Virginia Children’s Book Festival honored by Library of Congress

Published 6:11 am Saturday, September 16, 2023

FARMVILLE – It’s a rare event. In fact, only 18 groups in the country were recognized this year as part of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards. Among that number was Farmville’s own Virginia Children’s Book Festival (VCBF). 

For those who haven’t heard of it before, the VCBF is an annual, three-day festival at Longwood University, during which thousands of authors and children across Farmville, the state of Virginia and beyond join together to encourage readership through fun, interactive activities. 

“Moving from stunned to stunned” VCBF founder and director Juanita Giles said when asked how it feels to receive the award. “It gives me a lot of pride in everyone who’s ever helped us in any way and who continues to help us.”

A look at the Library of Congress awards

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As we said, only 18 groups were recognized this year in the awards. It’s divided into two sections. First are the actual literacy awards, which are given out to three recipients each year that “provide exemplary, innovative and replicable strategies to combat illiteracy,” the Library of Congress said on its website. Then there’s the “successful practices” list, a group of 15 organizations recognized by the Library of Congress for “their implementation of highly successful practices in literacy programming.” Basically, these are groups who not only tried to help children read, but succeeded through their projects this year. The Virginia Children’s Book Festival was on the 2023 list. 

Katherine Paterson, the author of Bridge to Terabithia, whose novels have been awarded two National Book Awards and two Newbery medals, wrote a letter in support of the festival’s application. In it, she explained that the festival gets kids to focus. 

“There was an unbelievable diversity of opportunities–create a graphic novel alongside a practitioner–the language of hip hop–cooperate in making a giant mural–write a story about the monster under your bed or in your closet–dream up a fantastic world–on and on,” wrote Paterson. “My sessions, attended by middle and high schoolers were, naturally, about books and writing. It dawned on me as I was summoning up memories of 2019 that I hadn’t seen any cell phones in the hands of those teenagers. In 2019? It seems impossible to think that their eyes were on me and not on their phones. But that’s how I remember it–a day when teenagers were so engaged in art and literature that they forgot to consult their phones.”

That work stretches beyond just one or two sessions. 

“Our relationships with community partners are integral to what we do every day, from providing free books to anyone who wants to read to special programming at our Farmville office to the army of volunteers who are the beating heart of our festival,” Giles added. “Having that work recognized on a stage this big is gratifying and motivational to continue our efforts.”

More about the festival 

A Farmville native and voracious reader, Giles was inspired to start the festival after her disappointment with how few children came to the library where she volunteered. 

“There were a lot of days, even the weekends, where no kids would come in, and I could not understand that,” Giles said.

Noting Southside Virginia as a “book desert” – an area with little to no bookstores – Giles dug deep into how she could make reading irresistible to kids and how she could combat Southside’s high illiteracy rates. After years of planning, the book festival was born.

Aside from the yearly festival, Giles donates books to many organizations and sites where children frequent, such as restaurants, banks, foster programs, juvenile detention centers, food pantries and backpack programs. Wherever there are kids, she wants there to be free books for kids to read and take home with them. In just nine years, VCBF has donated around 60,000 books for children all over the area to enjoy.

Located in a campus building Longwood provided, VCBF runs solely off of grants and donations. The program does not charge for entry into the festival or the books, propelling their mission to get children reading by not letting money stand between children getting a book. 

As for the festival itself, many authors can be found signing books, reading their books aloud and hosting immersive activities that correlate with their books: challenging robots, natural disaster survival training and making snacks, such as boba tea and noodles.

“We’re always trying to involve kids in every aspect of the book and make it come alive for them,” Giles said.

Making connections, beyond Library of Congress

VCBF welcomes authors who attend the festival every year, as well as authors who have never been before. Some notable authors that have attended the festival are Mark Brown, author of “Arthur,” which was adapted into a popular children’s show on PBS; Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, author and illustrator of “Pinkalicious”; and Katherine Paterson, author of “Bridge to Terabithia,” which was made into a movie in 2007.

Giles noted two things that surprised her during her work with the VCBF, the first being how nervous children and families were to come onto a college campus. Giles is proud that VCBF is located on the university’s property so the children can associate this fun way of learning with college and feel less intimidated about higher education.

The second surprise was seeing not how many children want to read books, but how many want to write their own.

“(Children) see these authors and these authors interact with them in such a personal way, and they see that they’re just real people, and they feel that they can do this too,” Giles said. “The authors take such an interest. Authors want to come back year after year after year. They see these kids grow up, and they call them by name.”

Operating on a shoestring with word-of-mouth as their only publicity, Giles hopes the recognition from the Library of Congress will bring more support and sponsorships. Giles has ideas for expanding VCBF to more cities across Virginia, as well as potentially hosting a virtual book fair in the spring so kids can join from any location. A book festival for adults is another future goal so older generations can enjoy the same experiences.

This year’s festival takes place Oct. 11-13 at its usual site on Longwood’s campus. Donations can be made through a link on their website, and VCBF is always looking for volunteers.