Rochester: Gold Standard of Children’s Book Festivals

Elizabeth Bluemle - November 10, 2011

Every November, around 45 children’s book authors and illustrators converge on Rochester, N.Y., prepared to greet 3,000-5,000 children and parents, teachers and librarians at an all-day festival. The Rochester Children’s Book Festival, now in its 15th year, is held at Monroe Community College, and it’s a miracle of solid planning and seamless execution.
The festival takes over rooms on two floors of the college. Downstairs is a craft room, where volunteers guide kids through all kinds of creative activities based on the books of the authors and illustrators upstairs. The festival’s second floor has several spaces: the main room with tables piled high with books set up for all of the visiting artists, next to a smaller room where the Lift Bridge Book Shop, which handles all of the sales for the festival, showcases additional merchandise like bookmarks, toys, light-up pens and other book-related temptations for young readers. There are also rooms for presentations and readings throughout the day.

Betsy Lewin greeting fans (photo by Elizabeth Vande Velde)

The atmosphere is bright and cheery and fun all day long, as attendees pour in through the front entrance and make their way around the aisles, stopping by the tables to explore all of the books. Three giant screens high on the walls show a loop of the visiting authors and illustrators and announce upcoming readings and lectures; between those screens and the excellent program guide (created by Herm and MJ Auch, who also design and maintain the festival’s website and manage the info for every author and illustrator), visitors are in no danger of missing out on anything.

Festival Directors Elizabeth Falk and Kathleen Blasi

The Festival’s directors, children’s book authors Elizabeth “Sibby” Falk and Kathleen Blasi, volunteer their time — which amounts to an unimaginable number of hours each year. What a labor of love! The volunteer coordinator, writer Barbara Underhill, directs 105 helpful folks, who do everything from unpack and set up books to shepherd authors to their presentations and readings and bring them coffee, water, snacks and anything else they need at their tables (staplers, tape) throughout the day. There’s an entire private section dedicated to lunch and snacks for the authors and illustrators, who sneak away for quick breaks during the day.
Some of this year’s line-up included Betsy and Ted Lewin, Jane Yolen, James Howe, Bruce Coville, Mary Downing Hahn, Cynthia DeFelice, Tedd Arnold, Ellen Wittlinger, and many, many other fine, famous, and fun folks. A full list (along with their individual websites) can be found here.

Author and Festival founder Vivian Vande Velde chats with young readers (photo by Elizabeth Vande Velde)

The Lift Bridge Book Shop gets a huge nod of appreciation for its amazing handling of the book sales. You booksellers know how complex offsite sales can be, and they have it down to a science. They have forms for participants who have brought extra copies of their books to sell. They note down what time a particular title of an author’s sells out. They have printouts of which titles and what quantity of stock left over at the end of the day, if any, they’d like you to autograph. It’s frankly the most impressive piece of offsite bookselling organization I’ve seen, and it’s wowed me three years in a row. (I have to say, I’m always delighted to be sitting on the author’s side of the table instead of the bookseller’s, at this event. We are treated so well, and have the easiest job of all: meeting and reading to kids and adult book lovers and signing their books.)
One of the most heartwarming things about the festival is its broad reach. Author Vivian Vande Velde, who founded the Rochester Children’s Book Festival 15 years ago, heads up an impressive program started by Carol Johmann called “Festival to Go,” which brings authors and illustrators into city schools. Sibby Falk explains: “There’s a volunteer group in our area called Altrusa. They buy books of the authors who go into the schools and donate those copies to the school’s library. With budget cuts, many or most of the city schools don’t get author visits and this brings them to the schools for free – again, all volunteer.”
I think it’s the volunteer spirit that makes this festival feel so special. A fly on the wall at the author gatherings on Friday and Saturday nights would have heard again and again how much we all love this festival, how special an ambiance it has, how full of joy and the love of books everyone is, from the tiniest wide-eyed toddler clutching a new book to the hardest-working bookstore staffer packing up after a long day.

Photo by Elizabeth Vande Velde

A postscript – after we all got home, we received wonderful news from Sibby and Kathy, who thanked us all so graciously for being part of the weekend, and then added, “We wanted to share with you that a community literary center in Rochester, Writers & Books, recently awarded the Rochester Children’s Book Festival their Writers & Books Big Pencil Award, which is presented to ‘individuals and organizations that have impacted the appreciation of literature and contributed significantly in the advancement, creation, and understanding of literature in the Rochester community.’ ” There was a collective email whoop of celebration from all of us, who had witnessed firsthand what this event means to its community.
The book – the physical book – is alive and well (and selling) in upstate New York. May all cities create children’s book festivals as full of spirit and the lively love of reading as Rochester.

7 thoughts on “Rochester: Gold Standard of Children’s Book Festivals

  1. Vivian Vande Velde

    It IS a fantastic festival–made great by the generous spirit and enthusiasm of those involved.
    I just wanted to make one clarification: Those beautiful pictures attributed to me were actually taken by my daughter, Elizabeth Vande Velde.

  2. Michael Allen

    I wish they would. I wish more cities had a book festival just like this one. Next year I’m going to have to visit. I wish I had heard about this one before it happened this year.

  3. Peggy Thomas

    I agree whole heartedly. Thanks for sharing with the world what all the participants already know — that RCBF is a special event second to none. Sibby and Kathi have always made sure that everyone is treated right, and that the books offered are of the highest quality. We are lucky to have them. – See you next year!

  4. Carol Chittenden

    Wow, all that organization, all that work is simply staggering. Warm congratulations to all the people who have worked together so productively for so long. You’re strengthening what we all strive for.

  5. Susan Williams Beckhorn

    Being a writer can be a lonely occupation. I live way out in the woods, but the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group has been very welcoming and supportive of me. The RCB festival is such a wonderful chance to meet the readers who connect with our books, even if they didn’t make the NY Times bestseller list. I felt like a rock star and came home wanting to work harder than ever!


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