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Telling Tales in Westfield Heritage Village

The Development of a Children's Literary Festival
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June Dickenson and Susan Jasper discuss the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the exciting development of Telling Tales: A Family Festival of Stories at Westfield Heritage Village, a day-long literary event. The inaugural Telling Tales festival will be held on Sunday, September 20, 2009. The interview was conducted via email from February 22nd to the 24th.

SJ:

You must be feeling a tad exhausted, having just finished the execution of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction round of press conference and gala events. Were you pleased with the results this year? Was the reception at Le Meridien King Edward quite wonderful? Seems that, once again, my invitation was mysteriously lost in the mail….

Did the economic gloom cast a shadow over anything, or were you able to carry on celebrating the winner, Tim Cook, in your usual style?

JD:

Yes, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction is a wrap for another year. While the economy plummets and publishers steel themselves for untold challenges, literary prizes play an important role in providing recognition and monetary reward to the country’s best writers. It is a wonderful part of the industry to be involved in, and I feel very lucky to play my part.

Le Meridien King Edward Hotel is definitely a natural home for the prize. The ambiance is characteristic of E. P. Taylor in his heyday (or so I imagine), and the set-up for the Meet and Greet – with guests coming in off the main lobby, mingling in the Lobby Lounge and then spilling back out – suits our gregarious industry. After about an hour, we ask the guests to take their seats at their assigned tables in the newly-restored Sovereign Ballroom; to have lunch and to focus on the stage where Rita Celli, host of CBC Radio One's Ontario Today, our broadcast partner, will introduce this year’s jury – 2004 prize finalist Warren Cariou, The Globe and Mail’s National Affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson, and arts advocate Shirley Thomson – and celebrate the three authors vying for the prize, namely Elizabeth Abbott, Tim Cook and Ana Siljak. As we all now know, Tim Cook was named the winner for Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917–1918, Volume Two, published by Viking Canada. May I tell you how incredibly gratifying it was to see Shock Troops début this week in the number two spot on Maclean’s Non-Fiction Bestseller list? We saw this happen last year when Richard Gwyn was named the winner for John A: The Man Who Made Us. He was the first of the CTP winners to rocket to the top of the list right after the announcement. This speaks to the strength of literary prizes – they sell books!

Susan, it is so great to be working with you again, after more than 20 years! Memories of selling John Irving, Josef Skvorecky and P.K. Page come flooding back…. Now that you are immersed in Escarpment Country and I continue to strike a balance between living in a hamlet and commuting to Toronto, I'm looking forward to taking my cues from you, as we set out to introduce a brand-new publishing event to a receptive and very rewarding audience. Tell me again how you came to picture this dream of yours, to create a children’s literary festival in a pastoral storybook village….

SJ:

Well now you are scaring me a little, but thank heavens you've agreed to help us make this dream happen. Here is a very quick run down of how our new literary event, Telling Tales: A Family Festival of Stories at Westfield Heritage Village, came to be. Since I have been out of the publishing industry, I have managed to maintain a wee bit more time for personal pursuits. One of the best decisions I have made was to join a small local Rotary Club in Hamilton. Throughout Rotary International, there is a huge push for individual clubs to develop community projects that encourage higher levels of literacy both locally and internationally. Hamilton has greater challenges than most, as one in five live below the poverty line and more than half the adult population has difficulty reading and writing! We therefore have a local community where the need is very great, and we have the understanding that improving literacy is a critical step in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Naturally, my rusty old publishing cranks started turning.... Then, about three years ago, while I was visiting our local storybook town known as Westfield Heritage Village with my boys, it dawned on me that this was the perfect place to hold a festival celebrating children's authors and illustrators. This beautifully recreated historic town boasts an original one-room school house, a grand old Victorian-style bandstand, a green court that could hold well over 300 people and the platform of a train station that would work as a stage for another 150 people (and was, incidentally, used in filming Anne of Green Gables with Megan Follows). There is a lovely old church for quieter sessions and many, many more irresistible features. It is a restored historic attraction similar to Black Creek Pioneer Village, and it's a destination that deserves to be much better known. Westfield Heritage Village is located about an hour and a half west of the King Eddie,15 minutes north of the town of Dundas, outside Hamilton and 20 minutes south of Guelph.

It didn't take too much cajoling to win Westfield Heritage Village over to the idea of being our venue. Robert Winninger, the program director and a wonderfully enthusiastic soul, embraced the concept immediately. As it happens, the timing was right for them as they had already decided to replace their annual Anne of Green Gables day (after last year's 100th Anniversary celebrations) with a literary event that they believed would hold greater appeal for today's young readers. (It seems, not surprisingly, that children aren't reading Anne of Green Gables as avidly as they once did). We have had to ask the good folk (mostly volunteers) at Westfield Heritage Village to take an imaginary leap out of their historic past and mix things up for one magical day, where today’s storytellers will be welcome in their village, a place which is usually focused on early pioneer days, up to the early 1900s.

So, we have a date: September 20th, 2009. We have a cause: to raise awareness and funds for local literacy projects in Hamilton. As for the next steps, we are developing our plans for selling sponsorship and promoting this event. We have an impressive steering committee that gives me a lot of courage, including the book-trade knowledge you and Bryan Prince, our official bookseller, bring to the table. Our official and unofficial advisory committees grow daily – as do the new recruits to our volunteer committees. There is a mind-boggling amount to learn and do, but we will get there. As you know, we are trying to do our due diligence by researching the dos and don'ts of running a festival from those who have gone down this wiggly road before us. Still, overall, the response to date has been wonderfully heartening. Most importantly, the authors and performers are saying "yes!" Eddie Douglas, Ruth Ohi, Gillian O’Reilly, Shane Peacock, Richard Scrimger, Janet Wilson and Werner Zimmerman have all confirmed. There is no turning back now!

It is probably easiest to think of this as an Eden Mills Writers’ Festival for kids – up to about age 14. Our goal will be to engage and entertain the avid readers, but even more importantly, to reach the reluctant readers with irresistible performers. Accessibility to the festival is a key goal – so this will be a free event, with a pay-what-you-can-to-literacy donation box at the gate. For this first year, we are planning a one-day event but, if all goes well, I envision Telling Tales growing to be a week-long festival where school children from across the city can share in the experience. As a start, we will be looking for local sponsors to help us transport underprivileged children from the core out to the village by bus. There is much more in the works, but this gives you the basic idea.

On the subject of dos and don'ts - what have you learned so far?

JD:

Great to be involved – I’m looking forward to it.

I have been chatting with other festival givers – some with over two decades of experience! They tell me that authors and illustrators enjoy the chance to connect with their audience, and with each other. Telling Tales will be a wonderful opportunity for the literary community to gather. I believe this is the first festival to focus specifically on Children’s literature and music. It seems like there is a great deal of support already for the concept. This is one of the reasons we are finding such strong and immediate interest among the performers we have contacted. I hope publishers will also be receptive, despite this tough economic climate. They should see this event as a way to reach a large population of readers outside the Toronto market – and convert them into customers. I’m told we are doing the right thing in making the event free to attend and putting the biggest part of our budget toward paying the performers. So I guess the dos are to invite authors and illustrators that are energetic and excited about meeting potential readers and pay them accordingly. No don’ts to report so far. We’ve even got the weather under control since Westfield has both indoor and outdoor spaces, as well as tents.

On the subject of bringing inner-city Hamilton kids out to the country, do you see this as an objective for this September’s event?

SJ:

Yes, absolutely. The plan for this year is to offer free transportation – probably two or three bus loads of children and their families – so that they can experience this exciting world of stories. While logistics for this part of the plan are still in the works, our ultimate long-term vision is to have a week-long event with a constant influx of school classrooms coming in to Westfield Heritage Village. In this way, we will be able to introduce hundreds of reluctant readers to this magical world and (hopefully) ignite some real sparks. Obviously, the festival won't be the right environment for one-on-one reading sessions for adults and children who struggle with literacy, but as a secondary objective we will do what we can to help groups like the Hamilton Literacy Council recruit new volunteers.

As for the dos and don'ts: the one message I've heard loud and clear from several sources is that we must pay our authors and performers as well as we possibly can. When I was in publishing, I'm sure I would have expected our authors to be delighted to attend a new festival for free. However, I've been strongly counselled to look at this from the struggling artist’s point of view. For this introductory year we are offering a standard fee of $350 for about 30 minutes of performance time. This seems quite acceptable for fairly local authors – but not if the trip involves several hours of travel time. In a few cases, we are hoping to secure additional funds for the performers through The Writers’ Union of Canada’s National Public Reading Program as a means of making the visit financially viable. Fingers crossed! Marsha Skrypuck, who (along with Valerie Sherrard) runs www.AuthorsBooking.com, has been a tremendous advocate for fair fees and has helped us get off on the right foot. As we grow – and our sponsorship support grows – we will aim to make it our goal to keep our honorariums in line with the authors’ fees posted on CANSCAIP.

As for attendance, my guess is that we will probably have close to 2,000 people attend in our first year. Considering Westfield recently had 1,000 people through on a chilly Family Day, that is a pretty conservative target. We are building great communication links with the Early Learning Centres, the school boards and the public libraries through our committee members. A little sunshine will be high on our wish list, but we will make this work, rain or shine. Got to run and prepare for our Steering Committee meeting tomorrow. See you soon.

JD:

Great meeting today! Having the budget and the work back schedule in place makes it feel like the event is really starting to take shape. I loved Rob Winninger’s idea of having local drama students dress up as historic literary figures. In addition to all of the overlapping programming by age group, there will be such great energy with the historical literary greats rubbing shoulders with the current children’s literati – walking around and talking about who they are and when and what they wrote. What a terrific image! In this way we will tie together our growing roster of authors, illustrators and musicians of today with the notables from the past and blend our twin mandates – bringing festival goers together to experience the world of Canadian children’s literature and music and raising money for Hamilton literacy projects – with Westfield Heritage Village’s mandate of presenting the area’s history to its visitors.

Susan, it’s been great to talk with you and share all of the amazing ideas that are being put forward. I look forward to the development of our logo and other promotional materials, gathering sponsor support, getting the word out to the media and gearing up for what will be a truly memorable day – Sunday, September 20 for Telling Tales: A Family Festival of Stories at Westfield Heritage Village.

Bye for now, but not for long!

June Dickenson

June Dickenson began working in publishing in the mid '80s as a travelling sales rep, first for Oxford University Press and then for the Canadian Book Marketing Group, a consortium of Canadian publishers. She was the advertising manager and co-publisher at Quill & Quire magazine for 10 years and has since worked freelance, providing public relations and administrative services to a wide variety of clients including the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Susan Jasper

Susan Jasper spent 20 years in publishing – working her way up from publisher’s assistant of a small press to managing director of Reed Books Canada. In the mid '90s, at McClelland and Stewart, she created a children’s division committed to expanding sales of domestic and international lines. Promoting children’s books has been a lifelong passion. She now works outside the industry as a district manager for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and is a keen Rotarian.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
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