Wonderful Festival


I spent a wonderful two days at the Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi. In addition to the presentations, signings, and speeches at the festival itself, this week was the debut of Storybook Look: Illustrations by Southern Artists. The exhibit was hung at the beautiful Saenger Theater in downtown Hattiesburg and I was joined during Wednesday evening’s reception and signing by two other exhibiting artists: Rick Anderson and Daniel Powers. In addition to local folks from Hattiesburg, the exhibit drew from the festival-goers, a wonderful group of school and public librarians from across the region. Diane Shepherd, owner of Main Street Books, handled book sales and took care of many important details.


This year I delivered a new presentation, “Seeing is Believing.” I talked about the power of photography and the importance of storytelling in children’s nonfiction. I was delighted to reconnect with librarians I had met for the first time last year and who have embraced my book.


I heard stories of students finding wolfsnails in their yards at home and protecting them from being killed by gardeners wanting to protect their plants. A college student studying creative writing told of seeing a wolfsnail in New Orleans during a Spring Break work trip — and how fascinated she and her friends were with its lip extensions. In my sessions, I shared a draft copy I’ve made of the new book (Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature) and I got good feedback.


I always learn from the other writers, illustrators and storytellers. This year’s group included Judy Blume, Ashley Bryan, Diane Williams, and Yuyi Morales. After describing herself as an anxious, shy, and fearful child, Blume said her first favorite book was Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. She admited to having hid it at the back of her toy drawer in the hopes her mother wouldn’t return it to the library. As she wrapped up her speech, Blume said this about writing: “If everything is going well, I can leave everything in my life behind and spend a few hours in that other place…It’s the place where I can be fearless. It’s the place where I can be as brave and as strong as Madeline.”


Ashley Bryan urged anyone engaged in the process of teaching kids to read to use poetry. Out loud. His speech was peppered with poems by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. Holding a book (he said he always holds a book — even though he knows the poems from memory), he did a lot of call-and-response with us to demonstrate the way putting voice to poetry turns it into irresistible language that is connected to the words on a page. Use poetry, he says, and you will grow readers. I was convinced!


Yuyi Morales had the unenviable position of presenting after Judy Blume’s keynote address and after a two-hour signing (which many festival-goers spent waiting in line(s)), but she was well up to the task. She brought her bag of surprises and led us through her creative journey with her books. Yuyi is a native of Mexico and Spanish is her first language. She does extremely well in English and she sprinkled lots of Spanish into her talk. She ended with a terrific tribute to longtime children’s book ambassador, writer, and teacher Coleen Salley, who died last autumn.


Yuyi read Salley’s Why Epossumondas Has No Hair on His Tail. It was beautiful and fitting. Unfortunately, I missed out on the Coleen Salley celebration and the final day of the festival because I had a prior engagement back in Jackson. What a wonderful festival! Congratulations to Catharine Bomhold, director, and Karen Rowell, assistant director, and all the others who make this event possible — including Ellen Ruffin, director of the de Grummond collection at USM.

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