Va. fes­ti­val en­riches young ru­ral read­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY RON CHARLES

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.”

ron.charles@wash­post.com

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