Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Fighting the Summer Slide

At the Children’s Festival of Reading, Knoxville hosts a star-studded lineup of authors that will turn kids on to books

“When I was a kid, I liked to read. A lot.” So begins the website biography of Jennifer Holm, author of the wildly popular Babymouse series and other award-winning books for children. A lifelong love affair with reading is a common theme on the websites of children’s authors: most cite it right off the bat in explaining what drives them to conjure stories today.

But while avid young readers gobble up Holm’s books and those of other celebrated children’s authors, it’s hard for grown-up book lovers not to worry about the way many children and young adults regard reading. Research has repeatedly confirmed the link between independent reading and academic success, but screen-based entertainment increasingly vies for children’s attention. It’s difficult not to conclude that children are, perhaps inevitably, reading less today. A 2009 report found that only a third of U.S. fourth-graders were reading at grade level, and a 2011 study reported that students whose reading skills aren’t up to par by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who read at grade level.

This is where the Children’s Festival of Reading, organized by the Knox County Public Library, comes in. A free celebration of kids’ lit to be held May 19 in downtown Knoxville, the festival does for reading what a crackerjack publicist does for a client. Founded eight years ago as a way to rally interest in the library’s summer-reading clubs, the festival combats the too-common notion among kids that reading is a chore, something they do only when a teacher makes them. “The festival makes reading fun and exciting,” says Mary Pom Claiborne, director of marketing and community relations for the library.

At the same time, it speaks to what teachers see as a critical problem. Summer reading may be a child’s best defense against the “summer slide”—the loss of academic skills that educators observe after students have been out of the classroom for weeks in a row. “It gives kids a chance to explore the subjects they want to explore,” Claiborne says. “They get to pick their own books, so it’s really a chance to love reading. It doesn’t matter so much what you read; the act of reading is what’s important.” The festival is also a way for families to “make reading a family activity,” Claiborne says, reinforcing the pivotal role parents can play in a child’s school experience.

Among the attractions at the festival this year will be a Parade of Books, storytelling, children’s performances, crafts, more than fifty community booths (each with an interactive, reading-related activity), a science village, and appearances by its star guests: five of the hottest writers and illustrators on the contemporary kid-lit scene, including Jennifer Holm and her brother, Matthew, with whom she collaborates on the Babymouse books.

With guest lineups that include several Caldecott and Newbery Award-winners, the festival has earned a reputation for drawing star talent. Its virtually one-of-a-kind status helps generate buzz, too. Only one other city—Savannah, Georgia—hosts a festival dedicated solely to children and reading, but Knoxville is taking the lead in guiding staffers at other community libraries who are interested in replicating the program. “People are starting to call us,” Claiborne says.

One featured writer this year, Alyssa Satin Capucilli and her beloved character Biscuit—star of the bestselling series of books that shares his name—will occupy a unique position in the festival, serving as a link between the Children’s Festival of Reading and the International Biscuit Festival, which will take place simultaneously two blocks away. (Biscuit will lead the Parade of Books, which will travel the distance between both Knoxville festivals.) Capucilli, who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, has written more than seventy-five books for kids, including the Katy Duck series, which is inspired in part by her own years as a professional dancer.

Like Capucilli, the rest of this year’s authors and illustrators hail from New York. Gail Carson Levine is author of the 1998 Newbery Award Honor book Ella Enchanted (which was made into a film in 2004 starring Anne Hathaway), among many other titles. Princesses, fairies, and other magical figures inhabit much of her work, while her most recent title, Betsy Red Hoodie, a picture book, twists the classic fairy tale into what Booklist called “a loopy, laugh-aloud adventure…[f]ull of action, zaniness, and a few meta-moments in which characters crawl out of the story.” On her website, she blogs in response to readers’ questions about the craft of writing.

Author-illustrator Dan Yaccarino lends his whimsical vision both to books and television: he’s the creator of the Parents’ Choice Award-winning series Oswald and Willa’s Wild Life, and he contributed character designs to The Backyardigans. He has illustrated books by Margaret Wise Brown, Kevin Henkes, and other kid-lit luminaries, and his signature style is on fine display in his 2011 titles, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau and All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel. Of Cousteau, a Booklist reviewer wrote, “Rendered in gouache and airbrush, the playful illustrations evoke popular mid-twentieth-century patterns and shades—a fitting reference to Cousteau’s professional heyday.”

And then there are the Holms—Jennifer and Matthew—whose popular Babymouse and Squish books are billed as graphic novels for young readers. Jennifer Holm is a three-time Newbery Honor award recipient: for Our Only May Amelia (2000), Penny from Heaven (2007), and most recently, Turtle in Paradise, which in 2010 was also a New York Times bestseller. In an interview that year, Holm told Chapter 16 that Turtle, her spirited heroine, “was actually inspired by Shirley Temple in a roundabout way. I had seen Shirley Temple pictures as a kid, but when I watched them again as an adult for this book, I found them extremely annoying. Shirley is soooo perfect. Those ringlet curls! That smile! And she can dance! (Did I mention I was booted from ballet at age six? Yep.) So Turtle really became my reaction to Shirley Temple. Turtle is clear-eyed and world-weary and doesn’t believe in Hollywood endings. She also has a little bit of a ‘snarky’ voice, and that’s all me.”

Young children—and their parents—will also relate to the newest book by author-illustrator David Ezra Stein. In Interrupting Chicken, a 2011 Caldecott Honor book, Stein spins the tale of a chicken who loves bedtime stories—but just can’t help talking back during the telling, much to her weary dad’s chagrin. “Readers will fall hard for the antics of this hapless pair,” Publishers Weekly correctly predicted: Interrupting Chicken became a New York Times bestseller and a Junior Library Guild Selection, among other triumphs.

As with all the other featured authors at the Children’s Festival of Reading, however, Stein is less interested in winning professional awards than in helping kids learn to love books: “I’ll never forget the experience of sitting in a beloved lap and having a whole world open before me: a world brought to life by the pictures and the grown-up’s voice,” Stein writes on his website. “That wonder is what I want to recreate in my own books.”