By Lina Roberts
For as long as Juanita Giles can remember, her hometown public school system has struggled. And while her community may not be alone, with nearly half of all children in the United States living in low-income families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, her county is among the hardest hit.
“There isn’t a lot of money in [Prince Edward and Charlotte Counties],” said Giles, graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. “The education in public schools is subpar. And one in five adults is functionally illiterate. A lot of people here don’t even have adequate plumbing.”
But there’s one thing that makes her county different from the hundreds of others just like it across the South East. Juanita Giles decided to do something about it.
Four years, countless hours and more than $100,000 later, Giles has successfully spearheaded a monumental effort to launch and deliver the biggest children’s book festival on the East Coast for the second year in a row.
Open to the public at no charge from Oct. 16 to 17, the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, hosted by Longwood University in Farmville, VA, will feature more than two dozen unique workshops and lectures suitable for children ages preschool and up.
This year’s highlights include Brenda Chapman, Pixar feature film screenwriter for Brave and children’s author, in a panel discussion on “Why Fairytales Matter and Empowering Girls Through Literature” as well as the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner Jacqueline Woodson, Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander and several other prize-winning authors.
But why a book festival? Of all the endeavors Giles could have championed, why start there? To provide children with an immersive, inspiring and eye-opening experience.
“If kids aren’t reading by 4th grade, they are 78% more likely to drop out of high school,” said Giles, mother of three and founder of the Athens Film Festival in Athens, Georgia and Eleven Pictures, Ltd., a non-profit rural youth media initiative in Southside Virginia. “The festival has become such a success, even in just its first year. There isn’t a children’s book festival of any significant size anywhere on the East Coast.”
Launched last year, after three years of fundraising, Director Juanita Giles welcomed more than 1,000 children to the festival and already has every 4th, 5th and 6th grader in Charlotte County signed up to attend this year. Additional attendees will travel from Norfolk, Richmond, Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Northern Virginia. Endorsed by Chaka Smart, VCU’s former basketball coach, Giles says the festival is designed to fill a hole in her local community as well as greater Virginia.
This festival is an opportunity to make the joy and freedom that comes with proficient reading accessible to those who don’t have many options otherwise. It’s an opportunity to remove stigmas surrounding reading, to open a world of literacy to those in need of positive role models and to, simply give children around the state the chance to interact with, learn from and be inspired by accomplished book authors looking to inspire another generation of writers and readers.
Some of the Children’s Book Festival workshops and discussions include:
Civil Rights in Children’s Literature, a panel discussion of Teri Kanefield’s Girl from a Tar Paper School, based on the life of Barbara Johns who led the Moton School strike that eventually produced three-fourths of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. This panel will address issues of race, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation and others that confront our children today and how children’s literature is an important tool in helping our children address and understand these issues. Oct. 16 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm
London Ladd – Passion, Patience and Perserverance, London Ladd will show the many steps involved in making a picture book such as research, drawing sketches and creating artwork. Sketch books, original artwork and various visual aids will show children how he works. Students will also participate in portrait drawing.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm
Ben Hatke – Three Secrets to Making Great Comics, Where do stories come from? How do you invent new characters? How do words and pictures work together? Why are stories magic? Can the right story change the world? A presentation that includes live drawing, masks, story card activities and more. Plus: The secret origin of Zita the Spacegirl…
Suitable for: Tweens / Oct. 17 11:30 am – 12:30 pm
Empowering Girls Through Books, Our panel discusses the pressure girls face from TV, magazines, on the playground and in class and how introducing them to powerful and confident female characters is one asset we have in raising strong girls.
Oct. 17 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm
Empowering Boys Through Books, Choosing books by gender can be an advantage when seeking to empower boys. It’s important to start early, but as boys progress through school, they are often shamed for reading. Our panel will address what boys need when they read and how to encourage them even as society discourages them.
Oct. 17 9:30 am – 10:30 am
Timothy Basil Ering – Necks Out for Adventure! With slides, drawings and play, the illustrator of The Tale of Despereaux, presents an incredibly interactive and entertaining program.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 16 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm
Lamar Giles – Storystarters, Celebrated YA author Lamar Giles will help kids come up with story prompts, then create their own unique short story.
Suitable for: Young Adult / Oct. 16 9:30 am – 10:30 am
John Bemelmans Marciano – Making Up Madeline, John Marciano brings back his incredibly popular presentation, “Making Up Madeline.” Explore the world of the precocious French girl and help plan her next adventure.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 9:30 am – 10:30 am
Sophie Blackall – Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, Before Winnie-the-Pooh, there was a real bear named Winnie. In 1914, Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian on his way to tend horses in World War I, followed his heart and rescued a baby bear. He named her Winnie, after his hometown of Winnipeg, and he took the bear to war. Harry Colebourn’s real-life great-granddaughter tells the true story of a remarkable friendship and an even more remarkable journey from the fields of Canada to a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England…And finally to the London Zoo, where Winnie made another new friend: a real boy named Christopher Robin. Here is the remarkable true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. Learn how Sophie Blackall conquered illustrating the world’s most famous bear.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm
The Historical Story: Teri Kanefield and London Ladd, Children gain a profound awareness and more personal understanding of the past when they identify with characters in a story and see historical events through their eyes. When historical information is presented in the form of a story, it resonates in a way that is not possible with nonfiction. Author Teri Kanefield and illustrator London Ladd discuss what it takes to bring history to life for children.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade and Tweens / Oct. 17 11:30 am – 12:30 pm
Sarah Sullivan – Speaking Through a Mask: A Workshop on Creating Mask or persona Poems, Students imagine what it would be like to be a certain object, animal, insect, mythological beast, fairy tale character or fold hero and then write a poem of that “character.” Writing poems in the voice of another person, animal or thing helps boost creativity and develop empathy for others.
Suitable for: Preschool to 5th grade / Oct. 17 2:30 pm – 3:30 pm
Anne Blankman and Lamar Giles – Thriller Fiction for Teens, Mysteries and thrillers are democratic – appealing to most people at some point. It’s one genre that attracts a wide following. While adult mystery novels usually have detectives at work at solving mysteries, in teen novels it is often an average teen with an inquisitive nature–someone who is a true amateur, but not lacking in action and intensity.
Suitable for: Young Adult / Oct. 16 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm
For the detailed schedule, visit Virginia Children’s Book Festival.
This festival has been made possible through sponsors like: Longwood University, University of Richmond, Shaka and Maya Smart, Natural pHuel, Pam Butler of Mainly Clay, Anita Garland, CentraHealth, Shirley Blackwell, Navona Hart of Real Living Cornerstone, and many others. Additional donations and contributions are welcome and encouraged to help ensure the continued success of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. To learn how you can help, please contact Juanita Giles at 434.390.1962 or