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Children’s Festival: The magic returns this weekend

The Children’s Festival returns in full July 9-11 after scaling back past 2 years for COVID
Anne Billeter, queen of this year’s Children’s Festival, reads a children’s book at her home library collection in Medford. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Anne Billeter, queen of this year’s Children’s Festival, reads a children’s book at her home library in Medford. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

After a two-year partial hiatus of its beloved 50-year-old celebration of reading, the Children’s Festival will return this summer to the Britt Festival grounds in Jacksonville.

Devoted volunteers are rallying for a full comeback after two years of restricted events during the pandemic.

“X Marks the Spot,” a pirate-themed shindig chock full of crafts, stories and entertainment, is set for July 9-11.

First held in 1967, as a small storytelling program dubbed “A Child’s Fun ’n Fantasy Afternoon,” it garnered a turnout of 500 children over two days. More than five decades later, the event has evolved, offering up to three-dozen hands-on crafts, storytime stations, entertainment and other kid-friendly activities over a three-day run.

Craft stations run the gamut from leather stamping, gold panning and tie-dye to beading, painting and a slew of science offerings. Storytelling stations are scattered throughout the festival in addition to a full lineup of entertainment on the Britt Festival stage.

While 500 participants in 1967 was deemed “tremendous,” organizers have seen 10,000 during more recent years.

Storytelling Guild President Lara Knackstedt said the three-day extravaganza has become such a staple for local families during summer that guild members did their best to offer smaller-scale activities when the larger event couldn’t be held.

Last year, some 600 books went to children at libraries in Talent, White City and Jacksonville.

“We did some smaller festivals at the three different libraries. We passed out books and had storytime and dancing and crafts. It was just on a much smaller scale,” Knackstedt said.

“We’re excited to finally be back to our festival on the hill in all of its glory. It’s really exciting for the families who have been, and it’s really hard to explain how wonderful it all is for anyone who has not experienced it before.”

Almost more exciting than the crafts and entertainment, Knackstedt said, are the signature mascots, dragons Rosabelle and Pebbles, who are “super excited to see all the kids again.”

The mascots are known for encouraging festival-goers to recycle and pick up trash. Knackstedt said it’s not uncommon for kids to bring trash from home or even pick blades of grass for disposal — just for the chance to “talk” to one of the dragons.

“They’re the main act, for sure. The kids love them so much,” she added.

Another fun aspect of the festival is that kids have the option of being dubbed a prince, princess, knight or whatever other title they can dream up.

The recently crowned queen of this year’s festival is longtime Storytelling Guild member and former Jackson County librarian Anne Billeter, who will preside over this year’s event. Billeter said she is excited to see thousands of happy faces converge on the sloping hillsides for laughter.

Billeter said the festival is a much loved tradition, with many families in the Rogue Valley having attended as children, performed on the stage or returned as volunteers to help host the event. Festival lingo such as “trash dragons” and “queen” might seem silly to those who have yet to attend, she said, but return guests welcome the whimsy.

“I remember the very first time I heard there was a queen. I was in a management meeting at the library. Someone came in and said, ‘Sorry I’m late; I was at the queen’s picnic.’ He said, ‘So and so is the queen now.’ And we were completely baffled. Now, I’m totally in the loop because I’ve been a member for years, and it’s a real honor,” she said.

“Some of the kids want to go all over and do everything, and some of them will fall in love with just one activity when there are dozens to pick from. I always thought one of the real ironies, when I was taking my own son to the festival, was that he wanted to spend the whole time in carpentry. He could’ve done that at home, but we never thought of it before then,” she said.

“The kids get to do and try so many things they’ve never got to do before. When people want to know what the favorite memory I have of the festival was, it was the year my son was so excited to go to carpentry because he wanted to make a bed for his panda bear.

“At the end of the evening — and it was one of those beautiful summer evenings we get — as everyone was making their way down the steps and back to the parking lot ... my son was holding the panda bed in his hands, and he looked up at me and said, ‘I know what I’m gonna make next year.’

“That is what it’s all about,” she said.

This year’s festival will run from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 9 and 10, and from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, July 11.

Admission is $3 per person, per day. To help keep admission costs down, which have not changed in more than a decade, people are asked to donate at https://bit.ly/3I8lIfS.

For more info, see storytellingguild.org/

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.