At this reading festival, kids pick the winners and authors are rock stars

Ontario Library Association
An enthusiastic reader earns her Junior Librarian credentials at the Forest of Reading Festival in Toronto in May 2019.

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In a typical year at the Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest K-12 reading festival, some 15,000 children flock to the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto to vote on – and meet – the authors they love best, in an event that turns writers into “rock stars” for three days each May.

Committees read dozens if not hundreds of books over the summer and whittle the list down to the festival nominees. After returning to school in the fall, more than 270,000 students will spend the year reading them before they vote in the spring. The event culminates in Toronto – with satellite events held throughout towns across Ontario.

Why We Wrote This

A beloved children’s literature festival, where children pick the winning authors, might not be able to meet in person this year. But for kids, authors, and librarians alike, it’s more important than ever.

This year though, for the second time under the pandemic, the festival will be virtual again. But the passions are no less. And in some ways, it is more cherished in a school year marked by sudden closures to in-person learning.

“Reading, of course, can be an escape from the present troubles, or it can comfort or can give flight to that imagination, or help children process all these difficult emotions,” says Ruth Gretsinger, a co-chair of the program. “So in these times, running the Forest of Reading festival is more important than ever.”

Wesley King, a Canadian young-adult author, was in fifth grade when he first voted in a little children’s book festival in Ontario. He cast his ballot for “Silverwing,” about the adventures of a young bat. The book hooked him on reading, and its author became something of an early idol for him.

Two decades later, Mr. King’s first book, “The Vindico,” was nominated in that same festival. And he found himself competing with “Silverwing” author Kenneth Oppel. But more important to Mr. King was the full circle that was suddenly so obvious. He was once a kid “out there,” he says, rooting for the author he now shared the stage with (and ended up beating).

For Ontario teacher-librarian Ruth Gretsinger, who has mentored thousands of students in this reading program, it was the clearest proof of why a children’s literary festival is so important. “It showed something has come of it somewhere along the line,” she says. “It may take years down the road, but it does bear fruit.”

Why We Wrote This

A beloved children’s literature festival, where children pick the winning authors, might not be able to meet in person this year. But for kids, authors, and librarians alike, it’s more important than ever.

Welcome to Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest K-12 reading festival, where the kids vote on the authors they love best, and both come together in an event that turns writers into “rock stars” for three days each May.

In a typical year, the Ontario Library Association event draws some 15,000 children to the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Six thousand of them might fill an auditorium; 600 will wait in line to get their favorite book signed.

Ontario Library Association
Author and illustrator Jacques Goldstyn meets his young fans and shows them some quick tips on drawing at the Forest of Reading Festival in Toronto in May 2019.

In a second year under pandemic, the May 18-20 event will be virtual again. But the passions are no less. And in some ways, it is more cherished in a school year marked by sudden closures to in-person learning and where almost no extracurricular activities could be held.

“Reading is one of those things that a lot of people turned to in this pandemic,” says Ms. Gretsinger, who teaches in Niagara and is a co-chair of the program. “Reading, of course, can be an escape from the present troubles, or it can comfort or can give flight to that imagination, or help children process all these difficult emotions. So in these times, running the Forest of Reading festival is more important than ever.”

Forest of Reading has always been a passion project. The committees, which consist of about 150 volunteers from library and school sectors, will read dozens if not hundreds of books over the summer and whittle the list down to the nominees. “It’s an exorbitant amount of reading,” says Meredith Tutching, the director of the reading program.

Kids return to school in the fall clamoring for their age group’s lists, and then more than 270,000 students will spend the year reading, either in English or in French, before they vote in the spring. The event culminates in Toronto, with satellite events held throughout towns across Ontario.

Mr. King, who might be better known in the U.S. for The Wizenard Series, which he wrote with the late Kobe Bryant, says the enthusiasm from the children is something to behold. “You walk into some hockey arena or a big auditorium and then everyone’s just standing up and cheering and screaming at once,” he says. “And then when you go to sign books afterwards, you’ll have 500 or 600 kids in line. You don’t see 500 to 600 people in line at a regular bookstore. I was totally blown away the first year.”

Isabelle Hobbs, the other co-chair and a teacher-librarian in the Durham region, helped shape the program from its very beginning. She particularly recalls those students who had never opened a book before participating in the program, but then find themselves so impassioned at the festival that they are visibly angered when “their book” doesn’t win.

Ontario Library Association
Readers search through books to purchase their favorite titles at the Forest of Reading Festival in Toronto in May 2019.

It’s the lifelong reading habit that matters most to her, forged in students like Thomas Nedanis, whom she recalls as one of her more enthusiastic participants. “I signed up for every reading club she had,” he says today, now in his junior year. His high school doesn’t participate in the program, but he still looks at the nominee list and reads the books he’s interested in. “I just find that I lose myself in a book.”

A major driver of the festival is getting Canadian kids to read Canadian authors, a fact that previously couldn’t be taken for granted. “Growing up I was immersed in American authors because that’s usually what you saw,” says Ms. Hobbs. “For me it was all about Nancy Drew.”

For readers of nominated author Tanaz Bhathena, whose new fantasy “Hunted by the Sky” is set in medieval India, they get to identify with female protagonists. “They love seeing themselves represented, especially young Canadian readers who are of Indian descent,” says Ms. Bhathena. “These kids love the fact that they can see themselves being heroes instead of just side characters or villains.”

Mr. King’s new book, “Sara and the Search for Normal,” is nominated this year, his sixth book to be selected. The plot revolves around a middle schooler’s struggles with mental health – a theme that kids across Canada can identify with this year, as everyone is seeking out “normal.”

Forest of Reading won’t, of course, be exactly the same under the pandemic. “But I think it’s a big deal that they still have something that they’ve had in other years,” says Ms. Hobbs, of the program going forward despite all of the limitations. “I’m almost tearing as I say this, holy cow. But it’s some little sense of normal for them.”

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