As if an entire Saturday of free author events and book signings isn’t enough, Savannah Book Festival along with Live Oak Public Libraries will also host a day for children’s and young author book lovers the next day from 1-4 p.m. Feb. 17 in Reynolds Square.

The Savannah Book Festival Children's Tent will include author presentations, book signings, celebrity story times, music and art, which is all free.  

This year’s scheduled featured authors are Kwame Alexander, Michael Patrick O’Neill, Javaka Steptoe, and Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes.

Alexander is a poet, educator and New York Times bestselling author of 28 books. He is best known for his popular titles including “Swing,” “Solo” and “Rebound,” as well as his 2015 Newberry Medal award-winning book, “The Crossover,” which was also selected as an Honor book for the Coretta Scott King Award.

O’Neill, an award-winning photographer and author from São Paulo, Brazil, specializes in marine wildlife and environmental issues. He has captivated readers through his photographs spotlighting the tales of diverse aquatic animals, their habitats and impact the environment has on their futures. O’Neill's nonfiction marine-life books are designed to encourage school children to read, write and become involved in science and conservation.

Steptoe won a 2017 Caldecott Award, NAACP Image Award nomination and a Coretta Scott King award for his book, “Radiant Child.” He is also well-known for his award-winning book “Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow.” Steptoe contributed an image to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Black Boy,” which was published by the Savannah-based Penny Candy Books.

Kensky and Downes, both best-selling authors, along with their service dog, Rescue, will also make an appearance at the Children’s Tent. Kensky and Downes were seriously injured and each lost legs during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Their story of survival was brought to the big screen in the movie “Patriots Day.”

'Rescue and Jessica'

As co-authors, the New York Times bestselling couple released their first book, “Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship,” in April 2018, just ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. In the book, readers will follow a young girl named Jessica as she adjusts to life with prosthetics, wheelchairs and crutches with the help of her new service dog, Rescue.

 

Kensky says that while the material that inspired the book may seem pretty heavy for a children’s book, the response from children at their book readings has been phenomenal.

And Downes explains the book is really for all ages. “Our story has appeal across age spectrums. We were worried the subject would be off-putting for children, but they dive in. Jess and I try to approach the subject with honesty… and the kids thrive off that. They know if you are telling the whole story... then their compassion shines.”

“We are both surprised by how many kids — of all ages — attend our book readings and how many engage in the conversation and ask questions,” Kensky adds. “The smaller kids tend to ask questions about Rescue... while teens tend to ask questions about our prosthetics or mobility issues… and adults seem to be seeking answers… or peace of mind.

“We tend to get emotional responses from adults... especially to the ending of the book. …We have been able to see the book affect everyone in different ways.”

The pair say they are excited to make the trip to Savannah for the book festival. Kensky’s parents actually retired in Savannah, so they’ll be there to see their “grandpup” Rescue when they come to town.

And Jessica adds that she lets Patrick do the reading at these events because he does the best Rescue voice.

“Then we tailor the talk to the audience,” she adds. “We’ll bring out Rescue and introduce him.

“Sometimes the discussion gets deeper and we’ll do a Q&A session. We strive to be honest with our conversation. We also usually bring different prosthetics to show the audience.”

When asked what the process of writing the book was like, Patrick explains, “We aren’t writers.

“We wrote the book over a course of four years while we were healing. … It was a therapeutic escape for us. We didn’t know at the time if it would every see the light of day. And now, being in a tent with kids and making them laugh is incredibly humbling.

“Kids are so fascinated by Rescue, and when they learn more about the struggles we face, they want to know what they can do to make the world more welcoming for people with disabilities. They want justice and fairness for all.”

The couple says they hope to continue that conversation in other books.

Political activism

And while their life-changing experience led them to become writers, becoming victims of a terror attack also led them to become political advocates. The couple credits their recoveries with the treatment they received at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — a military facility that is typically off limits to civilians seeking treatment.

They are pushing for legislation to allow other survivors of terrorism with traumatic injuries to have access to treatment at military healthcare facilities.

“These military doctors are experts in blast trauma,” Downes explains. “And from a philosophical standpoint, if terror is done to divide us, then the most powerful response is to come together. When it happens again, how will we respond?”

Both agree that when they were at Walter Reed, they felt the “country was taking care of us.”

And they say that while Boston is a mecca of medicine, there were nuances in their own needs, so reaching out to military doctors for their expertise was necessary.

“We aren’t saying the military should pay for treatment,” Jessica adds. “We would just like to see better collaboration between military and civilian doctors.”

And pushing for that collaboration has become very important to them.

“We had to make some meaning out of this,” she says.