Annual children’s literature festival brings award-winning writers to FSU

Noted children’s authors/illustrators Steve Jenkins and Mark Teague spoke of the writing and drawing process last Thursday at Framingham State’s newly renamed “Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival.”

The event began in the afternoon with a book fair and book signing in the McCarthy Center. Guests were given the opportunity to purchase a variety of books by both Jenkins and Teague. Among these were some of their most popular books, including Jenkins’ “Eye to Eye: How Animals see the World” and Teague’s “Funny Farm.”

The evening continued with a dinner in the Forum, followed by presentations by the two authors.

Linda Vaden-Goad, vice president of Academic Affairs, introduced the speakers and described this festival as significant for three reasons.

“We have the pleasure of listening to and interacting with two award-winning writers and illustrators,” she said, “whose books have contributed to such beautiful and interesting children’s literature in such lasting ways.

“Second, this is our 175th-anniversary celebration of the founding of our university,” she said, “and for that reason, it causes us to take a step back, think about our founding, and what the purpose was at that time, and how that purpose continues to resonate with our vision and this festival tonight.

“Third, this is … the inaugural Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival.”

The festival, which has been held annually since 1986, was renamed this year in celebration of two sisters, Janina and Nancy Swiacki – two education graduates of FSU – and their many contributions to the event in recent years. The two sisters were presented with a plaque that will feature the names of the many authors and illustrators to be featured in years to come.

Jenkins began his presentation by talking about science and the difficulties he and many others find in it. Science, he said, is the key to understanding the world.

Jenkins has been writing children’s books ever since he married his wife, Robin Page, and they decided that they wanted to pursue a career together. However, it was when they had a son and he began asking questions that Jenkins became inspired to write about science in an attempt to help his son better understand the world.

“Scale has been a recurring theme in a lot of my books,” he said. “It’s one of the first ways that children begin to understand the world.”

Jenkins has written many books on the topic, including “Actual Size” and “Just a Second,” in his attempt to put complex concepts such as size and time in a way that children can relate to and understand.

“I’m writing books that I wanted to read when I was a kid,” said Jenkins. “I feel really lucky to do that.”

The presentation continued when Teague took to the stage to talk about his illustrative process, specifically in regards to one photo that is featured in his book “Firehouse,” which depicts a fire truck racing out of the station.

Teague said that he likes to begin each illustration with a set of fresh eyes.

“[That’s] what a toddler is all about, just seeing with those fresh eyes and being excited about everything,” Teague said.

He begins all of his illustrative projects by doing extensive research to ensure that what he is drawing is realistic and credible. For this particular project, he used Google to research a specific type of fire engine.

“I like machinery from the period of the ‘40s and ‘50s,” Teague said. “I like it for children’s books particularly, because the machinery had this sort of friendly, open expressions – it sort of has a look of innocence about it.”

Teague free-draws every draft of the illustrative process, from the first to the final. As he discusses the process, he showed examples of his work’s progression of the firetruck illustration.

Teague explained how books were always a huge part of his life, and some of his fondest childhood memories are of him going to the library and returning with a stack of picture books, and learning how to read.

“You can imagine how gratifying that is to me, to be on [the other] side of the equation, sort of providing that service that was provided to me as a little kid,” he said. “To be sort of opening the door for little kids to what I consider just this fabulous world of literature.”

Both Teague and Jenkins commented on the increasing use of technology and its impact on books. Both were in agreement that while progress in technology is natural and necessary, there is still nothing better than picking up a book and reading it, especially for children.

“We are operating at this level of distracted attention, which I think the whole culture is operating on right now,” Teague said. “We’re all sort of at this high pitch now, and what a book does is the opposite. A book isn’t a game, it’s a meditation.”

Jenkins has “mixed-feelings” about the use of e-books, but sees the good in it, especially for his fiction books. For example, in one of his books, pressing the animal picture on the e-reader plays its sound and adds to the learning experience.

Bailey Gideon, a junior elementary education major, said, “I think it’s really great that the school runs a festival like this, especially for us teachers in training. It’s important for us to see the foundation of how the books we use in our classroom are made.”

She continued on to say, “I had never heard of Steve Jenkins, and after the festival, I was fascinated with what he was producing. … I look forward to going to next year’s festival.”

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