One of the great local sleeper success stories, the Savannah Children’s Book Festival has come from an unlikely (for Savannah) premise -- books, kids, outdoors, no booze -- to be one of the most popular events of the fall season.
“It gets bigger and bigger every year,” says Susan Lee, spokesperson for the Live Oak Public Libraries, which organizes the annual festival in Forsyth Park.
“I think it’s successful because we have a good combination of things. It’s not just authors reading books -- it’s storytellers, it’s hands-on activities, it’s performers, it’s illustrators,” she says.
“We have something for all ages -- pre-K kids, the little tiny ones, ones who can’t read, all the way up to SCAD students and artists,” Lee says. “We get a lot of people who just like art and want to meet and watch professional artists. Just because they do children’s books doesn’t mean it’s not art.”
The event’s spiritual center will be the Writer’s Circle, focusing on local wordsmiths.
“They’ll all be arranged around the Fountain, literally in a circle surrounding it,” Lee says.
The Festival will be chock-a-block with children’s activities, with a new touch.
“We’ll have little book, kind of like a passport, that we’ll give out,” Lee says. “The kids can then go to different stands and put stickers on their passport for each activity they do.”
Lee says another reason for the Festival’s popularity comes down to location.
“Even if you’re just walking your dog in the park, you’ll find something that catches your attention. There’s a lot of good food too,” she adds, referring to the many vendors that are on hand, including the ubiquitous free Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
The Book Festival’s success has led at least one local event to consolidate with the larger offering.
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” says Bess Chappas, who with the Savannah Storytellers has organized the Tellabration event for the past 12 years at about this time.
This year, however, Chappas decided to put on Tellabration as part of the Book Festival.
“Tellabration is such a great event, and we certainly didn’t want to overshadow them,” Lee says. “But the two events are a perfect match, and we knew it would blend so well.”
One of the featured children’s book authors onhand for the Festival is Andy Runton, creator and illustrator of the popular “Owly” series, which features the wordless exploits of a friendly vegetarian owl.
Following is our short interview with Runton:
Connect Savannah: How did you get involved with the Savannah Children’s Book Festival?
Andy Runton: My publisher gave me a call and said the Festival called him looking for suggestions. They’d gotten his name to try and find some new artists and he suggested me.
Connect Savannah: Graphic novels aren’t normally considered fertile ground for childrens literature. How did you get involved with publishing for the younger set?
Andy Runton: It just kind of came about. I’ve always loved comics, but I never seemed to be able to do the things I loved. I’m not a violent person and I wasn’t that interested in action sequences. I would never draw that stuff. I prefer to draw simple things -- nice stories with happy endings. I never thought I could do comics, they didn’t seem a good fit.
So I was trying to get into the business and stumbled upon Topshelf Productions. I really liked the stuff they were doing -- really personal stories that had a lot of heart. It was different in a way I’d never seen before. I thought, I might be able to do something like this.
I never thought anybody would like Owly. He’s just a little vegetarian owl trying to make friends.
Connect Savannah: Why Owly?
Andy Runton: It’s just my story, wrapped up in a little owl. It’s very personal. I really wrote it for me, I never wrote it to try and get a huge crowd. I used to be a graphic designer for Motorola, working on the user interface for phones.
Connect Savannah: Funny you mention that, because that’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the comic. The icons you use would look right at home in a user’s manual of some type.
Andy Runton: Yeah, I used a lot of icons in that job. That’s what I used to do for the phones, that was the world I came from. I used to do icons that were happy or cute or funny, and people there would say, this is way too cartoony, this needs to be more businesslike, a little more concrete, not so fanciful. So I sort of decided, well, this is not for me.
Connect Savannah: Why do you think people relate to Owly?
Andy Runton: People relate to Owly because he’s this predator by nature, but he chooses to be kind and nice and make the world a better place. That’s rare these days. For me he’s sort of based on all the stuff I loved as a kid, wrapped it up into this little owl.
Another reason people like it is they can sense I enjoy it. There’s a certain amount of purity that comes with that. Other than that I really have no idea. He’s just a little owl and it’s just me.
Connect Savannah: Interesting that Owly is in the graphic novel format, which generally trades in violence a lot.
Andy Runton: Yeah, it tends to go hand in hand a lot of times. Even the stuff I loved when I was starting to write, they kind of solved most problems with violence. That wasn’t what I wanted Owly to be about -- it’s not about fighting bad guys.
With Owly any conflict is based on misunderstandings, normal kinds of things, which are then solved by being kind and understanding. It doesn’t end with a horrible mean punchline.
Connect Savannah: How long have you lived in Atlanta?
Andy Runton: I moved here right before high school, so that would be since 1988. I’m originally from Jacksonville, Fla. Atlanta was very critical, and Georgia in general, to Owly becoming who he is. In Florida there’s a tendency not to be a lot of wildlife. When I moved to Georgia suddenly I was surrounded by songbirds. Really it spurred a lot of interest in outdoors. Suddenly I had seasons.
Connect Savannah: People who haven’t been to Georgia don’t realize what a huge state, physically, this is.
Andy Runton: Very much so. There’s a lot of trees and that’s where everybody lives. I just visited my brother in Arizona and came back and went ah, home. Everything is green again.
Connect Savannah: Specifically what kinds of thing will you be involved in while you’re here?
Andy Runton: I’ll be doing demonstrations, a Q&A, an interactive drawing thing with Owly. Kind of interacting and signing books, doing sketches. I’m already really impressed with how everybody’s been handling the Festival down there, the organization and everything. I’ve never been to Savannah before.
Connect Savannah: You’ve lived in Atlanta all this time and never been to Savannah?
Andy Runton: I know. It’s terrible I’ve never been there before. But I’m really looking forward to it.
The Savannah Children’s Book Festival will be held Saturday, Nov. 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Forsyth Park. Featured authors for this third annual event are Alyssa Capucilli; Katie Davis; Jan Spivey Gilchrist; Lucia Gonzalez; Julia Gorton; Ella Jenkins; Daniel Kirk; Elaine Landau; Ralph Masiello; Andy Runton; Antonio Sacre; Eleanora Tate; and Deborah Wiles.
This year’s schedule also includes a variety of local authors and illustrators who will gather around the fountain with their books. This “Writers’ Circle” includes: Phyllis Tildes; Bess Chappas; Nancie Clark; Polly Wylly Cooper and Emmeline King Cooper; Nancy Raines Day; “Magic Marc” Dunston; Argentina Grader; Delores Nevils; Bettye Stroud; Audilee Taylor ; Chris Blaine; Christopher Auer; Sara Banks; Peter and Sandy Loose; Robert Cooper; Mary Cunningham; Susanne Aviles; Ami Blackford; Doug Paul; Anna Burgard; Dove McHargue; Tim Banks; and Erin Bennett Banks .
The Savannah Storytellers will present their annual Tellebration event.
Also on the schedule will be professional storyteller J’miah Nabawi, Iti Sahai and Dana Taylor-Nabawi, and the “Mad Science” group’s interactive show.
The Friends of Music return to provide live music.