Szymanski: Kids are still reading, still absorbing facts, still enjoying books

It is easy to forget how much books mean to kids when your kids are grown or have passed that stage of bedtime stories, but those memories came crashing back when I attended the Chesapeake Book Festival this past weekend. Children parading from table to table gushed over their favorite books, asked questions and fingered their favorites longingly.

I felt honored to be accepted to the festival and was happy to sandwich myself in between the other authors there, many of them friends, others future friends.


The Festival was in Easton and started with an awesome authors reception on Friday night at the library in the historic district of Easton. As many times as I have traveled through on Md. 50, I never knew about the charming downtown area with it’s columned buildings, brick pathways and statues celebrating history.

On the way from the reception to the Washington Street Pub where the author celebration would continue, we stopped at the Frederick Douglass statue. The festival was in honor of this great man from history. Author, Timothy Young, who had helped organize the event, stopped to give us all a quick talk that made me realize how much I didn’t know about Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was more than an African-American social reformer. In the 1830s this Maryland native escaped slavery to become an abolitionist and an orator. He followed that with publication of his own book on the life of an American slave. He became a speaker and a statesman and a national leader, one who taught others the reasons we are all equal. What a notable figure to honor at the festival.

My friend and fellow author, Linda Oatman High and I were staying at the Best Western in Easton. In talking to the manager, I learned that he is a festival supporter, too, and he was just as excited about celebrating books as we were. His kind words made me happy we had stayed at this particular hotel — to say nothing about how I forgot my diet and pigged out at the continental breakfast the next morning! After all, I had to get through the whole day. The festival was from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. inside the old Armory, and I would be the last reader of the day.

Once there, I watched as hundreds of kids poured in, many from the Juneteenth Festival, which was held outside and in collaboration with the book festival. That’s when I learned that 350 kids had earned a free book as part of the library’s reading program, and they could pick from any of the author’s books and pay with their voucher at checkout. Others who didn’t have free books, shopped for their favorites. The committee had purchased eight copies of each title. They had three of my titles, so 24 books. They’d asked us to bring extra books in case they ran out.

The kids who stopped at the table were full of questions. The horse-lovers were easy to spot. They touched book covers gently, and then turned page after page, looking at pictures and reading text. I had a display of things the ponies see in the wetlands on my table. Little boys seemed drawn to pick up the long string of spiny disks and ask, “Is this from a snake?”

“Not a snake,” I’d tell them. “This is the egg case of a whelk. You do know there is a snail inside every whelk shell, right?” I’d ask. Then, when I showed them what was inside of each dried disk — teeny tiny whelk shells — their eyes grew wide.

“These are the things the ponies see when they are wandering on the beach in their wetlands home,” I told them.

Other kids were drawn to pick up black rectangular egg cases, asking what they could be. A frequent guess was a shark egg case, but they were equally impressed when they learned they were stingray egg cases. “Some people call them Mermaid’s Purses,” I told them. One little boy told me that his mom always called them Devil’s Purses. That one was new to me!

As the day wore on, and more and more children filed through the door, my stacks of books diminished. I was glad I’d brought extras along, and soon I had to pull them out. Finally, it was my turn to read. I thought, by reading at the end of the day, the tent would be empty by the time it was my turn, but it was not. I had a nice little crowd as I read from my “Surfer Dude” book. I’d never read this particular title out loud to crowd and was impressed with how the audience seemed enthralled. Afterward, several people came to my table to buy more books.

Watching hundreds of children get excited about books made me feel euphoric. It is easy to believe — in this world of cell phones, tablets, Gameboys and Xboxes — that kids are no longer interested in books. Well, I am here to say that is not true. Kids are still reading, still absorbing facts and learning from the words they find inside the dusty covers of worn out books. And that gives me hope for the future.

I can’t even count how many books I read when my kids were little, but it was an every-evening event. They’d pile picture books in my lap and crawl up on the couch to snuggle in, one on each side. Some of them were memorized. My girls would “read along” even though they couldn’t yet write their entire alphabet.

I think reading a tried and true favorite book can be like coming home. It takes you to a place you are familiar with, a comfortable place, one that seems to have love stamped between the cover pages. Here’s to books and all they have to offer. I hope they never grow obsolete!