Read. Write. Go!

The YSU English Festival brings students from over 200 schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Photos by Hannah Werle / Jambar Contributor

By Hannah Werle

Youngstown State University is holding its 45th annual English Festival April 19 to 21.

The English Festival is a reading and writing event for students in grades 7th through 12th to visit YSU and participate in competitions, discussions and workshops about books they’ve read throughout the year. 

The festival is split into three days and hosts approximately 200 schools from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Students in 10th to 12th grade visited April 19 and students in 7th to 9th are split between April 20 and 21.

Angela Messenger, co-chair of the festival, works with community members, schools, libraries and YSU faculty and staff to organize the event.

“Our motto for the festival is ‘Read. Write. Grow.’ And I really think that’s what we give to the community,” Messenger said. “It’s an opportunity for students to read beyond the regular curriculum they get in school and to really push their boundaries of what they might pick up to read.”

When they arrive at the event, each student is randomly assigned a series of classes to attend. 

Gary Salvner, co-chair and a founding member of the event, said the English Festival allows readers to interact with others like them. 

“[Students] are finding a community of other readers and others who share some of their interests and enthusiasms,” Salvner said. “Sometimes at your own school you feel very lonely doing a certain thing, but they find others here who have those same interests.” 

Each year the festival brings three guest authors who hold lectures, discussions and book signings. Eliot Schrefer will be visiting as the James A. Houck Memorial lecturer, while Rita Williams-Garcia and Chris Crutcher will appear as the Thomas and Carol Gay Memorial lecturers.

The festival formed around the Candace Gay Memorial Essay Contest, which was created by English department faculty members Thomas and Carol Gay, in 1978 to honor their daughter after she died of cancer at 13.

Students still participate in the essay contest, along with three other pre-event competitions. These competitions include the Jeremy Salvner Memorial Music Award, the Festival Art Contest and the English Festival Graphic Essay Contest. Each competition has one winner a day.

Jeff Buchanan, co-chair of the festival and chair of YSU’s English Department, believes the English Festival shows students the value of reading.

“[Reading] can help you sort things out. It can help you think about things. You can learn about yourself in a book. You can learn about others in a book,” Buchanan said. “Any encouragement we could give to students to read and read beyond what we require in school is wonderful. It just opens up so much for them.”

Before the festival, students are asked to read a list of six to seven books. The list varies based on grade level, but often share a few common names and titles.

According to Salvner, the English Festival has received criticism in the past because of the content in certain featured books. 

“Over the years we have walked ourselves into, not necessarily looking for trouble, but some real controversies about books — public controversies that in a couple of cases raged through the Mahoning Valley,” Salvner said. “I would say that this adds another layer to the festival’s mission.”

Salvner said the festival organizers aren’t seeking controversy, but believes it’s their job to challenge students.

“We are trying to announce that kids can be effective readers of even challenging subjects. In fact, they benefit from being readers of challenging subjects,” Salvner said. “We feel that the festival has a role to play in that.”

Buchanan said the festival’s committee is cognisant of a book’s content when creating its reading lists, but believes students should be allowed to decide what they read.

“As students become readers, they become discerning readers, too. They can learn to select books for themselves and choose what they want to read. A part of our job is to teach students to make those decisions and those choices on their own,” Buchanan said.