On a Thursday in May at Shenandoah University, two nationally known children’s authors received the kind of reception usually reserved for pop music stars.
Katherine Applegate, the author of more than 150 books, including the 2013 Newbery Medal winner “The One and Only Ivan,” and its sequels, “The One and Only Bob” and the newly published New York Times bestseller “The One and Only Ruby,” and librarian and author John Schu (aka Mr. Schu) entered Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre to thunderous applause and cheers from fourth-grade students from throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley. The students, representing schools in the city of Winchester as well as Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah and Fauquier counties, along with their teachers, were greeted with rousing music from members of the Shenandoah University Marching Band before filling the 600 seats available in the theatre for the Rally for Reading, an event designed to provide children with a face-to-face visit with authors.
What Philanthropic Gifts Mean for Young Readers
The rally, happily held during national Teacher Appreciation Week, was supported by the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation (CMCF), which, along with the Nora Roberts Foundation and the William A. Hazel Family Foundation, provides Shenandoah with funds that allow it to offer programs like the rally and Shenandoah’s annual Children’s Literature Conference, which began virtual author visits during the first week of May (R.J. Palacio, the author of the best seller “Wonder,” kicked off the conference.) Those visits, which reach classes nationwide, will continue through June, and conclude with an in-person conference, June 28-30, featuring top authors and illustrators like Robin Ha (“Almost American Girl”), Newbery Medal-winner Erin Entrada Kelly (“Hello, Universe”), Edward Hemingway (“Pigeon & Cat”), Beth Ferry (the “Stick and Stone” books); Vanessa Brantley Newton (“Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table”); Jason Chin (“Grand Canyon,” Caldecott Medal for illustrations for “Watercress”); Matthew Cordell (“Wolf in the Snow”); Oge Mora (“Thank You, Omu!”); LeUyen Pham (“Princess in Black” series illustrator); and Laurel Snyder (“Orphan Island”). Shenandoah education graduate students also run a Camp Reads-A-Lot program at a regional elementary school each summer.
The CMCF’s generosity is also helping the university support teachers in a new Master of Science in Literacy Education cohort in Loudoun County, while the William A. Hazel Family Foundation is providing scholarships for Fauquier County teachers to attend the Children’s Literature Conference.
The combination of Shenandoah’s dedication to providing children with access to authors and books, and the support it gets from philanthropic organizations, led to the delightfully raucous and frequently moving Rally for Reading. Applegate said she attended for a few reasons. If she didn’t do live appearances, she said she thinks she would forget what it would be like to be a kid and talking to students is “an absolute joy.” Also, in Shenandoah’s case, she said the university’s Director of Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D., is irresistible.
“When Karen Huff asks you to do something, you do it,” Applegate said.
Like a Rock Concert for Reading
The crowd of elementary school students voiced their appreciation for the work of Huff and her colleagues from the moment the rally began, prompting Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons, Ph.D., to exclaim, “You all are awesome. I feel like I’m at a rock concert!” She then asked the children who liked to read, and it appeared that every hand in the room rose in response.
The children also roared their approval after Shenandoah’s mascot Buzzy D. Hornet walked onto the stage and assured Dr. Fitzsimmons that they love reading, too.
The joy of reading felt almost palpable, as Applegate and Schu talked about how they connected through “The One and Only Ivan,” which is Schu’s favorite book, as well as about writing and reading.
Applegate shared how she’s learned so much through the process of writing and researching her books – like learning that elephants do something called “floppy-running,” for example – and that she often starts stories when she asks, “What if?” or when she’s feeling angry about something (she was upset when she learned about the real-life Ivan, a gorilla who lived in a cage in a shopping center, thus beginning her book.)
A Shared Bond and Oprah-esque Gifts
Schu described how he loved “The One and Only Ivan” so much that eventually he was able to get an “autograph” from the real Ivan – a fingerprint in paint. And now, that signature can be found at the back of copies of the book, along with a letter written by Schu, who at the rally was like a kid-lit Oprah Winfrey, giving away copies of not only “Ivan,” but also an assortment of his favorite books (including his own – “This Is a School,” “This Is a Story,” and “The Gift of Story,”) to both students and teachers. He also led the crowd in reading aloud statements like “Reading is a workout for your imagination,” and “Reading is a workout for your heart.”
All the students received copies of “Ivan” and “The One and Only Bob” to take home, and the schools received classroom sets of “The One and Only Ruby” and “This Is a Story.”
Huff offered a special thanks to the Claude Moore Foundation, which provided the support needed to buy all the books.
Emily Williams ’26, who is studying for a degree in elementary education at Shenandoah and plays on the university’s women’s basketball team, helped hand out bags of books at the rally’s conclusion. She said she found the event incredible – particularly how excited the children were to celebrate reading. She’s also a longtime owner of a copy of “The One and Only Ivan,” and the child of an educator, too. She was so excited to be able to tell her mom, “Guess who I just met?”
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