Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

A Reading Festival That Gets It Right

Knox County Library finds the joy in summer reading

Five years ago, award-winning children’s author Jack Gantos stood on a stage at the World’s Fair Park in Knoxville and told a large crowd of book-lovers, “This is a city that really cares about literacy!”

Gantos was in town for Knoxville’s annual Children’s Festival of Reading. Every May the Knox County Public Library kicks off its Summer Library Club with this free outdoor event, which includes children’s authors and illustrators from all over the country, storytelling, dance, arts and crafts, live music, games, a book parade, and more.

Organizers put so much care and passion into this event that anyone who attends will immediately recognize the truth of Gantos’s observation: Knoxville is a city that cares about children’s and young adult literature. The University of Tennessee’s recent announcement that it now offers a doctoral specialization in children’s and young-adult literature, the first of its kind in the region, is yet one more example of the city’s dedication to children’s literacy.

“I’m always a bit caught off guard when people put this festival into the category of ‘educational and important,’” writes Mary Pom Claiborne, the library’s director of marketing and community relations, in an email. “I see this festival as being about the magic of creativity and stories and the imagination, which has a completely different tone. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is important and educational, but that’s secondary to being joyful and inspiring.”

This year Knoxville will welcome Caldecott 2015 Medalist Dan Santat; author Sara Pennypacker, best-known for her New York Times-bestselling Clementine chapter books; Erin and Philip Stead, the creators of the 2011 Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee; Jonathan Auxier, middle-grade author of last year’s critically-acclaimed The Night Gardener; Bristol author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley; artist R. Gregory Christie, three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration; Debbie Dadey, co-author of the beloved Bailey School Kids chapter books; middle-grade novelist Donna Gephart, winner of the 2009 Sid Fleischman Humor Award; YA novelist M.H. Herlong; and author-illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger, who has twice been awarded the Caldecott. “Just when I think we may run out of incredible talent,” Claiborne says, “we find an outstanding lineup.”

One of the many benefits of the Children’s Festival of Reading is the chance for kids to meet some of the country’s best authors and illustrators in person. “I suspect that when you meet a person who has created something as compelling as a book, it gives you permission to believe you can do it, too,” Claiborne says. “Perhaps it demystifies the process while at the same time glorifying the artist in a way that is too often reserved for movie stars, rock musicians, and sports heroes.”

Authors and illustrators tell a similar story: “It’s great to have the opportunity to hang out and get to know other folks who have a passion for reading and making books,” Dan Santat says.

Debbie Dadey, who recently bought a house in Sevierville, agrees: “There is nothing more rewarding than hearing kids chat about my characters like old friends and suggesting new adventures for them.” 

But for illustrator R. Gregory Christie, literary festivals are about more than just sharing an enthusiasm for books. “[I hope] to make an impact on some aspiring young artist’s dreams,” he says. “It gives me hope that gadgets haven’t won yet, [that] people are still willing to honor books in their tangible forms.”

Another perk for Santat is one you might not expect. “I visited Tennessee fifteen years ago,” he adds, “and it was the first time I ever saw fireflies—and it was amazing.”

[Editor’s Note: The Children’s Festival of Reading is supported in part by an annual grant from Humanities Tennessee.]