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The 22nd annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival will return virtually this year, giving attendees the opportunity to participate in a reading celebration.

The free annual festival produced by the Lee County Library System, is intended to incite a passion for reading and offers a variety of activities, including numerous meet-an-author opportunities.

Festival coordinator Melissa Baker said they really wanted to get to the heart of what people could do at the festival in a new virtual way because they did not want to cancel the event.

“It was really important to have the interactive component, being able to meet the author and get their booked signed. We didn’t want to lose that when we went virtual,” she said.

This year the Southwest Florida Reading Festival will feature nearly 30 acclaimed authors for adult, teen and children books.

The festival will use the platform EventHub as a landing page where videos can be streamed and all information can be accessed. Baker said no special apps have to be downloaded to participate, adding organizers thought it important to make it very accessible through any phone, computer or mobile devices.

Attendees can log on to EventHub now to preview the festival, which begins March 1.

Weekday author presentations will broadcast Monday, March  1, through Friday, March 5, and again Monday, March 8, through Friday, March 12, with youth and teen authors at 6 p.m. and adult authors at 7 p.m. There will also be live booths with local authors from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 6, and Saturday, March 12.

On Saturday they will also have story telling presentations, Baker said.

The local author marketplace gives attendees an opportunity to drop into different booths and find out more about the writers.

“Many of our headliner authors will also be in the booths,” Baker said, adding that instead of walking around the event, it’s all featured in one place on a webpage.

The festival will include author recordings with a live meet-and-greet following every one, providing attendees with the chance to interact with the author and ask questions through video chat or text. This option really opens it up for seasonal people who may be up north now, Baker said.

“They can still attend. It now opens the possibility to a wider audience and how we can expand our attendee base,” she said.

Another important component was having book signings for attendees. Baker said book plates will be sent to the author and, on a first-come, first-serve chance, attendees can go online and order the author’s books with the signature.

“That piece was important to carry over in a virtual way,” she said.

The heart of the festival, crafts, has also been included in this year’s festival because it has become a big deal for families that attend. They are building grab-and-go craft bags geared towards age groups for patrons to pick up at their local library. Pickup began Monday and runs through March 13.

For example, to celebrate “The Watermelon Seed” by Greg Pizzoli, the youngsters will have a paper plate watermelon craft, or an alligator craft to go with John Patrick Green’s “InvestiGators” series.

For the littles under a year old, they will receive an activity, rather than a craft.

For the teens, they will not have a particular author craft, but rather one that bakes and shrinks to make a plastic key chain.

There will also be an adult craft, one that incorporates various patterns to become part of a folded book art. Baker said, for example, there may be a steaming hot coffee mug on the spine of a book.

“It depends on what pattern you get. There are six or seven designs. It becomes an art piece. It’s a really cool kit for the adults,” Baker said. “There is a craft and activity for every age.”

As in year’s past every child and teen also will receive an age-appropriate free book in their craft kit.

“Those can be picked up at any of the 13 libraries starting on Feb. 22 and run until the end of the live component,” Baker said of March 13. “It’s a huge part of what we do, the power of reading and literacy.”

Something new this year, is a S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and math) contest to offer another interactive component. The contest includes public online voting from March 15 through March 31

The contests includes youngsters to adults creating a Lego (Duplo) building. The participant will upload a picture of their creation. The winner will receive a Lego set.

There also will be an arts competition, again pre-K through adult. Again the participant will upload a picture of their best masterpiece. The winner receives the top prize, painting sets.

The maker challenge is open for pre-K, teens and adults, and is open for whatever they can come up with. The winner will receive a maker prize.

Baker said she had to think of ways to make the festival as engaging as possible and with the public online voting component it becomes engaging despite the virtual format.

A program the library system promotes during the summer, its summer reading program, will be featured during the reading festival, but as a mini challenge. Kids, teens and adults will have the chance to log their reading and participate in little missions and activities.

One of the activities is a reading bingo with such squares as read outside, read with a snack and read a festival author’s book. The missions include such things as watch an author presentation, enter a S.T.E.A.M. contest, build an epic fort and read inside. Each will gain credit.

Baker said participants will be entered to win prizes for the categories, which includes autographed books from the reading festival authors.

As in year’s past, the festival will also include a name-a-character raffle. This year six or seven authors are willing to name a character in their upcoming book with the winner’s suggested name.

Attendees also will have an opportunity to purchase the participating authors’ books online through the festival’s official bookseller Books A Million. A promo code will be provided, with a percentage of the proceeds returning to the Southwest Florida Reading Festival.

“That should be something easy for attendees to engage with as well,” Baker said.

For more information and full list of participating author info, visit www.ReadFest.org, or call 239-533-4832.

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