Four years ago, as my family browsed our way through the Baltimore Book Festival, eating hot dogs and listening to ukulele folk-pop wafting from the main stage, we kept running into kids my sons knew. Eventually, it seemed like every kid in Northeast Baltimore was there at the festival, dragging their parents toward the children's stage.
They were all there to see Tom Angleberger, author of "The Strange Case of Origami Yoda," a semi-illustrated, fully funny and realistic middle-grade novel written from the point of view of several students at Ralph McQuarrie Middle School. That six-book series is now complete, and Angleberger is what amounts to a star in children's literature.
But back in 2011, his energetic combination of origami and interpersonal relationships was just edging its way from cult favorite to mainstream hit. At the book festival, he drew characters, answered questions and taught the audience how to fold their own Origami Yodas, demonstrating with a piece of green paper the size of a tablecloth.
"He's a little weird," concluded my son Milo, who was then 10. "But he's our kind of weird," agreed his brother, Ezra, who was 8 at the time.
Meeting grownups who do things has a real impact on a child. Most will have met people in a variety of professions by the time they are halfway through elementary school — a doctor, a police officer, teachers, store clerks. Those career paths seem real to them. By contrast, many young people never meet the people who write the books they read.
"When I was a child, I had no idea that you could become an author," says poet Carole Boston Weatherford, who will be at the Baltimore Book Festival this weekend talking about her picture-book biography "Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement."
"I was an avid reader," says Weatherford, a graduate of Northwestern High School, "but I assumed that the authors of the books I read were very remote, or all dead."
Erin Hagar, author of the children's biography "Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures," which has inspired more than one French meal in my house, also never met an author when she was growing up.
"I grew up on the Eastern Shore in the 1970s and '80s, and I don't have any memory of meeting an author, though I would have loved to," Hagar says. "I do remember my parents taking me to [New York City] and seeing 'Annie' on Broadway when I was about 5. It was my first experience seeing professional artists of any stripe, and to see that version of storytelling live — with all its sensory experiences — made a huge impact."
This impact can be far-reaching, says Weatherford, who now teaches literature and writing — and hip-hop — at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, in addition to writing books for children.
"By exposing their kids to real live authors, parents are planting the seed of possibility: 'Perhaps this is something I could do!,'" she says. "That sense of 'perhaps' is one of the most important gifts that a parent can give a child."
Another former Baltimore resident, author Laurel Snyder, couldn't agree more.
"I can't count the times I've had parents email me after a festival event or school visit to share a story their kid has gone home and written. It's as though they've only just realized that actual people write actual books, and since they themselves are actual people, they can write books too."
Snyder will speak at the book festival on Sunday about her new book, "Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova," which was inspired by her childhood fascination with ballet and the classes she took at the Peabody Conservatory.
Seeing authors in person also shows our kids that they have a lot in common with people who create, whether those people grew up in a neighborhood just like theirs or come from far away.
Author and illustrator Liz Pichon is traveling to the Baltimore Book Festival from England to talk about the most recent book in her popular series for middle-grade kids, "Tom Gates: Everything's Amazing (Sort of)." Tom tells readers about his everyday shenanigans via conversational narration and kid-friendly pictures. Fans of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" will recognize their own trials and tribulations in the pages of these books.
While some schools can allocate funds for author visits, others are aided by programs like Arts Every Day, which brings artists to Baltimore City schools. In the meantime, free local events and library programs are precious opportunities for parents and caregivers to light this spark.
"There needs to be a standing part in the educational budget for all schools to do this on a regular basis," says Maria Broom, author of "The Village Bully," who will speak about her book on the children's stage at noon Saturday.
Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, says that interacting with authors enhances the reading experience for children and teens, offering them a glimpse into the creative process. She will host a panel discussion at the book festival featuring authors Meg Medina ("Mango, Abuela, y Yo"), Renee Watson ("A Place Where Hurricanes Happen"), and Tim Tingle ("How I Became a Ghost").
"I believe helping young people connect to the creative process helps learning and opens them up to possibilities for themselves," says Taylor. "Everyone may not write or draw, but we all seek to be creative in our lives."