May 25, 2019  

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Karen Rowell

Q: What is the Fay B Kaigler Children’s Book Festival, and how did it come to be? What’s in store for its golden anniversary?

A: The Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival is a conference held on the Southern Miss campus in Hattiesburg at our Thad Cochran Center. Attendance is usually about 300 to 500 people and includes teachers, librarians and media specialists from the tri-state (MS, LA, AL) area. The Festival lasts three days, with 6-9 general sessions and 20-30 breakout sessions or workshops. The highlight is the presentation of the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion, which is awarded to an author or illustrator for his or her body of work. This year’s Medallion winner is Kate DiCamillo, best known for her award-winning books Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), The Tale of Despereaux (2003) and Flora and Ulysses (2013).

Although the first Festival took place in the spring of 1968, the idea came to the Festival’s original organizers, Dr. Lena de Grummond, a professor of library science, and Dr. William Tracy, the university librarian, in 1967. Dr. de Grummond had joined the faculty in 1966 and began a special collection of manuscripts and artwork at the McCain Library relating to the history of children’s literature. This collection is known today as the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection and has become one of the most recognized special collections of its kind in the world. Dr. de Grummond and Dr. Tracy planned the first festival to exhibit materials from the collection and feature guest speakers from the field of youth literature. That first Festival was so successful that a second one was held in 1969. That year, the first University of Southern Mississippi Medallion was awarded to Lois Lenski. By 1970, the Festival had become an annual event and has been held every year since 1968.

This April will be the 50th annual festival and spring 2018 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first festival. So, we are considering 2017-18 the “50th Anniversary Year” and this spring’s Festival will feature special historical exhibits, a celebration dinner, and a special video retrospective including anniversary wishes from past speakers and interviews with some of the Festival’s former organizers.  We’ve also teamed up with the Hattiesburg Public School District to provide local schoolchildren with a copy of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and DiCamillo will give a special presentation to the group at the Festival. 

Q: When did you become director of the Children’s Book Festival? What special experiences do you bring to the job, and how have they helped you in advancing this event?

A: I first volunteered at the 2005 Festival and began working as the Assistant Director in fall of 2006.  I took over the Festival in the fall of 2010. Before working with the Festival, I coordinated special events for the School of Library and Information Science and helped plan several events for the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection. Although this experience was valuable, nothing had prepared me for the enormity of the Festival! The conference has over 50 years of rich history, relationships built with leading authors and illustrators in the field, and it has been that way since the very beginning.

I would have to say that most of the ins and outs related to organizing the Festival I’ve learned on the job, and I am grateful to Dr. Onva Boshears and Dr. Jeannine Laughlin-Porter, this year especially, for sharing their knowledge from their combined directorships spanning 1976-2001. 

3.  What goes into preparing for the event? Who are the visitors/participants, and how many people do you expect to come this year?

The Festival is a three-day event each April, planning it is a year-round job and often means making important decisions more than a year ahead of time. For instance, I began booking keynote speakers for the 2018 Festival back in the fall. Many of the arrangements are constantly changing (and scheduling is a good example) and I definitely could not do it without the help of my carefully curated core group of Festival staff.  One my favorite aspects of preparation is attending other conferences, such as the American Library Association’s annual and midwinter conferences.  I get to be on the other side of the experience and meet all sorts of authors, illustrators, publishers, and editors, which gives me ideas about whom to approach for upcoming Festivals at Southern Miss.

We have attendees from across the United States each year at the Festival and we are expecting up to 600 this year.  We’ve recently begun welcoming student groups to the Festival as well, and I am very excited to open that opportunity to the community. 

Q: Talk about this year’s medallion winner and how the Ezra Jacks Keats award winners came to be a special part of the festival.

A: This year’s University of Southern Mississippi Medallion winner, Kate DiCamillo, is an absolute force of nature.  She has been writing books since her twenties, the first of which you may know—Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), which won not only a Newberry Honor but was later made into a feature film. The Tale of Despereaux (2003) won a Newberry Medal and was also adapted into a movie, and many of her other works have received similar honors. DiCamillo was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2014-2015, was a National Book Award finalist in 2001, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner in 2006, has twelve New York Times best-selling titles, and her books have been translated into thirty-nine languages.  She has generously agreed to speak to Hattiesburg School District students during her visit this year and has donated her honorarium to a local animal charity, Angels on Paws.  Her works send a message of hope amid impossible circumstances, something I believe has a positive influence on both children and adults.

The Ezra Jack Keats Award for New Writer and the Ezra Jack Keats Award for New Illustrator were founded in 1985 by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. The New York Public Library managed and presented the awards annually until 2012, when the honor was entrusted to the De Grummond Collection.

Keats’s association with Southern Miss goes back further than that, however. Keats was awarded the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion in 1980 and until his death he remained a supporter of the Children’s Book Festival. His papers and manuscripts, acquired by the McCain Library and Archives in the 1980s, remains one of the de Grummond Collection’s largest and best known collections.

Q:  What’s the significance of this event with respect to the genre of children’s literature, and to the mission/life of the University?

Although there are other children’s literature conferences and festivals in the United States, the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival has been held every year since 1968 and has become an important part of the children’s literature community in America. It is where, over the past half-century, countless librarians, teachers, parents, and scholars have come together to share their interest in and enthusiasm for children’s literature. Its cumulative roster of keynote speakers, panelists, storytellers, and Medallion winners is one of the most impressive of any literary festival. It has helped not just the university, but indeed the southeastern community, make an important contribution to one of literature’s most enduring fields.

The relationships that have been built with leading authors and illustrators over the past fifty years continue to benefit the de Grummond Collection, the Festival, and the field itself.  The Festival is an event that began bringing leaders in the field to the university, many of whom offered donations of books, manuscripts, and original artwork, all of which document the creation of some of the field’s best-known and most beloved titles. Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Ashley Bryan, Maurice Sendak, James Marshall, Judy Blume, and many other authors and illustrators have come to Hattiesburg to be a part of the Festival. 

In the years that I have been involved, I’ve seen John Green give a keynote at the Festival in 2009 (the same year that Judy Blume received the Medallion) and donate his materials to the de Grummond Collection in 2014. The Coleen Salley Storytelling Award was established in 2010 and named in honor of children’s storyteller and longtime Festival supporter Coleen Salley. I’ve seen the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation partner with the de Grummond Collection to co-present the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award at the Festival in 2012, formerly co-presented with the New York Public Library from 1986 to 2011. Richard Peck, our 1991 Medallion winner, 2000 Ezra Jack Keats Lecturer, and de Grummond Lecturer in 2010, made an impressive donation to both the Festival and the de Grummond Collection in May of 2016 that will help provide scholarships for teachers and librarians to attend the Festival. Jacqueline Woodson became the first African American female to receive the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion in 2016 as well. This year, we welcome Kate DiCamillo, Kwame Alexander, Louise Borden, Bryan Collier, Pete Hautman, Wendell Minor, Pat Mora, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Andrea Davis Pinkney.  A new scholarship has been created to give complimentary Festival registration each year to two teachers or librarians that participate in voting for The Magnolia Award, Mississippi’s children’s choice award that was established in 2010 and is awarded each year at the Festival.

Q: Who was Fay Kaigler and what is her legacy?

A: In 2001, the Children’s Book Festival was renamed in honor of Kay B. Kaigler, a school teacher from McComb, MS. Kaigler was well-known for her promotion of children’s literature and for advocating the role of books in the lives of youth. She first attended the festival in the 1990s at the invitation of her friend Ruth Lamont, a children’s librarian from Baton Rouge, LA. The pair would continue to visit every spring. Before her passing, Kaigler left the festival a planned gift that has helped ensure the festival’s continued success. Since 1998, an annual award named the Fay B. Kaigler-Ruth Lamont Award has been given to a Mississippi teacher or school librarian for accomplishments in promoting children’s reading. Born July 1, 1917, Ms. Kaigler would have turned 100 this year, so it truly is a special time for the Festival.

Q: What do you hope visitors and participants take from this year’s festival?

A: I hope this year’s visitors gain an appreciation of the Festival’s fifty years of history. Here’s to fifty more years of bringing the best of children’s literature to Southern Miss!