Charlottesville’s 2018 Festival of the Book is in the books, and this year’s programming for children was, as always, spectacular. Authors who write for children and teen audiences fanned out across Albemarle County to visit over three dozen area schools to give book talks and discuss writing tips, and though the first two days of snow-cancelled classes put a damper on several of the events, their enthusiasm remained undimmed.
Meeting their young readers is both an obligation and an inspiration for children’s authors. It keeps them energized; it holds them accountable; it reminds them why they write. Three of the writers who visited (or were meant to visit) western district schools describe what it’s like and why it works.
Kathryn Erskine, National Book Award-winning author of seven books for children and young adults, hails from Charlottesville and likes to challenge herself to get out of her comfort zone. She published two books on the same day in 2017, and each was a departure from her past work. Mama Africa, a story in lyrical prose describing the life of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, was her first picture book.
“It took me six years to write Mama Africa,” said Erskine. “With so few words, the challenge is to find the entry point, that kernel of truth that I wanted to get across about her.” Erskine focused on a message that runs counter to today’s fast-paced world. “I wanted kids to know that strength and persistence can carry you through, even if the struggle takes many years.”
Erskine’s middle grade novel, The Incredible Magic of Being, is her first foray into magical realism, and its hero Julian is a fearful but starry-eyed nine-year-old trying to deal with his chaotic life. “I think a lot of kids might feel different, or feel like there’s something weird about them, especially as a teenager,” she said, “and I like to write about them and how they solve those kinds of problems.”
Erskine has been involved with the Festival of the Book for many years, visiting schools or appearing on author panels whenever she is in town for the event. “It is such a great thing to have on our doorstep,” she said. She tries to make school visits valuable for both the students and their teachers. “When I do writing workshops, we talk about elements of story and what might help them with their own writing. If schools are shelling out money, they need some bang for their buck.”
Fred Bowen has published 23 sports fiction books for readers 8 to 12 that focus on football, baseball, basketball, and soccer stories and draw on real sports history to create a relatable experience for his young readers. He makes the heroes of his stories as normal as possible, so that readers can identify with the challenges they encounter in his books.
“The problems my protagonists face are contained within the sport, like struggles with their role on a team, winning and losing, or even sports superstitions,” said Bowen. “They are trying to find their way, and in the process they are learning about life.” He hopes that his style of nonfiction may help reluctant boy readers find books they enjoy reading.
Bowen thinks that kids appreciate the change of pace in Festival author visits. “Sometimes schools forget that a lot of what really gets kids excited are the things out of the routine, like a visitor,” he said. Though the snowy weather interrupted some of his planned events, Bowen didn’t mind. “Being stranded at the Virginia Festival of the Book in beautiful Charlottesville is actually fabulous. It’s a spectacular event.”
Lauren Karcz published her debut young adult novel The Gallery of Unfinished Girls in 2017 after thinking about the characters for more than ten years. During a Festival event at WAHS attended by several creative writing classes, she described her path to publication and fielded questions from students about the process. “Young people often want to know about specific characters, where do ideas come from, how to actually write a novel,” she said.
Karcz spent lots of time in art museums both while growing up in Atlanta and during a period spent in London after college graduation, and her love of modern art comes through in her mysterious story about a high school artist suffering a creative block. The novel’s wide range of themes has allowed Karcz to attend a variety of creative events around the country, from the huge Decatur Book Festival to DragonCon, where she spoke to a packed audience as part of a panel on LGBTQ fiction.
“I’ve attended events in bookstores and libraries, and have done writing camps and summer workshops, but my favorite type of event is visiting a public school,” said Karcz, which is why she appreciates the Virginia Festival of the Book, where the interactions with students are both instructive and inspiring. “It’s always great when someone asks a specific question about the book; it’s a thrill.”