One of the most highly respected children’s literature events in the country is happening right here in our state this month, with some of the talent simply crossing the bridge to get there. The Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, now in its fifteenth consecutive year, will be held at Lincoln School on Providence’s East Side on Saturday, October 13.
The East Bay is home to several children’s authors and illustrators. Illustrator Christopher Denise and his wife, author Anika Denise, live in Barrington with their family. Anika’s forthcoming book, Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, is nominated for the Rhode Island Latino Books Month Award.
How is it that so many great talents have ended up in such a small area? Christopher Denise notes that the presence of RISD, where many illustrators studied, has helped to establish our state as a welcoming and comfortable home. Both he and wife Anika love the Barrington area because they are able to have a great house in a great school district: “It doesn’t really matter where we are in terms of our work, but we choose to be here because Rhode Island is gorgeous.”
Christopher also values the incredibly supportive community: “We have wonderful independent bookstores like Barrington Books and Books on the Square; even little stores like Frog & Toad stock our books. Sometimes when I want to work outside my studio, I’ll go to the Coffee Depot in Warren, and I’ll see lots of other writers or freelancers working there, as well.” As a part of this supportive community, Anika also runs a blog, the Little Crooked Cottage, with two other Barrington-area authors, Jamie Michalak and Kara LaReau. They often feature books by other local writers (as well as others) there.
How did the blog come about? Anika and Michalak met at a book signing event at Barrington Books; both Michalak and LaReau had previously worked in the publishing industry and transitioned to writing. Together, the three formed a critique group: “Here we were, three women writers working on children’s books in Rhode Island, and we thought, wouldn’t it be great to trade work once a month and help each other out?” The idea for the blog arose because they were sharing books they liked with one another, so they enlisted the help of Christopher to create a character (Mr. Pig) and a blog banner for the site.
Other Rhode Islanders whose work has been featured on the blog include other Barrington residents, like illustrator Kelly Murphy, author and illustrator Mary Jane Begin, and husband and wife R. W. Alley and Zoe B. Alley.
You may recognize Alley’s work because he has provided illustrations for Michael Bond’s beloved books about Paddington the Bear for the past twenty years. This year, one of those books, Paddington Storybook Collection, was the Rhode Island submission to the National Book Festival, held in Washington DC on September 1. Alley also illustrates Garth Stein’s popular series of books about Enzo the dog, as well as numerous other stories.
Anika says that the children’s book community is wonderful in that it’s not competitive, but rather quite supportive. The authors and illustrators celebrate one another, attending each other’s launch parties and book signings. Along with other local families, the Denises often attend the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books & Authors with their children. “To have this book festival is amazing. The talent that it brings in every year and the opportunity to hear authors speak really helps to show what a literary community we have in our small state.”
Mary Jane Begin also emphasizes the collegiality of the community; she moved from New York back to Rhode Island to take advantage of the opportunity to teach at RISD, where she connected with R.W. Alley and Christopher Denise. When Begin’s kids were teenagers, they babysat for the Denises’ children; now, the Denises’ kids dog sit Begin’s 14-year-old Labrador. “Barrington is like Mayberry; a small town with a friendly bearing, and the added charm of the Narragansett Bay close at hand. Each of us have our studios here in Barrington, regularly writing and illustrating, and getting together to compare notes. When we aren’t working, we might find ourselves dining out in our small town, barbecuing in the back yard or hanging out on Barrington Beach until the sunsets, raising a glass to our friendship and celebrating our good fortune to be here. “
Organizer and Lincoln School Lower School Librarian Meagan Lenihan is especially excited about this year’s festival lineup, which features perennial local and national favorite Chris Van Allsburg along with twelve other acclaimed authors and illustrators, including Kevin Henkes, Rosemary Wells, David Wiesner, and Jerry Pinkney.
At the Festival, each author and illustrator gives a 30-minute presentation about their works and their philosophy, and all attendees have the opportunity to talk with them and have books signed. Books are available for purchase at the event; each attendee may also bring up to three books from home to be autographed.
In addition, there are many other activities, such as bookmaking and craft projects. Short fiction writing workshops, hosted by School One (a small, private high school in Providence) and Goat Hill (a collaborative effort by local writers Ann Hood, Hester Kaplan, and Taylor Polites), will be offered as a part of Write Rhode Island, a short fiction competition for students in grades 7-12.
This year, the Festival will kick off on Friday evening, October 12, with a special collaboration between local singer, storyteller and author Bill Harley and the Gamm Theatre. Last year, the Gamm brought Harley’s character, Charlie Bumpers, the fourth-grade star of a series of books by Harley, to life. This year, the Gamm is adapting Harley’s second book in the series, Charlie Bumpers vs. The Really Nice Gnome, to the stage. This performance is open to the public, although seating is limited.
Harley, a resident of Seekonk, has participated in the festival several times; he remarks, “I’m always struck by the incredible intelligence and varied perspectives shared by the presenters; sometimes, people minimize the act of writing for children, and this Festival really highlights the depth of thought and professionalism of these authors and illustrators.” Harley believes that the festival has a culture that people recognize; as the event has evolved at Lincoln, word has spread that families can spend the day and have a great time.
Lenihan describes the Festival as “a magical event. The connections that happen, not only among the authors and illustrators but also between them and the children, are amazing.”