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Festival To-Go

A Special Program for the Students of Rochester

As I've already discussed in a previous blog post, I'm quite passionate about the idea that kids should have access to books and reading. I won't rehash why this is so important, but when it comes to learning and best outcomes for students, the data speaks for itself. That's why the Festival To-Go program from Rochester Area Children's Writers and Illustrators is so incredible. I am being completely genuine when I say how amazing it was to be one of dozens of local authors sharing our books and love for reading with students - right in their classrooms.

So many wonderful signatures. How cute is this?!

40 Books, 40 Smiling Faces

First, a little background. Earlier this year I joined the Rochester Area Children's Writers and Illustrators, or RACWI, which is a small, local guild whose name speaks for itself. Besides connecting authors with each other and valuable resources, the group also hosts a large book festival every year. (Coming up on November 5th, by the way! Definitely check it out, as there'll be a lot of amazing, local talent.) RACWI also goes into schools ahead of this event to bring a bit of the festival to students in the city, who would otherwise not have access to the festival due to the challenges that come with being in the inner-city.

This was my first year participating, but Festival To-Go has been going on for close to 20 years. The nonprofit Friends of the Rochester Public Library helps ensure each student in the classroom gets a copy of the book, and after a reading, the authors make sure to leave enough time to sign each copy. I wish I didn't have to censor these photos so you could see their smiling faces yourself, but I read to a classroom of 5th graders and then a classroom of 6th graders, and let me tell you - they were absolutely beaming. The excitement was contagious, and I was left very, very happy.

I can't show faces for privacy reasons, but I can assure you, the smiles are 100% genuine!

Reading is Freedom

I was happy enough to just give these students an entertaining morning, but I didn't truly understand the weight this event held, until afterwards a fellow author remarked to me, "one little girl told me this was her first book ever." Isn't that heartbreaking?

Growing up, I always had access to books. I may not have gotten the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter, but the book was in my hands shortly thereafter. My family loved getting me books for Christmas, and were very supportive of my passion for reading. But years later, and I understand that unfortunately, not every family has that same privilege.

Rochester has three of the poorest zip codes in the entire state, and is one of the poorest cities in the country. In fact, nearly half of all children here in Rochester live in poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When your family is worried about the next meal, books suddenly become a luxury.

I'm not sure how many students received a book that morning, but we brought books to nearly 30 classrooms. And while I also don't know the particular situations of each of those students, I can only hope we made a difference to someone. Whether it's a fantastical escape like Welcome to Wis' Apothecary, or a more grounded nonfiction book from some of my peers, these students all now have at least one book with their name in it.

One of my colleagues, Rose O'Keefe, brought her latest book, Special Delivery: From One Stop to Another on the Underground Railroad - a historical fiction about the family of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. As it happens, the school we read at was the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy School No. 12, which is where the Douglass farm used to stand back in the 1800s.

When discussing the importance of reading, O'Keefe put it best: "Reading is freedom." Frederick Douglass understood that, which is why he famously taught himself how to read and write - eventually starting his own newspaper championing the abolition of slavery. With the power of books behind us, there is nothing we can't achieve. What will these students go on to do?

AMDA School No. 12, named not for Frederick Douglass - but the powerful woman who supported him throughout his life.

Hats Off to the Kids of AMDA No. 12

Finally, I just want to close with some praise of the kids there at School No. 12. All of them were so polite and respectful, and it was great to see how genuinely excited they were to have us in their classrooms. As I was reading, I could tell the kids were engaged and listening, which of course, feels good as an author.

As they were ELA classes, the teachers asked comprehension questions following the reading, and I was impressed by how smart the kids were! They also asked lots of thoughtful questions of their own, about the process and where the ideas behind Isabel and friends came from. This may sound kind of campy to say, but it really did mean a lot. To be honest, even though I do a lot of live reports as a journalist, reading in front of a bunch of pre-teens was a special kind of nerve-wracking haha.

So to those kids, thank you! The partnership between the library, RACWI and the Rochester City School District has truly accomplished something special, and I was blessed to play even a small part. I hope the students there go on to do great things, just like Anna Murray-Douglass and her husband. And as I signed in their books, I hope they keep reading.

Until next time!

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