History of the Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival
In 1968, Dr. Warren Tracy, chairman of the Library Science Department and university librarian for The University of Southern Mississippi, saw his vision for a children's literature conference come to life. The university, under the leadership of Dr. William D. McCain, and the Library Science department hosted the Conference on the Writing, Illustrating, and Publishing of Children's Books, the first of what soon became the annual Children's Book Festival.
Two years earlier, Dr. Lena de Grummond, professor of Library Science, with Dr. Tracy's blessing, had begun to procure early children's books to support the Library Science program. She spent countless hours writing to authors and illustrators of contemporary children's books to acquire original material for the library. Contributions of artwork and manuscripts flowed in from across the United States and Canada. Today, more than 1,200 authors and illustrators are represented in the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection.
In his original vision for a children's literature conference, Dr. Tracy saw the conference as a way to highlight the de Grummond Collection. That first conference in May 1968 was designed to announce the opening of the special children's literature collection. Librarians, teachers, parents, and other adults interested in promoting children's literature were invited for three days of exhibits, workshops, and panel discussions led by publishers and editors of children's books. Dr. Francis Lander Spain, past president of the American Library Association and former head of the children's department of the New York Public Library, spoke at the first evening session, which was open to the public.
In 1969, the conference became known as the “Children's Book Festival” and included an event that became an honored tradition – presentation of The University of Southern Mississippi Medallion, an award for distinguished service in the field of children's literature. A committee of professionals associated with children's literature selects the recipient each year. Unique among literary prizes, the medallion is awarded for an individual's total body of work, rather than for one particular work, and each medallion is different. Cast in silver for the recipient and for permanent display in the de Grummond Collection and in bronze for wider distribution, a profile of the honoree is engraved on the face, or obverse, of the medallion, and an illustration from the honoree's work is engraved on the reverse side. Since the first award to author Lois Lenski at the Second Annual Children's Book Festival, the Southern Miss Medallion has been presented to an outstanding array of children's authors and illustrators.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the festival came into its own. Dr. Tracy continued to attract out-of-state writers and illustrators, enhancing the festival's reputation. From 1977 to 1980, Dr. Onva K. Boshears served as director of the festival. Dr. Jeannine Laughlin-Porter assumed the directorship in 1980. That was the year Ezra Jack Keats, internationally acclaimed author and illustrator for children, was invited to accept the Southern Miss Medallion. Following his visit, Keats became one of the strongest supporters of the Children's Book Festival and the de Grummond Collection. Since his death, the university has acquired his personal and professional papers, original artwork, typescripts, and dummies and preliminary sketches for 36 of his books. The materials are now housed in the de Grummond Collection. In 1985, the Keats Foundation established an Ezra Jack Keats lectureship, with Barbara Cooney as the artist honoree and Brian Alderson as the first Keats lecturer. In years since, the lecture has become a highly regarded feature of the festival. Children's Authors Speak, a collection of speeches compiled by Dr. Laughlin-Porter and Sherry Laughlin, was published in 1993 and includes a number of Keats lectures, as well as speeches by Southern Miss Medallion honorees.
Dr. Boshears, during Dr. Laughlin-Porter's directorship of the festival, continued to work closely with her and chaired the Medallion Selection Committee through spring 1993. In 1994, he resumed directorship of the festival and continued as director until his retirement in 2001. Dr. Rosemary Chance, an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science, became the director of the festival in 2002. Upon Dr. Chance's retirement in 2004, Dr. Catharine Bomhold became the director of the Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival until 2010. Assistant director of the festival since 2007, Karen Rowell currently coordinates the festival under the leadership of a steering committee composed of Southern Miss faculty.
In 1998, Miss Fay B. Kaigler, a retired elementary school teacher and native Mississippian, generously funded the first Kaigler-Lamont Award to be given for distinguished service to children by a librarian or teacher. On December 5, 2001, the festival was renamed in honor of Miss Kaigler, who contributed a planned gift to the festival. Miss Kaigler, a longtime supporter of the festival and the university, taught in the public schools of California and Mississippi for 33 years, instilling the importance of reading in her students. She first attended the festival at the invitation of her friend Ruth Lamont, a children's librarian from Baton Rouge. Over the years the two traveled to Hattiesburg each spring to participate in the festival. Although she is a graduate of Louisiana State University, Miss Kaigler's love of reading and children drew her to Southern Miss through the festival. Her gift to the university will continue the festival's tradition of encouraging writers to strive for excellence in children's literature and of providing information to teachers and librarians.
From its modest beginning of 100 participants, the Children's Book Festival has grown to hundreds of participants representing 46 states. Originally organized to promote the de Grummond Collection, the festival has come into its own. Both the festival and the de Grummond Collection continue to evolve together for the advancement of children's literature, and, year after year, enthusiastic supporters of children's literature come together to celebrate the joy of children's books.
Festival images courtesy of the McCain Library and Archives at Southern Miss.