In those early days of the Amelia Island Book Festival, it was the personal touch that made things happen. Being able to talk “up close and personal” to a real author fueled the planning. Readers know how easy it is to enter a book, to identify with the characters, and to slow down near the last page so as not to have to leave the imagined world. Having shared such an intimate experience, the reader often considers the author a treasured friend.
It was with the idea that readers would love meeting, listening to, and talking with authors that Joani Selement, Selena Smith, Emily Carmain, and other volunteers began seeking writers who would come for the chance to sell some books while enjoying the island. No honorarium! In addition to lunch with an author, those first-year festival participants could also choose from a variety of author panels and then buy signed books. It was an easy-going, friendly, and very personal Saturday experience.
The next year's additions to the festival included sending an author to each of the then-fifteen Nassau County K-12 schools in October 2002. Again it was the personal touch that made this happen. I called a teacher friend in each school, connected them by email to an agreeable author, and then let them figure out a plan. Grassroots at its best! I wish I could remember the names of all the authors who took part—perhaps others from those early days might share.
At Fernandina Middle, we hosted Tallahassee author Adrian Fogelin. She connected easily with students, talked with them about Crossing Jordan, which we had all read, and led them in a writing exercise. For most students, this was the first time they were able to talk with and ask questions of a published author. What had been only a name on the title page became a living, breathing, REAL person with whom they laughed and shared thoughts and feelings.
I was involved with the Florida Council of Teachers of English, whose conference was a week after the then-October festival, so we were able to entice some authors to appearances at both. Along with Fogelin, these included Susan Carol McCarthy, who wrote a book about the Klan in central Florida based on the story of her father’s work with then NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall; June Weltman with a St. Augustine mystery; performance poet Elizabeth Thomas; and Nola Perez before she was Fernandina's Poet Laureate. Young adult author John H. Ritter traveled from California. He introduced me to adult author Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, who came to the festival the next year, 2005, as keynote speaker—and also spoke to two classes at Fernandina Beach High School.
I think the quality that has kept the festival vibrant these 20 years is that it was built on relationships and connections—we shared a love of stories and books, we wanted to introduce children to the wonder of reading, we wanted students to meet writers who encouraged them to write too, and we wanted to talk about what we read.
After I retired from teaching in June 2008, I moved to New Mexico. Brenda Carr took over the role of coordination for Authors in Schools, and then apparently many others joined in since today the program has become a mainstay of the festival, providing books for all Nassau County students. All I can say is that a personal touch goes a long way!
Ginny White was a teacher at Fernandina Beach Middle School and was Authors in Schools Chair from 2002-2008.