By Olivia du Bois, ’22, and Jerrod Hawkes, C’20

“It’s kind of funny; I’m not a well-known author or anything, but when I go to a school I’m like a rock star,” quipped children’s book author Maria Gianferrari, who spoke at the University of Richmond on Oct. 2 as part of the Graduate Education Speaker Series sponsored by SPCS and the School of Arts & Sciences.

Although the venue was a far stretch from the elementary schools she usually tours, Gianferrari received the same warm reception. Her talk described her background growing up in New England and the impact it had on her engagement with and perspective on nature. Gianferrari has always placed the natural world at the forefront of her writing approach, realizing how important it is for kids to gain an appreciation for and understanding of nature from a young age.

“From my point of view, I just want to inspire them to be curious and to wonder about things like these creatures that are in your backyard,” said Gianferrari. “You don’t have to go far away to these exotic places to be engaged by the robins making a nest in my plant and then watching the eggs hatch and all that kind of stuff — it’s just cool,” she reiterated about her focus on nature. 

Her books focus on themes of discovery through animals and their habitats, and most include some kind of engagement kit of their own encouraging young readers to apply what they have learned in their reading to the real world.

Some of the projects even foster community engagement, like the pet adoption event kit that goes with her book Operation Rescue Dog. The kit includes promotional materials, planning suggestions, activities, and more to enable young minds to involve their communities in the learning experience. 

Gianferrari also shared news about upcoming books such as Whoo Ku Haiku, Play Like an Animal!, Bobcat Prowling and Be a Tree

And there will be even more from Gianferrari who, despite a lifelong love for reading and writing, has been writing books officially for only part of her adult life. In an interview following the event, Gianferrari explained that she had always wanted to be an author, but there was always something holding her back.

The birth of her daughter and her ever-growing love for books served as a burst of inspiration for Gianferrari as she realized she could not wait to begin writing the books children like her daughter could read and learn from. 

“I think I just got to the point where I was like, ‘What am I waiting for?’ This is something I wanted to do and instead of being afraid of failing at it I decided I had to actually really try before I failed,” Gianferrari said, mirroring many SPCS students' experiences.

Much like the activities included in Maria Gianferrari’s books, University of Richmond’s Angela Leeper sees these talks as an opportunity to build on what a book alone has to offer. As Director of the University’s Curriculum Materials Center (CMC), Leeper has devoted substantial effort to bringing in authors for this event and hopes to see its reception in the community grow, as well. 

Leeper seeks to bring a children’s author and/or illustrator to campus each fall and spring semester. Last spring’s event featured two-time Caldecott medal winner Sophie Blackall, and next spring American children’s book author and poet Janet Wong will be speaking. 

Leeper described the series as an opportunity for education students to see literacy in action as a building block to build skills across the curriculum from subjects as different as math and social studies. When choosing authors, Leeper considers the relevance of the author’s works to the education curriculum, but also whether that author’s work promotes literacy in a way that is engaging. Leeper works to present a variety of genres and genres formats to Richmond students. 

Although these children’s author events are sponsored by the Arts & Sciences Department of Education and the SPCS Graduate Education program, it is not exclusively beneficial to students in teaching programs. In fact, Leeper emphasized that it is a community event presenting a unique opportunity for librarians and educators to view a speaker they would normally attend a conference to see, while also offering our community members a chance to engage with influential people in unconventional ways.