JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Holding a bright yellow “Pete the Cat” book, 10-year-old Emily Bishop waited with a cluster of other children Saturday to meet an author behind the beloved book series.
And within moments, “Mr. Eric” Litwin had the kids on their feet at Johnstown’s Bottle Works – rocking and rolling as unwitting disco fans.
“We’re about to rock like the Bee Gees,” Litwin said, strumming his guitar, singing and telling stories while kids sang along to popular “Pete” songs.
For organizers of the Learning Lamp’s annual Children’s Book Festival, it was music to their ears.
“Seeing everyone moving and singing and excited about reading, it’s great,” said festival organizer Kerri Belardi, communications director for the nonprofit Learning Lamp.
It was a long time coming.
The 2020 festival was canceled due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Organizers made the 2021 festival virtual, “but there’s nothing like being here in person,” Belardi acknowledged.
Johnstown-area residents apparently agreed, as approximately 4,400 of them attended the festival over the two-day weekend, she said.
Presented by The Learning Lamp and 1st Summit Bank, the two-day festival was launched in 2009 to offer the region’s children to an interactive literacy experience. In the years since, that has meant connecting them with authors and illustrators behind some of their favorite books, as well as cartoonists and storytellers. This year was no exception.
“Moby Shinobi” illustrator Luke Flowers and award-winning author and Brown Bookshelf blog creator Don Tate, known for “Pigskins to Paintbrushes” and other culturally inclusive works, made appearances. Attendees also got the chance to meet Litwin, a New York Times bestselling author known for his “Groovy Joe” and “The Nuts” series of books.
Melanie Bishop, of Cover Hill, said her daughter, Emily, has enjoyed “Pete the Cat” books since she was a toddler, so when her school gave out pamphlets advertising “an appearance by ‘Mr. Eric’ ”at the festival, she was excited.
“I love Pete,” Emily said. “He’s so unique.”
Belardi said Wes Tank, known for his StoryRaps on YouTube and the children-focused app Kidoodle TV, was also a huge hit over the weekend.
“We had some really big-named talent this year – and I definitely think that helped (welcome festival fans back),” she said.
Local and regional authors also had booths at the festival. Marianne Spampinato, of Johnstown, said it was n’t just a chance to introduce children to her book, “Betsy the Rescue Dog.” It was also a rare opportunity to network with other local authors, she said.
“This really is the only festival of its kind in our area,” she said.
Wendy and Scott Cannonie, of Johnstown, praised the event. The couple brought their 3-year-old son, Elliot.
“We didn’t realize how much there’d be to offer here,” Wendy said. “It’s really nice to have something like this for kids in our area.”