Don’t judge this book festival by its cover

Story by Chris Graham

I have to admit to some possible bias here – I was there when the idea for what has become the annual Book ‘Em book festival was hatched on Fall Foliage Festival weekend in Waynesboro in 2003.

I vaguely knew then the person who was talking excitedly about the idea of getting authors and writers together to raise money for youth-literacy programs – a police officer named Mark Kearney – and honestly, as great as it all sounded coming from Kearney, I had no idea that the concept that he was spelling out for us that day would take off like it has, as preparations are well under way for a fourth annual Book ‘Em in Waynesboro in October, or even whether it would take off at all.

To his credit, Kearney had enough vision to account for a lot of us who couldn’t see what he was seeing.

“A large majority of the prison population reads at a low reading level. When I learned that, it got me to thinking that if we could promote literacy to the younger folks, then over time, we could potentially on the amount of crimes that happen and the amount of individuals that are in prison,” said Kearney, a crime-prevention officer in the Waynesboro Police Department.
“As I got more involved with this, I started getting into the skills and talking to children. We have a program where we read to elementary-school classes, and we have another program where we hand out books to middle-school and high-school students – and over the years of being involved with those students, and seeing the excitement in their eyes and the words they tell me about their appreciation of us reading to them and helping them discover the joy of reading, that’s really helped to keep me motivated,” Kearney said.

It’s up to Kearney to keep the roster of 70 to 75 or so authors who participate in Book ‘Em every year motivated – and his recruiting efforts often take him outside the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia to sign up writers like Alan Krugel, the author of a series of books on rescued K-9 police dogs, who will be traveling in from California for this year’s Book ‘Em.

“I was really enamored at how this event reaches out to at-risk youth,” said Krugel, who will be bringing along one of the stars of his book series, Serpico, on his trip to Waynesboro.

Bestselling author Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Burned, Impulse) won’t be coming quite as far – Hopkins will be traveling to the Old Dominion from Nevada to take part in this year’s Book ‘Em.

“Literacy has been a driving goal of mine for a long time,” Hopkins said. “Before I started into this fantastic place where I see myself now, I was working on literacy programs here in Nevada. I had a children’s newspaper – and the basic goal of that was to increase literacy here. Literacy rates here in Nevada are also at or near the bottom of literacy rates across the country.

“It’s a big goal of mine as well – and to do it not only here in Nevada, but at a national level, it’s huge,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins is currently working to bring Book ‘Em to Nevada – with Kearney’s help. Kearney has also been involved in the effort in Lebanon, N.H., to get a Book ‘Em festival ongoing there – the 2007 Lebanon Book ‘Em will be the second in the New England town.

“It’s great to see all this activity. I see a difference being made in our local community – with the combination of our Book ‘Em event and literacy programs. And the Book ‘Em event is in my opinion a springboard to additional literacy programs – not just ourselves here at the police department, but more teachers are getting more interested in reading and more citizens. Just as a whole, the event has helped motivate more people to get involved with promoting literacy,” Kearney said.

“It’s great to see it spreading – because if we see a difference being made here, why can’t every community make a difference doing a similar type thing?” Kearney said.

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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