Books, said the organizers are also working to ensure disability accessibility for the conference. “This is very important to me,” she said. “We are exploring our options for captioning and intend to have transcripts available on YouTube for all viewers.”
Through Twitter, the authors have recruited 100 volunteers to help ensure that the festival goes smoothly. A call for author and illustrator event proposals resulted in 215 panel proposals (@everywherefest) and a website, everywherebookfest.com.
Meanwhile, the organizers are setting up ways for the festival to benefit independent booksellers, who often sell books at physical literary festivals, and have lost that source of income. “A book festival is not complete without the wonderful booksellers who provide the audience with a chance to get a signed copy of an author’s book, so it was important for us to have a way to give our audience the same opportunity,” Oh said. To make it possible, viewers at the festival will be able to connect with independent booksellers who will have signed books available.
For the organizers, the chance to launch the festival has helped to mitigate the stress of transitioning to life during a nationwide public health emergency. On deadline for a book while her house is under renovation, Oh is under particular stress. Work has stopped because of the coronavirus and at the same time her kids have returned home from college. “They are all grumpy and stir-crazy,” Oh said. “My husband is also working from home. He is very grumpy. I too would be very, very grumpy, but working with Christina and Mel and all of our wonderful volunteers has been such an uplifting and hope-filled experience.”
“There’s a real opportunity here to change the way people connect with authors and interact with books,” Conklin said. “We have the power as a community to support each other and lift new voices. We have a chance to connect young readers with authors. We can support families with students out of school, and educators looking for distance-learning options. This festival is needed and we are thrilled to make it happen.”