Kids book bash is for the love of Kate — and reading

December 2, 2019 8:00 AM

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kate Dopirak rhymed her way into little kids’ hearts. Many agents discourage writers from channeling their inner Dr. Seuss because rhyme often comes off as clunky and forced. But the picture book author excelled at it.

By her 43rd birthday, Ms. Dopirak, the author of “Snuggle Bunny, You’re My Boo” and “Twinkle,Twinkle, Little Car,” was a rising star in children’s literature. As a leader in the southwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the young woman with a radiant smile was known for how she rallied fellow writers in the brutally competitive world of children’s book publishing.

Ms. Dopirak never got to see her fourth book, “Hurry Up!,” in print (due out in 2020). She died on Oct. 10, 2018, at age 43 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder.

In honor of the beloved author, Kate’s Kid Book Bash will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty. The free event planned by society members is believed to be the first local children’s book festival featuring everything from picture books to young adult literature. There will also be story readings, crafts, an illustrator’s workshop and a silent auction featuring art of children’s book illustrators. Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto also has declared Dec. 8 Kate Dopirak Day.

Riverstone Books, an independent bookstore in McCandless, will provide a popup bookstore where people can purchase books and have them signed by authors. The bookstore will share the proceeds with Reading Is Fundamental Pittsburgh, where a fund has been established in Ms. Dopirak’s name.

The book bash is evidence of Western Pennsylvania’s growing community of children’s book writers and illustrators. Organizers tapped successful local authors and illustrators — 22 of the 25 featured.

“We can do the book bash because of the concentration of children’s books authors here,” said Betsy Fitzpatrick, co-organizer and a member of SCBWI. “It’s a Pittsburgh moment and a Kate moment. Everyone wanted to do this for her.”

One of the headliners is Jonathan Auxier, author of fantasy novels for middle schoolers including the New York Times bestseller “The Night Gardener” and his latest work, “Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster.” Set in Victorian England, the book tells the story of 11-year-old Nan Sparrow, a “climber” who performed the dangerous and dirty job of cleaning chimneys.

When Nan almost dies in a chimney fire, she is rescued by a golem, a monster made of ash and coal, and the two outcasts find their way together. Mr. Auxier said the idea had been percolating in his mind for a couple of decades, and it took him 10 years to write it. Despite his success, he said, “it never gets easier.”

Pittsburgh author Sharon G. Flake was at the cusp of the children’s book wave when she published her first novel, “The Skin I’m In,” in 1998. Addressing themes of bullying, race and self-worth, the book’s staying power is evident with the release of a special 20th anniversary edition this year. Ms. Flake will be a draw for the book bash.

Middle grade and young adult books have found an audience not only with kids, but with adults, too. Youth in art is having a moment in cultural history right now, Mr. Auxier said.

“If you had told me 30 years ago that the biggest budget movies would have superheroes wearing spandex, I would have told you were insane.”

The popularity of authors such as J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman have also pulled in more adults, said Nick Courage, the Pittsburgh-based author of “The Loudness” and his new book, “Storm Blown,” about two kids in Puerto Rico and New Orleans, caught in the path of the same powerful hurricane.

“With children's literature, authors are able to tackle epic stories with a lot of heart and empathy. I write middle grade, so I am definitely biased, but I always tell people that middle grade novels make the best gifts for readers of any age,” said Mr. Courage, who along with his wife and literary agent Rachel Ekstrom will be at the book bash.

The two helped start Littsburgh, what he calls “the unofficial literary tourism bureau for Pittsburgh,” publicizing events and books for all ages and genres.

Other guest authors look to history for inspiration. Leah Pileggi, author of “Prisoner 88” and co-organizer of the book bash, said she got the idea for her historical novel after touring a prison in Boise, Idaho, and hearing about Jack Oliver Evans, a 10-year-old prisoner there in 1885.

When she discovered no one had ever written a book about him, she dug into historical records and wrote a fictionalized account of a boy locked up with hardened criminals.

Sabrina Fedel, author of “Leaving Kent State,” found her YA novel in a tragedy still fresh in our collective memory. She was ironing one day when she saw a History Channel program about the shooting at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students protesting the Vietnam War.

“It just struck me that this was the perfect young person’s story,” said Ms. Fedel.

The mother of three would drop her kids off at school, drive to Kent, Ohio, for a few hours of research and rush back to pick up her kids up in the afternoon. She made that trip about 20 times.

Both Ms. Pileggi and Ms. Fedel remember Ms. Dopirak for the inspiration and encouragement she offered at SCBWI events. “She was all about lifting everyone up together,” Ms. Fedel said. “She wasn’t competitive.”

The mother of two and former elementary school teacher was serious about her craft. She wrote daily and attended conferences, doing what was necessary to beat the daunting odds of getting published, said author Sally Alexander.

“Kate was an incredible model. She just came in knowing you had to put in the time for writing.”

Ms. Alexander, who is visually impaired, will be accompanied by her guide dog, Dave, at the event when she reads from her book, “She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman.”

Ms. Dopirak found early success with Snuggle Bunny, getting a deal with Scholastic just three weeks after she signed with an agent. Then came rejection.

“She didn’t sell anything for three years,” said her husband, Josh Dopirak. “It was frustrating.”

The camaraderie and support of SCBWI helped buoy her on the way to three more book deals with Simon & Schuster, he said.

Stacy Innerst, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette artist, also had to endure rejection before he found an agent and began illustrating picture books, including “The Beatles Were Fab,” “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and his latest, “The Book Rescuer,” the true story of Aaron Lansky, who helped preserve Yiddish literature.

Mr. Innerst, who won The New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award, said Ms. Dopirak also cheered him on through the ups and downs.

“Kate was honestly one of the most affectionate and sincere human beings I have ever met,” he said. “She was a cheerleader for everyone.”

Other authors and illustrators who will be at the event are Katherine Ayres, Joshua David Bellin, Cathy Breisacher, Cori Doerrfeld, Erin Frankel, Marc Harshman, Laurel Houck, Stephanie Keyes, Rachael Lippincott, Frank Murphy, Marjorie Murray, Rebecca O’Connell, Sydelle Pearl, Jim Rugg, Kerrily Sapet, Nora Thompson and Karen Lynn Williams.

For more information, go to the Kate’s Kid Book Bash page on Facebook.

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