Cape Coral High School laid out a buffet of books - and their authors - before its students on Thursday to foster a love for reading and celebrate literature.
The inaugural Cape Literacy Festival featured 15 young adult authors, the distribution of nearly 1,000 free books by the visiting writers and an outdoor festival on the football field, with games, book signings and activities. Jamie Ayres, an English teacher at Cape High, organized the one-day event.
A first-year educator at the high school, she explained that she previously taught at Gulf Middle School. The past three years at Gulf Middle, Ayres brought in visiting authors for the students.
Author and Cape Coral resident Teshelle Combs talks to Cape High students during Thursday’s Literacy Festival.
"I always wanted to make it a bigger festival," she said.
Ayres had attended similar events at Riverdale High School as a visiting author. When she learned the Fort Myers school would not host the event this year, Ayres took it upon herself to take up the reins.
Cape High secured a $7,500 grant from the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools and a $500 grant from Dollar General Literacy Foundation's Kids in Need to put on the festival and provide free books to as many of its 1,600-plus students as possible. It also raised $500 on its own for the cause.
"We were able to buy 915 books to hand out," Ayres said.
First choice on the books went to students at-risk for not graduating.
"Those students got to pick their own," she said.
"Literacy rates are tied to graduation and success in life, in general," Ayres added.
While many of the visiting authors on Thursday came from across the state, one traveled from New York and another came from Georgia. A third writer, Cinda Williams Chima, is from Ohio. She wrote the Heir Chronicles series and Seven Realms series - both have been New York Times best sellers.
She shared with students "Flamecaster" and the soon-to-be-released "Shadowcaster."
First published in 2006, Chima has authored 11 books since then. She explained that she first started writing in third grade, but was not aware writing books for a living was a possibility at that time.
Chima cited her past as one reason that she took part in the festival.
"It would have meant a lot if I had seen someone making a living as an author," she said.
According to Ayres, the book selection process was based on certain criteria.
"It had to be books for teens," she said, pointing out that the literature had to be digestible for the students. "Also, we really looked to diversify our books so we could reach a wide audience."
The showcased books ranged from a historical fiction on the tragedy that took place on Sept. 11, to books about space science-fiction and a girl whose mother dies and she has to move in with a relative.
"There's a fantasy, and this boy gets sucked into a video game," Ayres said.
"It's just like so many different things," she added.
Authors with different backgrounds were also sought out to take part.
"They're just all different ages, all different races," Ayres said, acknowledging that they were able to secure only one male author, however, despite their best efforts.
Jeff Strand, of Tampa, shared with students "The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever," published in 2016. The story is about a group of friends who try to make the ultimate zombie movie and it all goes wrong.
"A lot of my books are geared toward reluctant readers," he said.
His third young adult novel, Strand has also written about 30 adult novels.
He was first published in 2000.
"It's fun to meet readers and, hopefully, it's fun to meet authors," Strand said, explaining why he participated in the festival. "It can be fun and exciting - it gets kids excited about reading."
Ayres pointed out that each author visited three classrooms and interacted with students. Some answered questions about the publishing or writing process, while others took a different approach.
Cape resident Teshelle Combs, author of "The System," had her classes take part in a creative exercise. Each student picked a character and an ability, then they were grouped into teams to solve a mystery.
"These are the kind of exercises that help me write," she said.
The book she shared with students is about an organization that abducts children and trains them as assassins. It is the first book in a series, with the second book - "The Syndicate" - out in July.
"Every year, the kids inspire me," Combs said. "They come up with such great stories."
After part events, students have reached out to her for feedback on their own work.
"They realize authors are real, and 'I can do that,'" Combs said.
On Thursday, Cape High sophomores Ashlynne Scalf and Nick Stockwell took advantage of the outdoor festival to have books signed. Both expressed enjoyment in Chima's "Flamecaster."
"I liked the fantasy about it," Ashlynne said. "It was great, emotionally."
Nick added that the well-developed characters had him hating them or loving them.
Asked about the first-ever festival, both voiced support for it.
"I think it's great," Nick said. "Getting to hear from the authors is great."
Ashlynne agreed, calling it amazing to meet the writers.
"I feel like it makes people more excited for school," she added.
Junior Emily VanDyke also jumped on board with the event.
"I actually think it's really cool because I'm getting to meet a lot of authors," she said.
"It makes me want to read the book a lot more," Emily added.
Now a big reader, she pointed out that she was not always big on books.
"As soon as I found the right book, I've been reading ever since," Emily said.
Some of the other outdoor activities included a dunk tank and police K-9 demonstration.
On Thursday evening, all the authors were to take part in a discussion panel and book signings at the Barnes & Noble in Fort Myers. Fifteen percent of the sales were to be donated back to Cape High.