As people who love books, both librarians and authors have found themselves in a similar dilemma during this time of quarantine. How do writers and readers connect when they can’t even leave their homes? While speaking on the phone with author and friend Beth Vrabel about the difficulties children’s literature writers are facing right now not being able to travel and promote their books, a thought struck Kirsten Shaw, vice president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians (MASL) and librarian at Martin Warren Elementary in Warrensburg, Missouri. What would it take to coordinate a virtual book festival for authors and Missouri school librarians? That led to a late-night text from Kirsten to MASL President Amy Hertzberg, librarian at Nevada Middle School in Nevada, Missouri: “Hey, what do you think about putting on a virtual book festival through Zoom?”
As an organization, MASL should have been kicking off their annual spring conference that very weekend. Missouri school librarians should have been networking with their peers, hearing from inspiring keynote speakers, and congratulating the award-winning authors in attendance. It was important to both Amy and Kirsten to try and fill that void for MASL members.
The next morning during the conveniently timed MASL Board of Directors meeting, Kirsten brought forth the idea. After some discussion on logistics among board members, a task force was appointed that included Kirsten and Amy, as well as St. Louis librarians Victoria Jones and Carolyn Allen, and planning began! Jenn Baldwin, MASL board member and librarian in Jasper R-5 School District in rural southwest Missouri, offered to reach out to some author friends from NerdcampKS. Kirsten and Amy hoped to entice a few authors to Zoom with MASL members to fill the gap left by having to postpone the spring conference. Oh, did those responses come!
Authors expressed interest faster than they could create a spreadsheet and try to get organized. Not only were authors interested, some already had panels formed and ready to go due to cancellations of book tours and other conferences.
Within 48 hours of Jenn’s initial tweet asking for interested authors, close to 100 authors responded and 30 panels were in the planning stages. The MASL Virtual Book Festival became Kirsten and Amy’s full-time job as they confirmed with authors and tried to start scheduling. From the start, their number one priority was to feature as many diverse authors as possible, and they worked hard to meet that goal by reaching out to diverse authors as well as getting recommendations from other authors for colleagues to contact. As panels began to form, Kirsten and Amy knew there was no way they could moderate all of them on their own, so they reached out to past presidents and other leaders in the MASL organization, as well as author friends like Jennifer Brown and Beth Vrabel, who generously stepped up to the task.
Within two weeks of planning, the MASL Virtual Book Festival was coming to life, and Kirsten’s dream was becoming reality. Members of the task force also reached out to partner with two independent book stores in Missouri and notify them of the festival, The Novel Neighbor and Main Street Books out of St. Louis. The Novel Neighbor made a resource page of the authors featured in the panels for easy purchasing options. Before each panel, the moderators would shout out each of the bookstores to viewers and insert the links to each store in the chat. If authors were going to donate their time for free to talk with MASL members, it was important to promote the sale of their books.
The MASL Virtual Book Festival kicked off on Friday, May 1, with a picture book panel. The big opening event that same evening was a Q and A happy hour session with author Antony John. Antony is a friend to Missouri librarians, having previously lived in the St. Louis area. This fun and light event was the perfect kickoff, with Antony’s humor and wisdom filling librarian hearts. On Saturday, May 2, Torrey Maldonado gave a keynote address, paying homage to his mother and giving a glimpse into his writing and his life, as well as talking frankly about race.
The first full week of panels is coming to a close as this post is being written. Panels have featured authors of nonfiction picture books, middle-grade books with lots of heart, and peeks into what’s new in young adult literature. There is something for everyone and the feedback MASL has gotten from both authors and members have all been positive, to the point where there have been requests on both sides to keep something like this going in the future. Missouri librarian Nancy Rapp commented after one of the panels how grateful she was that MASL was doing this, as it gave her something to look forward to each day. Author Beth Vrabel stated, “I’m in awe of MASL librarians who pulled off the impossible…a vibrant, mindful festival in just a few days. We’ll get through this strange time and, thanks to librarians like Kirsten and Amy, when we do so, we’ll be connected and empowered.”
In the beginning the main goal was to help authors promote books, but also to bring joy to MASL members. All librarians are wishing they were in their library, and if they can’t be with their students, they might as well be with authors. As Missouri starts to open back up and everyone begins the slow process of getting back to life as regularly scheduled, MASL members have these panels each day to take their minds off the worries of empty libraries and the books in them. Many to-read lists are growing as well as librarian hearts for the authors they love.