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Kenosha and Racine middle school students continued a celebration of reading at the 33rd annual English Festival on Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
The event was spread out over two days to accomodate nearly 600 students. Seventh and eighth graders who attended the event — complete with 30 reading and writing workshops — were required to read six of the seven novels chosen by the event's selection committee.
Jonathan Auxier, author of New York Times best-selling novel "The Night Gardener," wrapped up the event with a presentation that informed, encouraged and greatly entertained students and educators.
The Pittsburgh resident emphasized the importance of reading into a 45-minute delivery that included on-stage participation, an impressive Yo-Yo demonstration and many laugh-out-loud moments.
The message was a simple one: You are what you read.
"Every time you read a story, you live a little lifetime inside of that book and you gain wisdom and see things you could never see before," Auxier said. "Every single book you read adds to who you are. The only bad reading choice you can possible make is to not read at all."
Auxier's "The Night Gardener" was one of the seven books chosen for the festival. Others books included "Crossover" by Kwame Alexander, "Out of My Mind" by Sharon Draper, "Amulet: The StoneKeeper" by Kazu Kaibuishi, "Patient Zero" by Marilee Peters, "Jackaby" by William Ritter and "Long Walk to Water" by Linda Sue Park.
Lincoln Middle School teacher Lorena Rasmussen served as a co-chair for the event.
"As a middle school teacher, I can tell you every year it's a little bit more of a struggle getting kids to read," Rasmussen said. "Reading paper novels has become something the kids are doing less frequently. The committee picked different genres and selected books to get kids interested in reading again."
The majority of the workshops, ranging from supernatural writing to sports trivia, took place in Parkside's Molinaro Hall. Students competed in writing and poster contests. Local winners included KTEC West's Jethro Steinke (writing), Bristol's Catherine VanKammen (writing) and home schooler Nadia Covelli (poster).
John Cargille, a seventh grade student at All Saints Catholic School, said he enjoyed reading the books and discussing them at the workshops. Not only did Cargille get to meet Auxier, he introduced the author on-stage before the presentation.
"I read three weeks worth of his blog, so I already knew he was a great guy," Cargille said. "He was really awesome. I didn't think he'd be that casual up there. He was like a stand-up comedian."
Auxier discussed what he referred to as a reluctant reader gap where kids go through phases of removing reading from their lives.
"This is very common with boys," said Auxier, a Vancouver native. "It happened to me. I'm a big believer that you don't have to be a hardcore bookworm to cultivate a life of reading.
"All you need is one book to string you along until you get a little older and more confident. I find that when I talk to people who are readers and have active minds, they always had that one book that grabbed them. The main thing I'm trying to do is light a fire for someone that hasn't found that book yet."
The festival is an extracurricular event that started in 1984.