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Kid's Lit is Big

Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors draws all-star line-up from near and far

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One of the most highly respected children’s literature events in the country is happening right here in our neighborhood this month. The Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, now in its fifteenth consecutive year, will be held at Lincoln School on Saturday, October 13.

Organizer and Lower School Librarian Meagan Lenihan is especially excited about this year’s lineup, which features perennial favorite Chris Van Allsburg along with 12 other acclaimed authors and illustrators, including Kevin Henkes, Rosemary Wells, David Wiesner, and Jerry Pinkney.

According to Lenihan, who has been running the event at Lincoln School since 2004, “It’s amazing that so many people come to this Children’s Book Festival, not only from Rhode Island but also from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, even as far away as Colorado and Texas. It’s a real community builder, and it’s wonderful to see children coming to meet their favorite authors and illustrators.”

Each author/illustrator gives a 30-minute presentation about their works and their philosophy, and all attendees have the opportunity to talk with them and have books signed. Books are available for purchase at the event; each attendee may also bring up to three books from home to be autographed.

In addition, there are many other activities, such as bookmaking and craft projects. Short fiction writing workshops, hosted by School One (a small, private high school on the East Side), and Goat Hill (a collaborative effort by writers Ann Hood, Hester Kaplan, and Taylor Polites), will be offered as a part of Write Rhode Island, a short fiction competition for students in grades 7 - 12.

Six Rhode Island food trucks offering a variety of savory dishes and treats will be parked on campus to serve lunch to hungry festival-goers. There will also be a storytelling tent with local storytellers, as well as face-painting and other activities outdoors on the lawn.

This year, the festival will kick off on Friday evening, October 12, with a special collaboration between local singer, storyteller, and author Bill Harley and the Gamm Theatre. Last year, the Gamm brought his character Charlie Bumpers, the fourth-grade star of a series of books by Harley, to life. This year, the Gamm is adapting Harley’s second book in the series, Charlie Bumpers vs. The Really Nice Gnome, to the stage. This performance is open to the public, although seating is limited. If you can’t come Friday evening, the Gamm will have a booth on Saturday offering more information on future performances.

Harley has participated in the festival several times, and he remarks, “I’m always struck by the incredible intelligence and varied perspectives shared by the presenters; sometimes, people minimize the act of writing for children, and this festival really highlights the depth of thought and professionalism of these authors and illustrators.” Harley believes that the festival has a culture that people recognize; as the event has evolved at Lincoln, word has spread that families can come and spend the day and have a great time.

The festival was originally sponsored by Women and Infants Hospital and the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS). Lisa Van Allsburg, wife of beloved author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express), who lived here on the East Side, spearheaded the effort. Growing up in Detroit, she attended book fairs each year with her family, and despite her dyslexia, she loved to read and borrow books from the library each week. Through her work as a volunteer at Women and Infants, she decided that the Ocean State needed its own book fair to help families share the gift of literacy with their children. “I wanted to duplicate the feeling I had - it was about a connection to reading, but also the importance of reading with parents.”

Van Allsburg reached out to Melody Allen, who was then the Director of Children’s Services for OLIS. Allen not only enlisted the help of 150 librarians to volunteer to staff the event, but she also provided necessary oversight and direction. To this day, Allen attends the festival; although she is quiet, and many don’t know who she is, Van Allsburg calls her “The Book Diva” and credits her with the festival’s successful establishment.

Lincoln School, attended by the Van Allsburgs’ daughters, offered to host the event on their campus. Through connections to publishers through Mr. Van Allsburg’s work, the festival was able to attract popular authors from the very beginning; past attendees include Maurice Sendak, David Macaulay, Natalie Babbitt, James Marshall, Avi, Katherine Patterson, Lois Lowry, and numerous others. The festival continued for several years, until it became too much work for the hospital and OLIS staff to maintain.

After a ten-year hiatus, Lenihan, the Lower School Librarian at Lincoln School, reached out to the Van Allsburgs in in 2004 to revive the festival, and has been instrumental in its resurgence. According to Mrs. Van Allsburg, Lenihan is responsible, along with her colleagues, for the incredible efficiency and flow of the day, helping the Book Festival to become “a treasured event in Rhode Island.”

Author and illustrator David Wiesner was invited to the very first festival and is participating for the fourth time this year. An alumnus of RISD, his work is also on display in the Illustration Building gallery through October 5. “The festival has a really important place in my heart, and I love coming back to it. It’s always so well-run and is a great time for everyone, the presenters and the attendees.”

This year, Kate Lentz of the Rhode Island Center for the Book worked with Lenihan to bring author and illustrator Yuyi Morales not only to the festival, but also to several Providence-area schools for visits with students. Born in Xalapa, Mexico, Morales immigrated to the United States in 1994. She has won the Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration five times, as well as the Caldecott in 2015. Her latest book, Dreamers, released in September, is a picture book that is also a love letter to immigration and public libraries. The book has been chosen as one of the nominees for the 2019 Rhode Island Latino Books Month Award.

Morales is looking forward to the opportunity to convey the message that we all have valuable stories to share. “When we have moments in which we need support, stories can lend strength when we are afraid or feel alone. We all have things to say, and I hope that when we get together, it becomes a celebration of how we all have a voice to share.”

Lentz, who recently received a four-year, $200,000 grant as a Carter Fellow for Entrepreneurial Innovation, stresses the multiple community partnerships that have arisen over the years. “The fact that this event is not a fundraiser, that it is truly a community outreach event, makes it unique.” The RI Center for the Book helps with that outreach, providing entry vouchers, books, and other items to low-income students and parent groups and bringing in people who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Another illustrator who will be at the Festival, R. W. Alley, has provided illustrations for Michael Bond’s beloved books about Paddington the Bear for the past 20 years. This year, one of those books, Paddington Storybook Collection, is the Rhode Island submission to the National Book Festival, held in Washington DC on September 1. Alley also illustrates Garth Stein’s popular series of books about Enzo the Dog, as well as numerous other stories. At the Rhode Island table at the National Book Festival, Lentz displays posters and bookmarks: “When people stop by our booth, they cannot believe the big names who come to our festival!”

According to festival Director Lenihan, “It really is a magical event. The connections that happen, not only among the authors and illustrators but also between them and the children, are amazing.” One year, Newbury-Award winner Christopher Paul Curtis met several students from Sophia Academy who asked him to sign their programs; when he learned that they did not have his books because they only had a little bit of money to spend, he not only purchased books for them, but also for all the other students in their school. “This is the kind of magic that happens at the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books.”