Farmville Favorite: Juanita Giles and the VA Children’s Book Festival
“I never do anything small,” Juanita Giles says with a laugh. “That’s just not me. Never anything small.”
But when you are as passionate as she is about raising literacy among Southside Virginia’s school-age kids, small isn’t an option.
Juanita is the executive director and co-founder (along with Katie Snyder) of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival—the largest event of its kind in the United States. After last year’s enthusiastically received inaugural festival, the second annual Virginia Children’s Book Festival is slated for October 16th and 17th, 2015 on the campus of Longwood University.
Although there are plenty of book festivals throughout the country, and big ones at that, the Virginia Children’s Book Festival is the biggest festival devoted entirely to children’s literature. It is a glorious two days filled with field trips, workshops, readings and more, all devoted to one simple laser focused goal—getting kids (and their moms and dads) excited about reading and literacy.
“For many kids, children’s books are the first place they meet someone other than themselves. It’s one of the first places they are taught empathy and where their minds are opened to a worldview,” Juanita says.
Born and raised only miles from Farmville, the daughter of a Monacan Indian and granddaughter of a judge, Juanita attended Randolph Macon Woman’s College and later New York University where she focused on film writing. Years later she would return, marry and become a mother of three, to tend to the family farm near Charlotte Court House.
When taking in the rolling green countryside, quaint streetscapes and communities that dot the Southside region it can be easy to forget that illiteracy is a major issue here. It is an awareness that has settled deep within Juanita’s bones.
While she was working at the Charlotte County library in the children’s section she noticed something strange: “Weeks went by, and I didn’t see the first child in that library. That’s when I realized that there was a big issue here.” It was this notable absence that caused the first seeds of the festival to start to germinate in Juanita’s brain.
“When you live in a place that’s rural, it’s tricky. There is such richness in so many respects all around, but on the other hand, it can be hard to get things done,” says Juanita, “In some ways, we have in this community a culture of illiteracy…one in every five adults is functionally illiterate.”
And the statistics that accompany childhood illiteracy are equally startling. The likelihood of a fourth grade child not finishing high school skyrockets in accordance with his ability to read at grade level.
There was no doubt in Juanita’s mind that the problem was real and widespread, and having little ones of her own further attuned her to the urgency of instilling an early and deep love of reading in area children. But what to do?
In 2014 after 3 years of fundraising and countless unpaid hours of blood sweat and tears, the first annual Virginia Children’s Book Festival was hosted at Longwood University. In three years’ time, Juanita and a group of equally-dedicated board members and volunteers had raised $30,000 and coordinated two days-worth of world renowned speakers (including a virtual appearance by Judy Blume), workshops and field trips. Over a thousand kids participated, and Juanita and crew were elated by its success.
“To have kids attend a workshop or a talk by an author and then hear them talking about the author like that person was an old friend—to hear that excitement—that’s what it’s all about,” Juanita says.
This year’s event, bolstered by the preceding success, is set to blow away expectations yet again.
“I want to bring the best because these kids deserve the best,” says Juanita. “This community, mycommunity, deserves the best.”
And bringing the best is exactly what she’s doing. This year’s headliners are 2014 National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming and Kwame Alexander who wrote The Crossover, which won the 2015 Newbery Medal. Nationally recognized storytellers, artists and illustrators are also on the lineup for the two day event.
But bringing the best and the big names comes at price. And a steep one at that. Enter the sponsors and donors who make it possible. In stark contrast to the funds for last years’ event, this year the festival has raised $50,000 in only one year’s time.
“The local business people who supported us this year really took a chance. We are kind of a new thing,” say Juanita. “But I am so honored to be able to say that every bit of what was given is being used to bring these [speakers] in and make this the best possible experience for these kids and their families. And that is due to the support we’ve received, particularly from local folks and businesses”
“I can tell,” she says, “I can feel we are making a difference. People are excited. The kids are excited.”
From an under-utilized children’s section at a rural library to an entire college campus teeming with kids learning first hand the excitement and beauty of reading, Juanita has seen a small seed of an idea come a long way.