By Raffaela Marie Rizzo Fenn
Quotes about books abound in every culture. My two favorites are:
"Books are a uniquely portable magic." ~ Stephen King
"Books were my path to personal freedom." ~Oprah Winfrey
These quotes embody my feelings about books. I'm the daughter of illiterate immigrants, and there were no books in my home growing up. So, books became my portable magic; and they sure were my path to personal freedom. We had a magnificent library in the town of Norwalk, CT, where I grew up. There I could browse and borrow books of all kinds. However, I never owned a book of my own until I was in high school and had a part-time job; I will always remember the
feeling of writing my name on the inside cover of that pocket-sized book.
One of my lifelong goals was to write a book. About seven years ago, two well-known, local people, whom I greatly admired, approached me— Don Shaw , former owner of Books Plus and the late Shiela Fountain. Both spoke to me about getting involved with the Amelia Island Book Festival. Don lured with the line, "your business acumen will help the Festival," and Shiela urged with the rationale, "you are writing a book; of course, you should get involved."
The Festival was a well-established annual event within the community. However, it had recently lost some key players, and finances were at their lowest ebb since inception. The Festival Board was a collection of smart, well-intentioned, hard working people devoted to doing great things for the community. Through the years, it became clear that the Festival required a written plan and an articulated purpose.
After joining the Board, I was delighted to find a core of dedicated folks willing to participate in a strategic planning process to examine the core strengths and weaknesses, solidify the Festival's aspirations, and set measurable goals. John
and Brenda Carr, Pam Park, Shiela Fountain , Fran Shea , Terry Ramsay, Nancy Bell, and Steve Sell , were among those who provided the impetus for a major shift in the Book Festival's main thrust. The Festival became laser-focused
on the Authors in Schools Literacy Program. The consensus was that fostering a 360-degree learning experience by providing inspirational authors in every school and buying a book of those authors for every student in Nassau County, the students met would raise literacy and help adults and area authors as well. "A book for every student of the Author they meet during the Authors in Schools Literacy Program became our mantra. The Festival assessed the importance of partnerships to the Festival's longevity.
Don Shaw set a meeting with the late Don Parker , one of the founders, and past directors Terry Dean and Emily Carmain . They all freely shared their experiences and knowledge. We set out to cement and expand the partnership with the Nassau County School District Superintendent and the Public Library, among others.
To add to the community's awareness of our purpose and help foster a significant sense of gravitas, I thought it would be great to have a celebrity honorary chair. The internationally renowned NYTimes bestselling author Steve Berry responded to a letter sent to his Website, with "I'd be honored." Thanks to Berry's help and contacts, we were able to lure a cadre of A-list celebrity authors, who waived their honorariums, boosted our fundraising efforts, and agreed to
address our students in the schools. The result was palpable excitement across the county's school district.
Berry also volunteered to conduct a Lessons from a Bestseller writers’workshop for budding authors, donating the proceeds to help with our fundraising. At the same time, the Festival recruited my husband Mark to help them with their Website, as their current web provider was closing. I then recruited him for many other Festival volunteer jobs, as we are mostly doing everything together.
Surveys conducted with authors who had exhibited at the Author Expo, the public school system media specialists, and other participants, showed that a luncheon separated from the Author Expo site would be advantageous. It also demonstrated that adding a significant event such as a Gala would help raise money to buy all the books we needed. Activities such as the Teen/Tween Scenes and the short story writing contest came into being, thanks to Fountain and Jim Weinsier, along with renowned Youth authors— Charles Benoit and Kevin Emerson, to name a few.
Berry helped us get NYTimes bestselling Author Andrew Gross as our Luncheon celebrity author. Gross, Greg Isles , and Janice Bashman , made up our panel for the first Annual Gala Face-off, moderated by Berry.
Also, Gross allowed us to auction off naming rights in his next book. With this, and four other live auction items graciously donated by local businesses, we were able to raise enough money to purchase 8,000 books and help situate the Festival for the following year. The media specialists and other school representatives arranged for the students to celebrate the books upon delivery.
The delight and sheer joy on students' faces truly touched board members, sponsors, donors, and volunteers, who helped with book deliveries. The exuberant comments from students, when learning that they would keep the book as their own, were touching.
We were also awed by the classrooms' and media centers' preparation for each Author's arrival. The book deliveries helped all involved in this massive effort see and feel first-hand the authors' and books' full-circle impact on students.
Each year, the Board built on the number of books purchased, the appeal of celebrity authors, and the number and caliber of "Indie" authors who applied to speak to our students. The Festival then went on to offer more than one Author per school. The Festival achieved its five-year goals and then undertook another strategic planning process. With the leadership of Board member and major sponsor, Dr. Bill Amos , and Jim Flynn's facilitation, the Festival Board extended
its reach to all students in the county from Pre-k to homeschool and private schools.
In 2020, the Festival purchased and distributed more than 13,000 books to Nassau county students and arranged for more than 30 authors to speak to students in their schools.
Each year, the Festival offers the public a day to celebrate authors and books at no cost. In 2020, the Author Expo featured 120 authors and numerous celebrity author breakout sessions.
As it approaches this two-decade milestone, The Festival continues to grow in both size and renown. Some of the celebrity authors who have participated, in addition to those mentioned earlier, include Debbie McComber, Cassandra King, David Baldacci, R. L. Stine, Joseph Finder, Mary Kay Andrews, Lara Adrian, Adriana Trigiani, Lee Child, Sherrie Rinker, Karen Slaughter, Jennifer Armentrout, John Grisham, Diana Gabaldon, Ridley Pearson, Tess Gerritsen, Sandra Brown, Kathy Reichs, Sharon Robinson, Margot Lee Shetterly, Lisa Scottoline, and Francesca Serritella
After scintillating our students at Hilliard Intermediate school and speaking at the sold-out 2019 annual luncheon, Grisham sent an email saying, " I can see why it is now one of the top book festivals in the country. "
In 2020, Baldacci, a long-time friend of the Festival, took over the role of Honorary Chairman from Steve Berry.
Though coronavirus has delayed the Festival's 20th anniversary, the commitment to the community and our students hasn't dampened a bit.
I know others involved along the way share the same feeling about this Festival that I do. You get far more than you give. Fostering opportunities for kids and youth is a tremendous reward. The time shared with other Board members and volunteers and meeting and seeing world-renowned authors, who also give selflessly to our community, is more rewarding than words can express. Along with the Honorary Chairman, the current Board is poised to continue to make this one of the best festivals ever and continue to serve students across the county.
I encourage the entire community to come together once again to donate, sponsor, buy tickets, volunteer, and help our students with their path to "Personal Freedom" and to ensure they latch onto their "uniquely Portable Magic."