Va. festival enriches young rural readers
When Juanita Giles moved back home to Charlotte County— one of the poorest places in Virginia — she saw that things hadn’t changed much since she’d left for college in New York and various jobs across the country. “As a matter of fact,” she says, “things had gotten worse. There used to be a lot of mills, but industry had shut down. There was high unemployment and lots of poverty.”
Education was suffering, too. “The programs that were active when I was in school had shut down. There just wasn’t much for the kids around here.”
What this area needs, she thought, is a book festival.
So for two years, Giles plotted and strategized, but nothing much happened. “It was a little harder than I had anticipated getting people to say yes,” she says. But eventually, she found an ally in the dean of the library at Longwood University in Farmville. “We had no money,” Giles says, “but I figured the money would come.”
It did. Last year, the Virginia Children’s Book Festival was born. With a budget of about $30,000, the festival brought in 15 authors and illustrators. About 1,000 children attended. By any standards, it was a success.
But Giles wasn’t satisfied. The kids she really wanted to see — the kids who needed access to books the most — were the least likely to attend.
This year, she’s determined to reach more of them when the second Virginia Children’s Book Festival takes place Oct. 16 and 17 at Long wood University, about 60 miles from Richmond.
Giles wants the festival to change lives, and she knows there are lives that need changing. In Prince Edward County, she says, “there are kids who live in houses with dirt floors and still have outhouses, kids who don’t have the transportation to get here, who have never set foot on a college campus.”
Those are the children she wants to reach: children who never go to the library, who don’t own any books. “This is a chance for those kids to be part of something bigger than they are,” she says, “to really spark something in them.”
“There are a lot of migrant families in this area,” she says. “They’re very isolated. It’s hard to reach out to them, because they’re hard to find in any situation that’s social.” So she and about a dozen of her fellow festival volunteers are contacting area businesses to make sure the children of employees can attend. They’re raising money for buses. They’re looking for kids who might be slipping away from the school system.
The festival’s budget is twice as big this year as last, and the list of attending authors and illustrators is impressive, including National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander, Newbery Honor author Cece Bell and Newbery Medal-winning illustrator Timothy Basil Ering.
“My hope is that the kids who come will be entranced,” Giles says. The festival has expanded its graphic novel and comics program. And there will be interactive activities as well. The illustrators will offer workshops where kids will make their own books. The Poe-Museum will run a mock trial based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton will offer a stage combat class.
Other offerings are outside the usual book festival fare and give a sense of how broadly and creatively this group is thinking about its intended audience. The Lions Club of Farmville will provide free vision tests, and the festival organizers are working on offering free dental screenings too.
Despite the temptations of the big city, Giles is holding to her original vision and the original location. “We’ve been approached by other universities in urban areas,” she says, “and they’ve been very generous with their offers, but in rural Virginia, this festival is not just going be another cool thing to do on the weekend. It’s very important for me to keep it here where it’s needed. The plight of rural children is so lost.”