Over the past five years, John Kenyon has seen hundreds of story submissions from first- through eighth-grade Iowa City students.

As the executive director for the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature for over five years, Kenyon pores over the student submissions for the City of Literature’s One Book Two Book children’s literature festival each year. This year, the festival will reward over 80 local kids for their creative writing.

“There are names I instantly recognize when they submit, because they write every year and get recognized every year,” Kenyon said. “I fully expect them, a few years down the road, to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That’s the level of talent we have in these local kids.”

The sixth-annual One Book Two Book children’s literature festival, held predominantly at Hotel Vetro from Feb. 24 to Feb. 26, is built around celebrating, fostering and putting a spotlight on the colorful world of children’s literature. Each year, the three-day event host scores of readings by authors, holds workshops for young writers, puts on a book fair and gives awards to dozens of local student writers.

Since it’s been around for over half a decade now, Kenyon is proud to say that the festival has produced a track record of showcasing local student writing talent to a larger audience.

Kenyon pointed to Badra Kalil, an eighth-grader at Northwest Junior High who has been sending her writing to One Book Two Book for years. When Kenyon helped organized the Iowa City Writers Resist event in January, he again got a submission from Kalil and was astounded by her poems.

“She came and we had an eighth-grader reading alongside (Grammy-nominated folksinger) Iris DeMent, (International Writing Program director) Chris Merrill and (author) Jeff Biggers,” Kenyon said. “I was thrilled to see her up there reading. I thought, this is what the festival is really all about.”

Kenyon said he found that engaging the student’s creativity directly was the best way to draw them to the festival. That’s why events like the Iowa Youth Writing Project’s Junior High Writing Jam, which provides writing prompts along with guidance from published authors, pizza and prizes, has become a tradition within the festival.

“We are very proud about our partnership with the UNESCO City of Literature and One Book Two Book,” Mallory Hellman, director of the IYWP, said. “They were instrumental at helping us get off the ground as an organization, so we love being a part of their festival.”

Hellman said that they’ve found giving kids “a taste of the rich literature world of Iowa City” as the best way to get kids writing and enjoying literature. The writing jam, a free event for junior high students  from noon until 2 p.m. Saturday at The Mill, will feature local authors Stephen Lovely and M. Molly Backes giving 40 junior high students writing prompts and answering questions on their writing practices and habits.

“Giving them the time and space to write is so important because it’s difficult for most kids to find that time for creativity outside of school,” Hellman said.

The authors who come to the festival are also key to capturing the attention and creativity of the kids, Kenyon said. That’s why landing graphic novelist and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Gene Luen Yang was such a big get for the festival.

“People who are in the know about his work and what he does are thrilled. The children’s librarians and the book store employees were wowed,” Kenyon said.

Yang was named the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress last year due to his highly-praised work with graphic novels. His 2006 graphic novel “American Born Chinese” told tales of confronting Chinese racial stereotypes and became the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award.

While Yang will be giving keynote addresses both Friday night and Saturday morning, the cartoonist and author will also be leading his own free illustration workshop at 12:30 p.m. Saturday inside Hotel Vetro. “Even my own kid didn’t get into the workshop, that’s how quickly people signed up for it,” Kenyon said with a laugh.

“We’ve found that kids at this age, you can put an author in front of them and read. Not many of them get excited about that,” Kenyon said. “When there’s a workshop where they talk about their work, but also help you out on your own work, kids go nuts for that.”

Hellman said another key to getting young people involved in literature is giving them time to share their work in a public forum, noting that the Junior High Writing Jam will feature a open microphone that will let students share their stories.

“It’s one of the great traditions of Iowa City: sharing your work with the public,” Hellman said. “From Prairie Lights to the Writers’ Workshop, sharing your work is a major milestone for writers. Students need that space, too.”

The festival culminates at 1 p.m. Sunday at Macbride Auditorium with the festival’s Write Out Loud award ceremony, where 16 students who wrote the best stories will read their work to the crowd. Another 121 students will also be recognized with an honorable mention.

“The level of talent and entertainment level of these stories is really high. I would love if Write Out Loud became something that people put on their calendars, that the community said, ‘I think it’s important for this community to show that we value young writing talents,’” Kenyon said.

“​We’re a city of literature; we should be celebrating writing at the youngest age possible.”

Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, zberg@press-citizen.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg. 

For more information on One Book Two Book, and times for events, visit their website at www.onebooktwobook.org.