Added value for students’ writing and reading skills
“Wow! Do you know that you are world famous in Kamloops?”
A young student stares, wide-eyed, at her favourite author: Ann Walsh, Canadian author of novels for children. Writer and reader are brought together at the Kamloops’ Young Author Conference, now in its 42 year!
“Can I shake your hand?”
“Can you autograph my book?”
“I want to be an author, too, when I grow up!”
These are just a few of the comments heard at Young Author Conferences around North America. How is a Young Author Conference (YAC) organized, and do they make a difference to a student’s desire and skills to read and write? That is a question I asked several coordinators of such events.
Young Author Conferences may vary in size and length, but most have several things in common—they are coordinated by dedicated volunteers, attended by eager students, and embraced by teachers and parents as a valuable asset to the joy of writing and reading.
Of course, since the pandemic, many of these conferences have moved to a fully or partially online format. This may stay or they may revert back to in-person events again, but the benefits remain unchanged.
In 1986, a group of local teachers from School District #68 in Nanaimo, BC, together with local booksellers and librarians from the Vancouver Island Regional Library, organized the first Vancouver Island Children’s Book Festival in Nanaimo. The following year, Malaspina College joined as a sponsor, providing a central site for the festival. Today Bookfest is a major event for Nanaimo, bringing hundreds of children to campus to meet their favourite authors and illustrators. The festival’s mission, similar to other festivals, is as follows:
- to promote literacy and a love of literature in the central Vancouver Island region by introducing children to high-quality works by Canadian authors and illustrators;
- to stimulate children’s creativity by bringing them together with professional authors and illustrators who share their creative processes;
- to celebrate excellence in Canadian children’s literature and book illustration by showcasing both well-established and notable new authors and illustrators.
Working together with local schools, public libraries and service clubs is a popular way to secure a solid foundation for a literacy festival. Rotary International has a literacy component and is often a willing supporter of such an event.
A local college campus is a popular venue for a YAC. A campus offers lots of space for workshops and general sessions, and the facility is usually, on a Saturday during college breaks, made available to local schools at no charge.
Who speaks at a YAC?
A YAC offers a terrific way for elementary, middle, and high school students to meet published authors and illustrators, to listen to presentations about writing and drawing, and to learn “the story behind the book.” Often, the participating students actually get to write during a workshop as well.
Speakers at a YAC often include a variety of both nationally known and local authors and illustrators. Sometimes a conference has only one or two speakers: an author for one group and an illustrator for the other. One large group of students rotates, allowing the speakers to present twice and the entire audience to hear both speakers.
Other YACs host up to ten speakers, including a wide variety of genres such as picture book writers, illustrators, poets, non-fiction writers, local broadcasters or news reporters, and so on. Students select the session of their choice ahead of time, just like adults do at literacy conferences. These sessions are usually limited to around 25 students each.
In Nanaimo, a special committee consisting of the festival coordinator; representatives from the library, school district, and bookstore; and the school visit coordinator select each year’s speakers. They balance the program to include writers of books for all age ranges as well as various genres. They review published works, presenters’ websites, and available promotional and review materials before making their selections.
How are YACs funded?
I have been to writers’ festivals in the USA with around 3,000 students participating. In these cases, organizers sometimes charge a small registration fee to provide a working budget.
In Whitehorse, Yukon, the Young Authors event is held at the high school in Whitehorse over two days as a community-wide Yukon Writers Festival. Teachers work as volunteers, together with one library resource person, to coordinate the day. To select authors they reference knowledge of good books as well as recommendations from others who have heard certain authors speak. The Whitehorse festival is funded through the Writers Union of Canada, which makes grants available to cover authors’ fees and travel expenses, along with the Department of Education, the Yukon Science Institute, and local businesses. Sometimes a local hotel will donate rooms, or at least offer a substantial discount, to host out-of-town speakers. It may be worthwhile to approach a business about sponsorship for an event that will boost children’s reading and writing skills.
Funding from the Canada Council for the Arts helps to bring speakers from across the country to the Nanaimo YAC. The YAC in Fort St. John, BC, used to be entirely funded by the superintendent’s office—a great example to administrators everywhere.
In some cases, funding also comes from the sale of books. If conference coordinators choose to do so, they can order books from participating speakers at a discount from the publisher. The profit, sometimes as much as 40%, will help to strengthen the YAC budget.
How are participants selected?
While almost all coordinators seem to avoid a “contest” approach, selection of participants varies. In some districts, students are invited to submit a manuscript if they wish to be considered. Stories are selected on merit and effort, and the young authors invited to participate. In other areas, classroom teachers select students, or students simply volunteer. Some YACs publish an anthology of the students’ submitted stories and poems to share in the school library.
What impact does a YAC have?
Classroom teachers, district staff, and parents agree that a Young Author Conference gets kids excited about writing. Students get to meet published authors, ask questions, and learn more about how books are created. They also meet other kids who like writing. It may even be an opportunity for a student to discover that it’s OK to get excited about reading and writing books rather than sports.
Dianna Bonder, author and illustrator of many books for children, including A Pacific Alphabet and Leon’s Song, says, “I attended the Young Authors’ Conference in Kamloops when I was in Grade 6. We met different authors. Meeting a famous author was very exciting for me. To this day, I remember both the story I wrote to be accepted into the YA conference and the comments the author made about my story. She really inspired me with the positive feedback she gave me. If a famous author says good things about my work, then maybe I really could be a writer someday.” And she did. Years later Bonder started to illustrate and write her own books. Meeting an author at such a young age, she believes, definitely helped motivate her and made her realize that her dreams could come true.
How can you start your own conference?
Why not offer your students an opportunity to attend a Young Authors’ Conference? You may want to start small—in your own school. Get a few others on board to help you organize: the media specialist, an administrator, the reading teacher, an interested parent. You can organize the event to include the entire school or just a few keen writers. Your event might grow and blossom into an annual event that includes the public library and many others.
“It’s a lot of work,” says one festival coordinator, “But it is really worthwhile for students to see that there are living writers who are open to sharing their expertise.”
For further information about Young Author Conferences
Kamloops Young Author Conference: https://sd73youngauthors.weebly.com
Nanaimo Book Fest: https://www.bookfest.ca
Yukon Young Authors’ Conference: https://yukonyoungauthors.weebly.com
For a 2020 list of Writer Festivals for all ages, check out: https://www.cbc.ca/books/canadawrites/a-guide-to-canadian-literary-festivals-1.4723741
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs, MEd, is a Canadian author of over 40 books for children. She has spoken to thousands of children at Young Author Conferences around North America and seen the benefits firsthand of getting students excited about books. www.margrietruurs.com
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2021 issue.