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Youth Literature Festival once again providing a wealth of inspiration, education to local youth

by the College of Education at Illinois / Sep 30, 2016

Youth Literature Festival

Community Day Celebration will close out Oct. 20-22 festival  

Like worthwhile sequels to a great story, the College’s biennial Youth Literature Festival (YLF), which began in 2008, keeps growing and continues to inspire children from kindergarten through high school.

The numbers are impressive: During the festival’s upcoming two days in October, 22 authors and illustrators will visit more than 90 schools in 18 school districts across eight counties, sharing their work and insights at assemblies, book discussions, readings, and writing workshops.

In all, more than 20,000 schoolchildren will participate in author events at their schools. According to Linda Tammen, program coordinator of YLF and a former grade-school teacher, these events are the most important part of the festival.

“Due to economic circumstances, some of these kids won’t ever have access to an author unless we bring one to them,” she said. “In the past, we’ve had many authors who did a lot more than what they were assigned. Everybody who came was that kind of person.”

Just as important, the children who interacted with the authors were engaged and, in some cases, positively transformed for the better.

The children who interacted with the authors were engaged ... positively transformed for the better.

Author e.E Charlton-Trujillo, for instance, bonded effectively with teenagers, even those who were easily distracted in class. She gave one student the nickname of his favorite rapper and an autographed copy of her book.

“His teacher said his interaction with the author has made him feel more engaged at school,” said Tammen. “He’s raising his hand in class, and he’s constructively participating.”

The act was likely second nature to Charlton-Trujillo, who traveled the country in 2013 to speak at workshops designed to inspire troubled youths, while promoting her third book, Fat Angie.

Tammen recalled a similar incident during the inaugural YLF in 2008, when she was a teacher at Paxton-Buckley-Loda. One of her first-graders, a shy child who felt he was “different,” read all of Alice McGinty’s books about spiders. When McGinty later visited the school for YLF, both she and the child enthusiastically conversed about spiders and the content of McGinty’s books.

“He was changed forever because of that,” Tammen said. “He thought, ‘All right, being smart is okay. And being different is okay.’ He’s in junior high now and he still feels that way.”

In 2014, author Keiko Kasza spoke to kindergartners and first-graders in the gymnasium of Thomas Paine Elementary School in Urbana. A published children’s author since 1981, she read from her book My Lucky Birthday and Finders Keepers.

The most poignant moment of Kasza’s often lighthearted talk took place when she related to the children the value of reading: “Reading is the base of everything. If you read a lot, you develop that device in your head to determine what is good writing, what it is all about, and then you use that device to judge your own writing.”

The kids in attendance just wanted to hear good stories, however, and that’s what Kasza provided that afternoon, much to the delight of Thomas Paine’s librarian at the time, Deb Newell, who spent many months on the YLF committee helping coordinate events. Without the help of the College and other sponsors who support YLF, Newell said her school could not afford to attract authors.

“We have a 67 percent poverty rate in the building, and our budget is very small,” Newell said. “The kids think an author is usually dead, so to have one come and talk about the writing process really helps them see what it’s about, and then maybe they can do it, too.”

The 2014 YLF Community Day Celebration drew approximately 1,000 people to the I Hotel and Conference Center, where numerous campus entities and local organizations had activity tables. The family-oriented event includes author readings, book signings, puppet shows, live music, art displays and a variety of hands-on activities.

Children and adults took in the expertise of local filmmakers (Pens to Lens), participated in a folktale activity (Spurlock Museum), learned about books in Spanish (Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies), and shared art adventures (Department of Art Education).

The Department of Special Education had an activity table that offered preschool children with and without special needs the chance to interact with story props, pictures, and easy-to-use communication systems. Additionally, secondary science preservice teachers from the College staffed a booth that connected Jennifer Ward’s science-focused books to hands-on science activities for children.

The College also organized valuable panel discussions for area teachers, librarians, and parents. One such discussion was called “Fiction/Nonfiction - Common Core Pairings.”

“This was a particularly interesting panel because the authors brought one of their own books and selected a book from another author whom they felt worked well with their book for use in the classroom,” said Tammen.

This year, a Community Day highlight will be the 1 p.m. presentation of the puppet show “Peter and the Wolf,” presented by members of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra and the Central Illinois Puppetry Guild.

The ultimate purpose of YLF is to open up and better the lives of children by getting them to read avidly. A quote by renowned scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, comes to Tammen’s mind when she thinks of what makes YLF such a valuable festival offered by the College: “Give a kid a book, and you change the world. In a way, even the universe.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Tammen, who saw firsthand as a teacher how reading can positively shape children. “Once a child reads just one treasured book, he or she is on the right path to becoming a good reader. They just have to find that one book.”

The Youth Literature Festival is organized by the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities in the College of Education at Illinois, in collaboration with the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences and the University Library.