A remarkable event in Farmville this week offers an uplifting tale. It’s the story of how a small but historic two-college town has become the place in America where a “Who’s Who” of beloved children’s and young adult authors and artists returns each fall, delighting thousands of their squealing fans.
The sixth annual Virginia Children’s Book Festival (VCBF) at Longwood University, which begins Wednesday, also confirms that even in the age of video games, children truly do love books.
If you’re a parent of a young reader, you’ll recognize the regular presenters as veritable rock stars. Todd Parr (“The Thankful Book,” among about 40 others). Victoria Kann of “Pinkalicious” fame. Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Sophie Blackall, illustrator of the “Ivy and Bean” series. National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson (“Brown Girl Dreaming”), Newbery Medal winners Matt de la Pena (“Last Stop on Market Street”) and CeCe Bell (“El Deafo”). And this year, Katherine Paterson, whose “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Jacob Have I Loved” stand among the most cherished in all American literature.
Year-round, the VCBF distributes thousands of books to area families. Then, over three days each October, 10,000 schoolchildren from across the commonwealth and beyond come to Longwood, many traveling from hours away on school field trips, others with family, experiencing activities with their literary heroes. It’s all free.
Driving the event is Juanita Giles, the VCBF’s co-founder and executive director, and her relentless energy to redress disparities in literacy and access to books felt by Virginia’s most disadvantaged families, particularly in Southside. In partnership with Longwood and a team of volunteers, she’s quickly built the VCBF into a top-tier national event.
There are tie-ins with Longwood’s Center for the Visual Arts (this year featuring a “Pinkalicious” exhibition of Kann’s work) and the Robert Russa Moton Museum, where a signature “Civil Rights in Children’s Literature” program inspires in the very room where 16-year-old Barbara Johns led the 1951 student strike that helped launch Brown vs. Board of Education.
A bonus: thousands of children set foot on a college campus, often for the first time, planting a seed that college can be in their future, too.
Meanwhile, the VCBF has become an unlikely stop on the national children’s literature circuit, a reunion for the sometimes lonely writerly profession, whose members appreciate Farmville’s resurgent college-town charms—its history, the High Bridge Trail, the newly restored Hotel Weyanoke and a blossoming restaurant scene.
The authors also return because they know the event reaches kids for whom nurturing a love of reading could prove transformative.
“I’ve watched many of these kids grow up,” said Parr, who has appeared every year and calls the festival unsurpassed nationally. “I love coming back to look out into the audience and see kids from every imaginable walk of life all sitting together, loving reading.
“From the beginning, this festival was unexpected. To bring authors who could help develop a culture of reading to an area that needs it so badly seemed like an impossible dream.” He added: “Truly no one else has dared to do what the VCBF has achieved.”
Those of us who live in Farmville, and have rejoiced in our community’s recent revival, have watched our own children grow up in a place where reading is uniquely celebrated.
My daughters, ages 5 and 7, identify books by the likes of Todd Parr and Sophie Blackall as “Todd’s book” or “Sophie’s Book” — as if it’s normal to be on a first-name basis with their favorite authors — welcoming them back to their hometown each fall for readings and art lessons. A rough equivalent might be a kid who loves baseball growing up in Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For Virginia more broadly, the VCBF holds two lessons. One is that our communities are full of people like Giles, institutions like Longwood, energy and causes that can be channeled in transformative ways.
The second concerns Virginia’s stagnant reading scores. Regaining lost momentum won’t come from more drills and assessments. Rather, we must rekindle children’s natural joy in reading.
That joy is powerfully fueled by the storytelling prowess of our most talented authors and illustrators. And there is real magic when they and their readers connect in person and celebrate their shared love of stories.
It’s a magic that will be on vivid display in Farmville this week.