By AUDREY FISCHER and DEBORAH DURHAM-VICHR
With storybook characters and basketball stars, a Big Red Chair, and a Magic School Bus (pictured above), the 2003 National Book Festival offered a wide range of entertaining activities for children and young adults. Some of the kids, young reporters representing publications such as Weekly Reader, Scholastic Magazine and TIME for Kids, even got to interview Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and actress and children's author Julie Andrews at a special press conference.
Children of all ages met and reported on their favorite authors and illustrators, had their books signed, listened to multicultural stories being told in song and verse, shook hands with costumed characters and even met Mary Poppins (actress Julie Andrews) in the flesh. It was the stuff of which lifelong readers are made.
Book festival participants included seven current winners of major national book awards, including a triumvirate in the field of children's books and illustrations: Eric Rohmann, winner of the 2003 Caldecott Medal for "My Friend Rabbit"; Avi, winner of the 2003 Newbery Medal for "Crispin: The Cross of Lead"; and Nikki Grimes, winner of the 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award for "Bronx Masquerade."
Starting with a blank canvas and a black marker, Rohmann treated the audience to a demonstration of how he brings his stories to life with illustrations.
Avi shared his tricks of the trade for writers. "The secret to writing is reading," he said. "You read and read and read some more, and when you've done that, you read and read and read some more."
Avi's diverse novels over the past 30 years—from adventure to comedy, mystery to fantasy and historical fiction—illustrate the broad range of his reading.
"I was a voracious reader as a child," he said. "My favorites were 'Wind in the Willows,' 'Tom Swift,' 'The Hardy Boys' and [works by] Robert Louis Stevenson. But I also had a particular love for popular mechanics and popular science."
Asked about his favorite among his own books he replied, "As nine out of 10 writers here would say, 'the next one'."
Picture book writer and poet Nikki Grimes, who began composing verses at the age of 6, read lyrically from a variety of her works. She debunked the myth that "words can never hurt you."
"Words are powerful—they have the power to do great good or great harm," cautioned Grimes, whose own mother initially discouraged her writing.
"Writers are a dime a dozen," said Grimes, quoting her mother. But she kept at it, encouraged by her sister, who thought she was a genius. She encouraged her young audience to follow their dreams.
Some of the most prolific children's book authors participated in
the book festival.
The author of more than 250 picture books and young adult novels, Jane Yolen is still thrilled by each new publication.
"I clutch it, I smell it, but I never read it because I don't want to see the mistakes," said Yolen, who proceeded to clutch and smell her latest work, "Bagpiper's Ghost." "Besides, there are so many good books to read, why read my own?" asked Yolen, who is still "astonished that anyone is reading my books."
"Goosebumps" series creator R.L. Stine treated the crowd to several scary stories and engaged the audience in creating a spooky tale on the spot. He recalled writing from the time he was 9 years old, beginning with joke books that amused his friends but did not always please his parents and teachers.
"I was a weird kid," recalled Stine. "My mother wanted me to go out and play, but I just stayed in my room and wrote."
Stine hopes his new book, "Dangerous Girls," will appeal to the 20-year-old set, his original "Goosebumps" fan base. "I've got to grow with my audience," he said.
Jan Berenstain regaled her standing- room-only audience with the coincidences that led her and co-author husband Stan to a life of bear tales together, as detailed in their autobiography, "Down a Sunny Dirt Road," published last year by Random House.
"We had similar experiences as children," she said. "We grew up in the same neighborhood (Pittsburgh) and we both spent a lot of time reading and drawing. We went to the same art school and the same drawing class. I wonder what would have happened if we hadn't."
The couple married and formed their own family, then went on to create the Berenstain Bear family, who made their debut in 1962 with the publication of "The Big Honey Hunt." With more than 250 titles, the series is also featured on an animated television show.
Jan Berenstain explained the origin of their famous byline, "Stan and Jan Berenstain." "Why is Stan's name first?" she laughed. "Well, Stan had started submitting gag cartoons before me and we used 'Stanley Berenstain' for name recognition. ... On our first book at Random House, the byline is 'Stanley and Janice Berenstain.' Our editor, better known as Dr. Seuss, the great rhymester, renamed us 'Stan and Jan.' He said, 'It rhymes and moreover, it fits on one line'."
That byline has since expanded as their children have joined them in creating Berenstain Bear books. Their son Leo is now a writer, and Michael, who shared the festival stage with his parents, has become the series' illustrator.
Alma Powell may be new to the world of children's book publishing, but she is no stranger to the issue of children's welfare. Along with her husband, Secretary of State Colin Powell, she has fostered an initiative known as America's Promise, an alliance of nearly 500 national organizations dedicated to providing young people with the tools for building character and competence.
Her first book, titled "America's Promise," outlines the fundamental
resources all children need to realize their dreams and goals: caring
adults, safe places, a healthy start, marketable skills, and an opportunity
to serve and give back to the community.
Powell uses the title image of her second book, "A Little Red Wagon," written for toddlers, as the symbol for her charitable organization. A little red wagon appears on materials associated with the organization, including its Web site at www.americaspromise.org. Powell explained, "Every child should have a little red wagon to carry around their dreams, their hopes and their troubles, so when the burden is too heavy an adult can lean down and help pull the load."
Powell described the importance of books in her own life. "Every room in my house has books in it," she said. "My favorite place to be is in a room with two walls of books and a comfy chair."
As the daughter of educators, Powell grew up reading. "In those days before television, books and reading are what you did. Books develop our imagination. … Television does not require our minds to create anything."
Basketball Stars "Read to Achieve"
In the Teens & Children Pavilion, past and current stars of the National Basketball Association and Women's National Basketball Association promoted their "Read to Achieve" program that teaches the value of reading and online literacy and encourages families and adults to read regularly with young children.
In a morning session, NBA Hall-of-Famers Bob Lanier and Willis Reed were joined by WNBA standout Stacy Dales-Schuman and the recently retired Rebecca Lobo to promote literacy to a tent packed with young fans. The four invited several youngsters on stage to read aloud with them from Lanier's book, "It's All in the Name." One of a series co-written with Heather Goodyear and based on Lanier's childhood, "Name" tells the story of Li'l Dobber ("Li'l D") and his friends as they help a new kid in the neighborhood come up with his own unique nickname.
Former player and current coach Sam Vincent and WNBA stars Kara Lawson and Tamika Williams joined in an afternoon session of audience-participation reading.
While veteran TV newsman Bob Schieffer talked about his long experience as a reporter in the History & Biography Pavilion, young journalists under the age of 12 had a chance to learn what it was like to conduct interviews on their own. Julie Andrews was asked the inevitable question about which of the characters she portrayed in film was her favorite.
"I like them all for specific reasons, like puppies in a litter," Andrews responded. She went on to explain how she approaches each new character. "I dig in, like a good book."
Andrews also answered questions about how she felt to be designated a "Dame" by the Queen of England. "It is an enormously great honor to be recognized in your own country."
"Why did you choose a career that involves reading?" asked the first reporter to interview the Librarian, who told the group how he grew up surrounded by books. "You're never alone with a book," said Billington.
Another young reporter wondered if the Internet has helped or hurt the Library of Congress. The Librarian emphatically replied that the technology has allowed the Library to expose more people to its vast collections.
"We are not digitizing books, but we are putting pictures, films and especially manuscripts online," said Billington, who described items such as Theodore Roosevelt's diary and Thomas Jefferson's architectural drawings, which are available on the Library's Web site.
"Good content on the Web should be used as a starting point to go back to books," he added. "There's a lot of junk on the Internet. The best stuff is in books."
Andrews shared the children's interest in the nation's library. "The Library of Congress not only collects books by American authors, but also collects books from all over the world," said the actress. She is, no doubt, pleased to count hers among them.
Fun for the Youngest Book Lovers
The youngest of festival-goers sang, danced and drew stories in the Let's Read America II pavilion, learning that there is much more to storytelling than turning the pages of a book.
Inside the tent, a range of hands-on activities sparked kids' imaginations, from recording family histories to writing letters and having pictures taken by festival patron Target in the giant lap of its Big Red Chair.
Musical performances by entertainers such as José Luis Orozco, brought to the festival by Scholastic Inc., got crowds singing the Macarena in Spanish and English. Toddlers and parents alike crooned along with George Oakley of Garrett Park Music, singing, "The best time to learn the blues is in your twos" in PBS' Share a Story section.
Visitors voted for their favorite books on AT&T's "Library Wall," staffed by the company's Hispanic Association. By noon, Teresa Rodriguez had refreshed the wall eight times as festival-goers flocked to cast their votes by filling in book spine labels, which were then applied to "shelf rows" on the wall.
"It's good that we brought plenty of wallboard with us," said Rodriguez.
At the end of the day, festival authors with the most votes were R.L. Stine, creator of more than 50 books for young readers, including the "Goosebumps" series, and best-selling mystery writer James Patterson, author of "The Lake House," a sequel to "When the Wind Blows."
Mary Kate Martin, 10, who came to the festival with her mother, Marsha, "all the way from Pennsylvania," was eager to see Avi. "The whole [festival] is just kind of cool," she said.
Parents gathered at tables to pick up brochures from organizations such as In2Books and Half Price Books, which promote literacy. This material provided a wealth of tips on how to get children reading.
Outside the pavilion, books literally came to life. Eleven-year-old Alix Taulbee of Rockville, Md., stood in line 30 minutes to step aboard Scholastic's Magic Schoolbus and meet the series' famous teacher cum driver, Miss Frizzle. "I didn't mind waiting," said Taulbee. "Inside it was awesome. It was like getting to go inside a book. I love the Friz, 'cause she has curly red hair like me."
The biggest smiles came from children hugging their favorite characters, who seemed to leap from the pages of books and PBS television programs. Caillou, Mama and Papa Berenstain, Ord of Dragon Tales and Clifford the Big Red Dog were among the oversized creatures posing for pictures with thrilled children.
Nine-year-old Madeline from Arlington, Va., waited for Arthur, the Aardvark, whose favorite thing to do, naturally, is read. "I like that he's funny and that [the show] is like reality," said Madeline. "When his computer breaks, it doesn't get fixed in five minutes."
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office, and Deborah Durham-Vichr is a freelance writer in the Washington area. John Sayers, Public Affairs Office, contributed to this story.