Last Friday, students from all over Charlottesville City and Albemarle County zipped rain coats, boarded field trip buses, and made their way through the rainy city of Charlottesville to St. Anne’s-Belfield school. More than 1,200 students gathered in the STAB Convocation Center and sat, tapping their feet and twiddling their thumbs nervously. There was electricity in the air as everyone waited for the lights to dim and the speaker to arrive.
When the speaker finally stepped on stage, the applause nearly shook the ceiling. Students were on their feet yelling, clapping as loudly as they could, yelling phrases like “I love you” and “You’re awesome”. So who was this mystery speaker?
Rock star, setting up to play a set…?
NFL quarterback talking about his famous touchdown pass…?
Famous actress reciting lines from her newest film…?
The speaker that garnered so much excitement, electricity, and joy, was Kate DiCamillo, humble and hilarious author of some of the most beloved childrens’ books in recent history.
DiCamillo might not be a traditional rock star, but here in the Learning Leopard Library, she has achieved honorary rock star status – her Mercy Watson and Bink and Gollie series are constantly checked out, the cover of Because of Winn Dixie elicits squeals and sighs upon sight, and last year’s Newbery winner Flora and Ulysses has more holds in the library system than you can shake a stick at. When it comes to authors for children, DiCamillo is about as cool as it gets.
So when Ms. DiCamillo grabbed the microphone, dimmed the lights, and greeted us, you could hear a pin drop. DiCamillo spoke to her entranced audience honestly, highlighting the difficult and painful process that helped her to grow. She gave us the long list of illnesses that kept her in the hospital for months at a time during elementary school. She shared personal and touching truths with students, like the fact that she struggled to understand why her father didn’t live with their family for most of her childhood. She invited us to share some of her most difficult moments, like the recent loss of her mother. She described people in her life that seemed to be rooting for her to fail, and pushing her to settle. With each slide, she let us into her life, her heart, and her mind – and inspired students to keep moving, working, and striving.
Ms. DiCamillo made us laugh, made us think, and made us feel that the whole world was within our reach. But, to be honest, it wasn’t her words that made me tear up.
Towards the end of her presentation, Kate DiCamillo went through her complete works, giving each book its own slide and asking students for their opinions. The results were deafening. 1,200 kids were on their feet hooting, hollering, and cheering with all their might. The joyful noise grew with each slide until, when she finally reached Flora & Ulysses, I thought the roof was going to fall on top of us.
While the rest of the room roared, I grinned through tears. I have adults ask me all the time what it’s like to work with a generation of students that choose video games over picture books. The opinion seems to be that today’s children have lost their passion for reading in the digital age – but do you want to know a secret? That’s not true. Passionate readers still exist; I am lucky enough to work with approximately 350 tiny ones every single day. And when you combine these young readers with positive mentors and wonderful literature like that of Kate DiCamillo, something magical happens. They grow to become well-rounded, successful, and compassionate adults.
Sitting in that Convocation Center, I knew that those cheers weren’t for video games. They weren’t for MTV artists or basketball players. That cacophonous jumble of noise and memory and love was all about books that had opened our eyes, captured our hearts, and changed our lives.
I can’t think of a single better reason to stand up and cheer.
– Miss Messham
Thank you to the Virginia Festival of the Book, Kate DiCamillo, and the hardworking staff of Charlottesville City Schools for making this incredible experience possible for the students of Johnson Elementary School.
Did you miss our other Festival of the Book posts? Check ’em out:
Or prepare to be wowed by some aspiring writers right here at Johnson Elementary School: