Timothy Basil Ering, author and illustrator, took students through the process of painting a picture for an upcoming book he is illustrating called Walrus Song
Timothy Basil Ering, author and illustrator, took students through the process of painting a picture for an upcoming book he is illustrating called Walrus Song

In classrooms across the country at 1 p.m. every day this month, the kids behind computers sit up a little straighter. One of their favorite authors or illustrators is about to come on.

This is the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, gone virtual.

Unable to host an in-person festival this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, festival organizers didn’t once consider canceling the VCBF. Instead, they looked for a way to expand the reach of the annual event, which brings some of the country’s best-known and well-loved authors and illustrators to the campus of Longwood University for a three-day festival of reading and inspiration.

We knew we couldn’t have the big, excited crowds of students and families like normal, but we actually figured out ways to expand our reach so we are serving even more children.

Juanita Giles, VCBF director Tweet This

And expand they did. This year, the virtual VCBF will be attended by more than triple the audience of the in-person festival.

“We looked at this year like an opportunity, not a lost year,” said VCBF director Juanita Giles, who runs the daily sessions from a room tucked in the back of Greenwood Library at Longwood. “We knew we couldn’t have the big, excited crowds of students and families like normal, but we actually figured out ways to expand our reach so we are serving even more children.”

Instrumental in that plan were Longwood partners, especially Dean of Greenwood Library Brent Roberts and Director of the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts Rachel Ivers, who have been stalwart backers of the VCBF mission for all six years of its history. This year, instead of it’s typical gallery show of one illustrator’s work, the LCVA is displaying a retrospective of past VCBF shows, including works by Ellie MacKay, John Parra, LeUyen Pham and Victoria Kann.

Students in classrooms not only across the Commonwealth are tuning in for some of the country’s best-loved authors and illustrators--they are joining from far-flung states like Washington and even Canada.

I’m hoping we’re approaching a turning point with this pandemic, and that better times are ahead. But for now, the best thing a kid can do is to get lost in the pages of a book.

Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Tweet This

The lineup includes VCBF alumni like Timothy Basil Ering (The Story of Frogbelly RatboneThe Tale of Despereaux illustrator), two-time Caldecott Award winner Sophie Blackall (If You Come To Earth, Ivy & Bean) and Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet), with new faces like Torrey Moldanado (What Lane?) and Brad Meltzer with Chris Eliopoulous (Ordinary People Change The World series).

It began on Oct. 1 and continues through Oct. 31, with each week themed for a different age group. The month-long virtual festival concludes with Picture Book Week. Registration is still free and sessions will be available for only a limited time after the festival ends.

The groundwork for the 2020 festival was laid over the spring, when Giles tapped her vast network of VCBF alumni for some presentations made available to homeschooling families across the state. Some of the most well-loved authors and illustrators like LeUyen Pham (The Princess in Black illustrations, Bear Came Along) and Todd Parr (The I Love You BookThe Family Book) appeared live on Facebook with inspirational words--and a unique lesson for students learning from their kitchen tables.

“During the spring, we did several presentations with authors for families that were homeschooling during the pandemic,” said Giles. “These were well-received, but what people really missed was that authentic interaction between author or illustrator and children, which is part of what makes the in-person festival so magical. So over the summer we really explored the best ways to capture that interaction.”

After some trial-and-error, Giles landed on a platform that allowed her to have the best of both worlds: a session will typically start with a presentation from the author or illustrator that lasts about 20 minutes, then a few children from across the country will join for a Q&A session that mirrors the in-person experience. Oftentimes, these Q&A sessions will accompany a quick drawing lesson or writing prompt.

Such was the case last Tuesday, when Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney joined the ranks of VCBF alumni for the first time. After giving a tour of his studio and talking about how he created the bestselling books, three very excited kids joined and got to pepper the author about Greg, Rowley, Manny, Rodrick and the rest of the gang--and get a special preview of his newest book in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid Book 15: The Deep End, out Oct. 27.

“2020 has been challenging for kids,” said Kinney. “I wrote The Deep End in hopes of giving kids a much-needed laugh, and a much-needed break from their screens! I’m hoping we’re approaching a turning point with this pandemic, and that better times are ahead. But for now, the best thing a kid can do is to get lost in the pages of a book.”

Will these new elements be incorporated into next year’s festival, which will--fingers crossed--be held in person? Mostly likely in some form or another, said Giles.

“We like to imagine new and better ways to reach children,” she said. “That’s been the philosophy of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival from the beginning, so we’ll use all the tools at our disposal to bring authors and illustrators as many children as we can. We’ve learned some valuable lessons in navigating the challenges of this year that will be useful in planning for next year and years after that.”

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