One Book Two Book Festival celebrates youth reading and writing in virtual format

The 10th anniversary of the One Book Two Book Festival will be virtual this year, but that won’t stop the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature from distributing books to children and celebrating youth writers from grades one through eight.


From left to right, Sidekick Coffee manager Katy Herbold, The Haunted Bookshop manager Nialle Sylvan and her husband Joshua Langseth, and Prairie Lights manager Jan Weissmiller pose for a portrait. Contributed. (Sidekick Coffee photo by Rebecca Sanabria)

Abby McCusker, Arts Reporter

This weekend the One Book Two Book Festival, coordinated by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, will celebrate its 10th anniversary of championing the reading and writing of children in Iowa City and surrounding communities.

The festival will be Feb. 27 and 28 in a virtual format because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature John Kenyon explained that there will be interactive events for children with ages ranging from preschool to middle school. Virtual story times will be held as well as the Junior High Writing Jam, a writing workshop for middle school students through the Iowa Youth Writing Program.

The festival also features a writing contest for first through eighth graders, in which two winners are selected from each age group. A video that includes all of the winners reading their works will air live on YouTube on Feb. 28, the final day of the festival.

“Our goal is to give the same attention to student writing that the community gives to kids doing other things,” Kenyon said.

A new addition to the festival this year is the creation of Kid’s Book Boxes. The Iowa City Downtown District partnered with Prairie Lights, The Haunted Bookshop, Sidekick Coffee and Books, and other members of the community to create and sell a package with books, stuffed animals, and other interactive activities for children in order to raise the level of engagement with the festival and support small businesses in the community.

There are three different age categories for the boxes: 0-3, 4-7, and 7-10. The boxes are designed so that students receive age-appropriate books and activities. Kenyon said as of Feb. 17, the Iowa City Downtown District had sold around 85 boxes and have worked to distribute them to community members.

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Katy Herbold, owner of Sidekick Coffee and Books, said the Book Boxes create opportunities to open kids’ minds to new books and support the community as a whole.

“I think the Book Box is great for a lot of reasons, it allows people to try a little something different that maybe they wouldn’t pick out in the bookstore,” Herbold said. “I think it is also wonderful that the bookstores feel so loved from the community throughout all of this.”

Herbold and Kenyon said the One Book Two Book Festival is the premier event for young readers in the community. Kenyon added that the festival provides a space to foster creativity.

“Engaging kids in creative things: telling their own stories, hearing other people tell stories, the arts and crafts things that happen, the writing, and all of that is just enriching,” Kenyon said. “As many opportunities that kids can get to be creative is all to the good. For one weekend we can provide some of that stimulation and creative spark for them.”

Nialle Sylvan, owner of The Haunted Bookshop, said they felt happy that the festival is still happening because it provides a necessary opportunity to get kids reading.

“Having a special thing for kids, focusing on getting books into kids’ hands and getting them excited about reading is a blessing. I’m glad they decided to do it again this year in this creative way,” Sylvan said.

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Prairie Lights Owner Jan Weissmiller explained that it’s important that the festival is able to broaden the love of literature to the public.

“This just extends the scope of writing in Iowa to the general public and it is especially important I think to extend it to children,” Weissmiller said. “Now we also have the Iowa Youth Writing Project, we have wonderful opportunities for kids to participate in reading and writing in our community and I think the One Book Two Book Festival is just a large part of that.”

Herbold said she sees the literary festival as the starting place for loving literature for many children in the community.

“We’re such a literacy-rich community and we have so many wonderful opportunities for adults in this community, but the One Book Two Book Festival is the event for our youngest readers, and it all starts there,” Herbold said. “If you can get kids to love reading and engage and see how important it can be then you have readers and you have learners.”