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A festival for young readers

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Jerrard Polk learnt how to read, age 4, and the world opened up.

Before long he was a regular at the pulpit of his Charlotte, North Carolina church, delivering the scriptures to a full house. At 8, he set his sights on becoming “the youngest author ever”.

Ask and he'll give credit to his mother Brenda, a librarian, who taught him the value of literacy.

He's made it his mission to do the same for young people here. He created the Bermuda Book Festival in January, within a year of moving to the island with his Bermudian wife, Christel, and their two-year-old son, Roman.

Its first event, a fundraiser for The Reading Clinic, takes place in the spring.

“I hope that the festival will help the youth of Bermuda to remain excited about reading and will also promote the next generation of Bermuda authors and illustrators, because there are some great ones,” said Mr Polk. “I realised that I had been to several amazing literacy events over the past few years off island.

“Although I've made frequent trips to Bermuda over the past seven years, I was not aware of any event that matched the level of some of the events I'd attended away.

“They were what I like to call literary pep rallies; I couldn't leave without being excited about literacy. I wanted to produce an event that would create the same level of excitement island-wide.”

He considers himself fortunate that people he met later in life fostered his love of reading.

“By the time I was 8, I was getting training in public reading,” he said. “I attended meetings at Kingdom Hall, my place of worship.

“All the kids were taught how to read the Bible in front of the congregation — with proper modulation and pronunciation.

“Every person that joined had the opportunity to get training; most kids my age were reading in front of a congregation of about 100.

“From then on, I always enjoyed reading aloud, whether in the classroom or in front of the congregation.”

The school principal became his idol after a publishing company picked up the children's book he wrote.

The young Mr Polk pledged to do the same.

“He inspired me and I bugged him about what it takes to get published,” he said. “He had a meeting with me in his office and gave me some tips and tricks, but I was 8 years old.

“In those days, we didn't have easy access to self-publishing online.

“But it did light a spark that would lead me to pursue writing and illustrating later in life.”

At 15, he started a business, drawing and selling caricatures, which caused him to put his writing on hold.

“In essence, my success as a caricature artist took me away from my passion of creating for me,” said the 37-year-old sales representative for DHL. “As I became an adult, I started asking myself what brings me happiness.”

His answer realised, he decided eight years ago to focus on his writing and drawing with a view to fulfilling his long-held dream of becoming a published author and illustrator.

It was about that time that he watched a documentary about Louis Armstrong, the late American trumpeter, composer and singer who lived in New York.

“It made me want to do research about him and his life,” the jazz lover said. “I uncovered the fact that he only owned one home as an adult, in Corona, Queens — today, it's a historic site, The Louis Armstrong House Museum.

“He lived in the neighbourhood and was close to his neighbours and their children.

“I thought it was heart-warming and it made me want to tell little-known stories about musicians and artists that would make young people want to listen to their work.

“That story made me want to do my part to educate young people about music history.

“Over the last eight years, I have developed relationships with writers, illustrators, and individuals in the kids' literature field by networking at my local chapter [of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators].

“I researched and cold-called published folks whose work I admired.

“Many were willing to give advice, critique my work and even mentor me.

“When I came back to Bermuda, I thought the place was so beautiful that all my friends would be inspired if they came to visit.”

Mr Polk then started thinking about how Bermuda might benefit and decided to invite writers and illustrators here and abroad to promote literacy to children.

He then brought Glenn Faries, executive director of The Reading Clinic, on board.

“These folks have so much to offer it would be of benefit to them and the country to allow them to encourage the youth of Bermuda to read,” he said.

“[The Reading Clinic has] been around for 50 years and I want to support them and the community by connecting the youth with amazing talent ... on and off island.”

Starla Williams of Select Sites Group and Marla Smith of the Bermuda Youth Library have also pledged support for the Bermuda Book Festival's fundraising debut, as have staff at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, where the event will be held.

“It's geared towards school-age children,” Mr Polk said. “We'll be featuring children's and young adult books.

“A portion of the proceeds will go to The Reading Clinic.

“Our goal is to help the clinic raise money to provide bursaries for testing and tutoring for those in financial need.”

As for his own dream of becoming an author, he hasn't given up.

“I am continuing to draw and write every day and I recently met individuals in the children's publishing industry who believe in my work and are assisting me to get it published,” he said.

E-mail bdabookfest@gmail.com to sponsor the Bermuda Book Festival or become a volunteer. Donations can also be made to directly to The Reading Clinic in honour of the Bermuda Book Festival by calling 292-3938

Happy time: Jerrard Polk, chairman of the Bermuda Book Festival, hopes that it will encourage non-readers and young people to get excited about books (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Happy time: Jerrard Polk, chairman of the Bermuda Book Festival, hopes that it will encourage non-readers and young people to get excited about books (Blaire Simmons)

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Published September 27, 2018 at 9:00 am (Updated September 27, 2018 at 8:57 am)

A festival for young readers

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