A Celebration of Reading in Rochester!

GIANNA Z. and I were part of a HUGE celebration of books and reading at the annual Rochester Chlidren’s Book Festival this weekend.  Families crowded into the festival at Monroe Community College to meet 42 authors and illustrators, make bookish crafts, listen to talks and read-alouds, and of course, pick out new books to have signed.   I was lucky enough to attend this festival two years ago and was so excited to be invited back. I mean, really…how can you not love a crowd like this, all cheering for books?

I loved visiting with all the kids, teachers, & librarians, and some LJ friends like too!  The fantastic people at Lift Bridge Book Shop handled book sales for the event, and I was in awe of how efficient they were, even with such a great crowd.  

Here’s Peggy Thomas, my festival next-door neighbor with some of her fantastic, fun picture books.

And more author friends… Rebecca Stead and Michelle Knudsen.  My daughter came with me to the festival and had been talking for weeks about meeting Rebecca because she loved WHEN YOU REACH ME so much.  When she finally got to say hello, she was a little tongue-tied, but did get to have her own copy signed, which made her very, very happy.  We picked up a signed copy of Michelle’s new fantasy novel THE DRAGON OF TRELIAN, too – can’t wait to read it!

Here are Herm and Mary Jane Auch, one of the friendliest and funniest couples in children’s literature.  E and I have been laughing over our signed copy of their picture book THE PLOT CHICKENS all weekend.

And here, from right to left (pay attention…I’m naming people backwards this time) here’s author Elizabeth "Sibby" Falk, who organized this year’s festival and is one of the kindest, most talented, and most organized people I know. You really had to experience this festival to appreciate the work that must have gone into making everything run so perfectly.  (Thank you, Sibby!) In the middle is another delightful and talented Rochester author, my friend Kathy Blasi. Both Kathy and Sibby write beautiful historical fiction, so if you’re a fan of stories from the past and haven’t checked out their books, you’ll want to do that.  

And finally, on the left in the photo is Sibby’s daughter Sarah.  Take note of that purple shirt…the official uniform of the fabulous festival volunteers, who seemed to be everywhere. They set up and broke down the event, passed out programs, ushered authors to their presentations on time, and even came around with cookies at the end of a long day.  The volunteers at this festival were amazing – so thank you, volunteers, if any of you are reading this. You made us all feel so very welcome and appreciated.

Rochester Children’s Book Festival

This is what it looked like when they opened the doors at 10:00…

…and what it looked like all day long, while several thousand people poured into the festival on the campus of Monroe Community College.

I am in AWE of the volunteers from the Rochester Area Children’s Writers & Illustrators who put this festival together. I’ve never seen so many kids, clutching so many shiny, new, autographed books, looking so excited.  Saturday’s festival was a high-energy, joyful celebration of reading, and I was  thrilled to be a part of it.  I sold out the bookstore’s 50 copies of SPITFIRE and was especially happy to hear that some of those copies are on their way to classrooms & libraries. I met lots of great readers, too!

My family and I came home with a huge pile of books signed by some of our favorite authors as well.

You can’t see her smiling face here, but this is Vivian Vande Velde, my festival table-next-door-neighbor… and this was the view I had of her most of the day!  She signed about a zillion books for excited readers– every one with a huge smile.

Here’s Vivian’s smile!  She’s on the left, with fellow festival organizer Kathleen Blasi on the right.  My E loves American Girl books and other historical fiction, so she was thrilled to have a signed copy of Kathy’s book A Name of Honor.  (She’ll get to read it as soon as I’m done!)

Tedd Arnold was busy signing his zany picture books here, but he signed a copy of his new YA called Rat Life for J.  If you read the review I posted of Rat Life last week, you know how much I loved it.  It’s a great, great book, and I was excited to meet Tedd and tell him how much I enjoyed it.

I was also excited to meet Coleen Murtagh Paratore, since I love the voice in her writing (and because

  told me I had to go see her.  Coleen says hi, Debbie!)

James Howe had a loooonnng line of people waiting for him to sign when he came back from his presentation.  Here he is, getting started.

Here’s Kathy Blasi (left) with Rebecca Stead (right) , author of First Light, which I’ve heard such good things about and have been dying to read.  Now I have a signed copy waiting for me on the bookshelf.

Michelle Knudsen signed so many copies of Library Lion that they were gone by the time I made it over to take her picture.  This was the only photo I got of Michelle, so I decided to share it, even though her eyes are kind of closed, because she looks so cute anyway.  When my eyes are closed in a photo, I just look sleepy.

I met fellow North Country  Books writer Sally Valentine for the first time on  Saturday, too.  Her book, The Ghost of the Charlotte Lighthouse, was a popular choice, since it’s set near Rochester, NY.

Carol Johmann
was still smiling after doing double-duty at the Children’s Book Festival — as both an author and the festival organizer.  Carol is an AMAZING woman whose organizational skills astound me. Thanks, Carol, for EVERYTHING you did to make the festival so fantastic.

Here’s another amazing lady from behind the scenes of the festival… Annie Crane from the Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport.  Annie and her staff handled sales at the event and worked tirelessly all day long to make sure everyone had what they needed. Thanks, Annie!

This was such an incredible festival, with so many fun, amazing moments, but there’s one in particular that I have to share…

One ten-year-old boy kept coming back to my table.  I had given him a bookmark and a Spitfire temporary tattoo.  He had tasted the hardtack that I offer up as samples to show kids what life was like on the gunboats during the American Revolution.  We had chatted about the real 12-year-old boy who’s one of Spitfire‘s narrators and what it must have been like for him to be in a battle when he was so  young. 

Finally, the boy came back with his mom and siblings, each of whom carried a single book.  (His sister had Coleen’s The Wedding Planner’s Daughter and was holding it so tightly that you would have needed a crowbar to get it away from her.) 

“Do you see why I’m having trouble choosing?”  he said, looking up at his mom.  And then I understood why he kept leaving and coming back.  In a room with more than fifty authors and hundreds of books, he could choose one.

“I sure do,” she told him.  “But pick the one you think you’ll enjoy the most.”

He nodded.  “I want this one,”  he said, and handed me a copy of Spitfire to sign.  I barely made it through the signature and my thank you to him before the tears came.  He came back one more time a few minutes later, so his aunt could take his picture with me.

No matter how many books follow Spitfire, I think that’s the moment I’ll to remember the most when I think about why I write for kids. 


I have a bad habit with book festivals and book fairs.  I know that when I’m participating in one, I should spend the weeks leading up to it preparing my presentation and choosing my readings and things like that.  What I tend to do instead is get sidetracked by all the other authors participating and go on a reading binge.  My book festival conversations tend to go like this:

Husband:  What are you doing for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival?

Me: Did you see who’s going to be there??!  James Howe and Tedd Arnold and Michelle Knudsen!  Can you believe that?  E and I loved LIBRARY LION….

Husband: Yes, but…

Me: I hope I get to sit near Tedd Arnold. He has this new young adult book out…

Husband:  Is your presentation ready?

Me:  …and Vivian Van Velde is going to be there…and Coleen Paratore…

You get the idea. 

This Saturday, November 3 is the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, with an AMAZING lineup of children’s authors and illustrators.  I’m participating in the festival’s “Tween Time” showcase of historical fiction, and my kids have convinced me that I need to dress up as my main character again since it was such a hit in Burlington on Halloween.  I’m portraying Abigail Smith, an 18th century girl who disguises herself as a boy to fight in a Revolutionary War battle on Lake Champlain.  If you’re near Rochester, please drop by ‘Tween Time at 10:45. I’ll be there with my hardtack and my haversack, ready to share!

In a rare moment of planning ahead, I finished my presentation last week, so I’ve felt entitled to go on a reading binge of other festival authors’ books.  Here are a couple reviews….

I loved James Howe’s novel THE MISFITS, where a group of middle school outsiders challenges the school’s name-calling habit as a student council campaign platform.  Until last week, though, I hadn’t gotten around to reading the sequel, TOTALLY JOE.  This is a lighter look at what it’s like to be a gay kid in middle school.  Howe introduces readers to Joe Bunch through his main character’s “alphabiography,” a series of essays he has to write about his life, with each topic starting with a different letter of the alphabet (26 chapters, including one on the ubiquitous alphabet-book xylophone, for those keeping track).  Through the assignment, Joe tells the story of his first sort-of boyfriend, middle school bullies, his creative, supportive Aunt Pam, and his quest to be Totally Joe.  It’s honest and tough sometimes without losing its fun voice.  Howe has provided a particular gift in this novel – a book about being gay that’s age-appropriate for someone who’s still in middle school and not ready for some of the edgier titles that seem to abound in YA literature.

I also want to talk about RAT LIFE, Tedd Arnold’s first foray into young adult literature, which was so great that when I finished it, I trotted right over to nominate it for a Cybil Award in the YA Category.  (Nominations are open until November 21st, in case you haven’t nominated your favorites yet!) 

RAT LIFE is one of those books that made me laugh one minute and gasp in shock the next.  Its narrator, Todd, is a would-be writer growing up in Upstate NY in 1972.  In the first pages of the book, he hears about a body found in a river and meets a mysterious character who calls himself Rat.  Todd wonders if  Rat, an underaged recruit who’s just back from a tour of Vietnam, has something to do with that body in the river, and those suspicions mount throughout the novel, all the way to its dizzying climax.  I could go on and on about the humor, the interesting writing strategies Arnold employed, the gut-wrenching scene that almost made me stop reading but is so important to the book… but I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.  Don’t start reading until you have some time; you won’t want to take breaks.