Twenty-five years ago, Thora Howell was a bookseller with a grand dream.
What if she could start a book festival for children right here in the small city of Nanaimo?
She dreamed of inviting authors and illustrators from across Canada to speak to children at a large one-day event and celebration.
Being a librarian first, and then owning the best independent bookstore in Nanaimo, Thora had all kinds of ideas. She also had the talent of bringing people onside. The community quickly rallied, a committee was formed, and the Vancouver Island Children’s Book Festival was born.
Saturday, May 7 was the 25th anniversary of the Festival. At a reception celebrating the anniversary, Thora credited almost everybody in Nanaimo rather than herself.! Of course, she also credited the Canada Council for the Arts (the Council), from whom the Festival received many grants over the years. This allowed the Festival to cover travel expenses and fees for those authors travelling a long distance. One year author Michael Kusugak attended from Nunavut, and the travel arrangements for him were somewhat complicated, expensive, and never would have happened without the Council.
Thora was always in charge of selecting and inviting the authors and illustrators. She has a real gift for choosing people of interest to a variety of ages of children, both sexes, and differing ethnic backgrounds. Many authors over the years have said they have been delighted at the treatment they received at the Nanaimo Festival. After all, they were in the hands of Thora, who organized elegant and relaxing social events for them during the weekend. Authors were almost always billeted with committee members, and those homes were carefully vetted by Thora and her committee to ensure privacy and the potential for quiet and time off for the authors when they needed it. One of the amazing things that happened every year was the book signing. When the authors finished their readings, an area was set up where they would sign books, posters, and a variety of other types of autographs for the kids. There were long line-ups for each author. The authors had become like rock stars to the kids!
Oh, there have been some changes over the years. The Festival changed its name to BookFest, as a sign of the times. Although many community members stayed on the committee throughout the years through sheer devotion, some left and new ones appeared. For the first time this year, BookFest was held in a variety of venues in the small, historical, downtown area of Nanaimo, rather than at the Vancouver Island University. “It was a bold move,” said Thora, “but it worked!” In her speech, Thora announced that over the years approximately 150,000 Vancouver Island children saw, listened to, and met creators of Canadian books through the festival.
To me, there is no surprise in the fact that many Icelandic-Canadians have taken part in this festival over the years. After all, isn’t Iceland one of the most literate and book-obsessed countries in the world? Didn’t many of our settler-ancestors bring trunks of books with them from Iceland, when they may not have had many other belongings at all? Thora, of course, is of Icelandic background. Over the years several Icelandic Canadian authors visited the Festival. Among them were the excellent writers Bill Valgardson and Martha Brooks, and brilliant artist and illustrator Paul Morin. Some members of the committee were of Icelandic background, including me. I was the one who got to write and submit the Canada Council Grants and file reports, hoping to be looked upon favourably for the following year.! That job involved a lot of nail-biting and anxiety until the letter came every year from the Council to let us know our results from the jury. I think that’s when my first grey hairs began to appear. It was no surprise to me when Deirdre Bjornsson stepped up to be the new co-coordinator of the festival. Let’s face it, even in a small city like Nanaimo with relatively few Icelandic Canadians, we have come to the fore in the book world of this community. We are writers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, and interested community members. We’re out here, and we’re celebrating 25 years of Thora Howell’s dream.