Q&A: OC Children’s Book Festival director inspires families to find joy in reading

As reported in the OCDE Newsroom last month, the 17th annual Orange County Children’s Book Festival kicks off virtually on Monday, Sept. 14, featuring a pretty impressive line-up of popular authors, illustrators, storytellers and entertainers.

Pat Burns, Orange County Children’s Book Festival co-founder and executive director

While nothing can replace an in-person event, Pat Burns, Orange County Children’s Book Festival co-founder and executive director, recently told the Daily Pilot that she’s happy that the festival will be continuing, even in a virtual form.

“Kids still need to be inspired, especially now,” Burns said. “Maybe more now than ever before. They can feel that escape in a book, escape in the fantasy of a story and float into a happier space. That’s what we bring. We bring that kind of energy and hope and joy to kids.”

We recently sat down – virtually of course – to talk with Burns about the festival and what attendees can expect from this year’s non-traditional event. (Some responses have been edited slightly for length.)

Can you give us a little background on the Orange County Children’s Book Festival?

While I’d love to take all of the credit for coming up with the idea for the festival, that is not the case. About 16 years ago, my co-founder, Barry Ackerman, came to me with the business idea. For me, the concept was personal. I have struggled with reading my whole life. No one ever read to me as a child. I personally feel like if children are read to and they get that excitement of reading – you know that bug – they’ll grow up to be readers. And when they grow up to be readers, they become more worldly, more compassionate, contributing citizens of the world.

And that really and truly for me is at the heart of why I wanted to do this. I want more and more people to love reading and not have it be a struggle but rather a joy. This is the heart behind our mission statement: “to inspire the joy of reading and the love of books for families.” This is also the reason we wanted the book festival to be a live event with entertainment, food, fun and bands and dancers and storytellers and puppet shows. Our goal was to have all of the elements present so when children leave the festival, they think, wow that was really fun.

How are you taking elements from this live one-day event and turning it into a two-week long virtual event?

We know that the pandemic has forced children to learn virtually and from home, so with a two-week long festival, families can have the option to take a quick break from during distance learning to hear a short story, or watch an illustrator show them how to draw pictures.

The next decision we faced was, do we create a live, virtual event on Zoom, or do we do pre-recorded videos on YouTube? We went back and forth on that decision and ultimately decided that children now associate Zoom with school and YouTube with fun. I want the virtual book festival to be a source of inspiration and fun, so we decided to release daily videos on YouTube. We want families and children to not feel like they’re going to another classroom event.

The festival features an impressive line-up of authors and guest speakers. Where can families view the pre-recorded YouTube videos, and what they can expect from attending the event virtually this year?

There are three sections to this year’s festival — Story and Activity Time, Blue-ribbon Panels and Red Carpet Time. Beginning Monday, Sept. 14, and wrapping up on Friday, Sept. 25, five videos will be released daily at 8 a.m. on our website. To help choose “just right” books for multiple ages of children, each video is identified by their age-appropriate reading level. For example, a picture book is identified as PIC, early reader is ER and so on.

Then on Saturday, Sept. 19, at 8 a.m. we will release two videos featuring our first-ever blue-ribbon panel series. The first panel, “Be the Change! Stories to Inspire Social Justice and Awareness,” features best selling author Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander and Congresswoman Katie Porter as they share their ideas about discussing race with children, approaching racial differences in positive ways, storytelling that brings awareness, and action and governmental direction towards equality. The second panel, “Good Grief! Helping Kids Cope with Sadness and Loss During the COVID-19 Crisis,” will help families identify books and strategies that can help children deal with struggles that have been caused by the pandemic.

Our closing event, Red Carpet Time, takes place on Saturday, Sept. 26 and features celebrity author Kristen Bell as well as New York Times bestselling authors like Jeff Kinney, author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, Sarah Mlynowski, Adam Gant and many others. Red Carpet Time will only be offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. – videos will not be up all day and attendees will need to pre-register to secure their virtual seat.

Once the event is over, all videos from the event will be available on our YouTube channel to view.

As a non-profit organization, how are you able to put together such a wonderful line-up of celebrities and authors for children and families to enjoy?

The festival magically happens because of our amazing, dedicated and hard-working volunteers. We’ve also been working with partners like OCDE for years, and this event wouldn’t be possible without the support of our local school districts, teachers, families and most importantly our children.

Where can people find more information about the Virtual Orange County Children’s Book Festival?

A full event guidebook can be found on our website. While the event is completely free to attend, we do ask that families please register in advance via the link on our website.