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It all started with campfires.

And then cave paintings, some of the most legendary located in the heart of my native France.

Egyptian engraved stone, clay and wood tablets, papyrus and reeds, thousands of scribes and monks, too, until Gutenberg invented the printing press.

The rest is history.

Or rather stories.

Less than a month after returning from the 2019 Amelia Island Book Festival, uplifted by stories collected in classrooms and auditoriums, shared with students and readers, and with fellow authors too, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak could be characterized as a pandemic.

The news was alarming.

But it’s on March 13 when several States across the U.S. announced plans to close schools over the pandemic concerns that reality hit me. Schools, I remember thinking, while the faces of students and teachers I had just met sat at the periphery of my vision.

How will they organize, manage to teach and learn? Above all, how will they still connect?

And then, more selfishly, I thought of visiting schools, of attending book fairs and festivals. Big and small, these events are the reason most authors keep writing.

The festival, I remember telling my husband, what about the Festival? He knew, of course, I was talking of the Amelia Island Book Festival.

I never took the AIBF for granted, but its potential cancelation carved out an unexpected hole inside me. Absence wears different coats, all heavy and yet so cold.

Over the last five years, the three-day-long event had offered me a parenthesis in time, a bubble away from my bustling surroundings, an invitation to story telling and story sharing, and irreplaceable memories. The photos, bookmarks, signed books, and business cards gathered at each festival attest of fleeting and yet indelible moments, of camaraderie and a sense of belonging. I even received a mug filled with candies from Yulee High, was treated to a royal breakfast at Fernandina Beach High and offered a fancy cookie with the cover of one of my novels.

Imagine! Just for meeting students! The privilege was priceless and the pleasure all mine.

No, I never took the Amelia Island Book Festival for granted, and year after year I appreciated my good fortune and the trust placed in me. So when the news fell that the festival would not take place I struggled to accept the consequences. There would be no email exchange with teachers and media specialists, no power point preparation, no road trip, no school, no students, no fellow authors. No nothing.

And I missed everyone and everything.

I allowed time to do its healing job, but it’s only when the news of possible plans reached me that I understood that of course stories would never stop, even in the path of a storm.

We will run the students’ Short Story Writing Contest, announced the team of people who work so hard for the festival, many unknown and invisible, often backstage. Would you be willing to help out, they asked, perhaps reading and judging the stories like you did last year and the year before?

You bet.

So, as the pandemic settled among us a familiar sense of excitement rushed back. There would be stories from middle and high school boys and girls, from different ages, from all sorts of backgrounds. And I just couldn’t wait to hear their heartbeats behind their words.

The contest never mattered, really. The judging was never my favorite part. I agonized when I had to enter scores. Should spelling and grammar really count? I’m a nonnative speaker after all and I know firsthand of the tricks language plays on us. But the stories, oh the stories, they certainly count. It has always been about them.

From the beginning of times our hunger for stories has drawn us around campfires, triggered our need to share them, kept us safe between the walls of libraries, and taken us to bookshops.

Stories hold us together. And for the last twenty years, on one of the most gorgeous barrier islands of North America, this same hunger gathers students, writers, and readers of all ages, different lifestyles and locations.

Amelia Island Book Festival makes sure the hunger never dies.

Evelyne at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles
Evelyne at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles

Evelyne Holingue

Chronicles, Stories & Books


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