The Keene State College Children's Literature Festival began on a snowy April Fool's Day in 1978. Trina Schart Hyman, who was a presenter at the first Festival, recalled that she didn't know Dr. David White, professor of education and Festival Director, at the time, but he telephoned her and asked if she would participate, and if she might suggest other New England authors or illustrators who would be willing to come. "Paul Galdone came. He was the grandfather of children's book illustration as far as I'm concerned. And Wallace Tripp '62 was there...," recounts Hyman. "There were six or seven of us presenting, and it was very informal - in the gym. We formed a panel of sorts and we each spoke for 20 or 30 minutes and then tossed it back to the audience and they just came alive. These sparks just started flying." Those sparks seemed to have ignited a flame that has continued to grow and burn brightly as a beacon for children's literature creators and lovers from all over New England and other parts of North America, as well as Europe and the United Kingdom.
Proceeds from book sales at the first Festival in the spring allowed for a second Festival in the fall, beginning the tradition of celebrating children's books along with the brilliant autumn leaves of the Monadnock region. As word about the Festival spread, attendance grew from 125 participants that first year to the nearly 700 teachers, librarians, artists, authors, and other book lovers who now annually attend.
Over the years, its reputation among people in the business of producing children's books has grown at the same pace. In contrast to that first year, authors and illustrators now contact White and ask to be invited to speak. And publishers tell their writers and artists that, if they do get a call from White, to - by all means - accept! The Festival's reputation among those in the children's book industry seems to be due in large part to the professionalism of the Festival, and White's attention to detail. "I've always felt that if you do something, you should do it well," he admits. "Where the Festival is concerned, I've always tried to present with quality." And that philosophy seems to have paid off.
Trina Schart Hyman, who died in 2004, spoke at six of the Festivals and attended many others just for fun. "Some conferences are very draining," she says. "But not this one. I love to go and I come home energized." California author Eve Bunting, who spoke at the 1992 Festival, left the Festival with the inspiration for her book, Peepers. It is about the leaf peepers who visit New Hampshire every fall foliage season.
White says that the one-day format also makes the Festival doable for teachers and school librarians who find it difficult to get away from the classroom when school is in session. Anita Silvey, former editor of The Horn Book magazine, says that as a children's book critic and a past attendee, she has always been struck by the talent White attracts to the Festival. "I've always been impressed by the variety of creative people he brings," she said. "There's a certain carefulness with which the speakers are selected so that there are always interesting combinations of authors and illustrators. David's also been very careful about bringing speakers to the Festival at a particular time in their careers."
That type of thinking is another reason for the Festival's success, because it is a sentiment shared by the hundreds of children's literature enthusiasts who attend. White himself is a perfect example of the children's literature enthusiast. His office is literally crammed with books for children and young adults. He estimates that there are about 4,000 of them there, many of them first editions or autographed copies. His passion, however, goes beyond collecting books.
It began when he was a graduate student at the University of Virginia. He says simply, "I was fortunate. I had a good professor - Dr. Annelle Powell. She got me excited about it, and I've always tried to get my own students just as excited."
"I love that weekend!" White says, "I feel like it gets my creative juices flowing. When you hear what triggers a book for an author...there's nothing like it!"
He likes to think about the ramifications of the Festival when others leave with the same energy. "If you calculate that most of the 700 people who attend are teachers or librarians and come into contact with at least 25 children each day," says White, "and that many probably have their own children, you're looking at roughly 17,500 children who are touched in the next few days when those people leave just one Festival. Then when you think about that multiplied over 30 Festivals...that's a phenomenal number of children who are being exposed to wonderful books!" As of the 2011 35th Festival, there have been 141 featured authors and illustrators.
Some excerpts from a Keene State Today article by Kristin Cleveland