Last week, area high school and middle school students flooded Youngstown State University’s campus for the 36th annual English Festival.
Gary Salvner, an emeritus professor of English and current co-chair on the English Festival’s committee, said the festival brought students from 200 surrounding schools.
“The festival takes place over three different days. Senior high kids in grades 10 through 12 come on Wednesday. Two different groups of junior high kids come on Thursday and Friday,” Salvner said.
Before the festival, the participants were assigned a list of books to read, so they could listen to speeches from the authors and participate in sessions and workshops.
“They go through a whole series of different sessions all day long. They participate in writing competitions, in group activities. They listen to some of the authors and other featured speakers. They come back at the end of the day for a big award ceremony at 3:15 [p.m.] and we give away thousands of dollars worth of prizes for all their hard work,” Salvner said.
The committee invited authors of the chosen books to speak directly to the participants by reaching out to the publishers, agents, and the authors themselves.
“I have some national connections with some organizations that work with young adult literature, so I often times hear these authors at national conferences. I look for somebody who can really talk well about good books — and their own books — but can really talk to kids too,” Salvner said.
C.J. Bott, an educational consultant on the use of young adult literature that concerns bullying in the classroom, and Jordan Sonnenblick, author of several of the works on this year’s reading list, spoke at the festival.
“Well, this is the first time I have had an official position. I have had come before for little mini-things,” Bott said. “I present teen books because I think kids reading about other things in the world — about themselves in other worlds — validates our right to be who we are.”
Jeff Buchanan, professor of English and teacher education and co-chair of the committee, said the festival is supported by an endowment fund and registration fees.
“There’s endowment funds that have been set up for the festival that are used in memory of Thomas and Carol Gay, the founders, Candace Gay, Jim Houck — one of the founding members,” Buchanan said. “There is a registration fee. So every student that comes pays a registration fee — it is small. … That and the endowment money saved has so far covered the festival.”
Salvner said the festival doesn’t just benefit the attendees, but it also helps to expand the university’s reach.
“We are bringing kids from 200 different schools in the region. For many of them, it is their first introduction to their university,” Salvner said. “They get to know what a wonderful campus this is. I have to tell you, our students are very nice to them and treat them well, and I really appreciate that YSU students are that way. It really benefits all of us because I think it is a recruitment tool. It brings more students in; it brings kids who otherwise wouldn’t have thought about YSU. Frankly the better the enrollment, the better it is for all of us.”
Buchanan echoed this sentiment, adding that the community also helped engage the larger community.
“There is a community engagement aspect with this. You know we are working with local schools; we’re working with teachers; we’re working with librarians; we’re
working with parents. We are doing something for the community, for the kids. … We are promoting reading and writing. We are celebrating academic success,” Buchanan said. “I don’t think there is a festival quite like this in the country.”