Before closing last year, Reading Reptile was Kansas City’s love letter to children’s literature.
Husband and wife owners Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid didn’t just sell books at their Brookside store — they immersed readers in the colorful world of kids’ lit by inviting internationally known authors and illustrators to the annual DNA Children’s Literature Festival.
Like the title character in Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” the festival has undergone a metamorphosis. It’s back on Friday and Saturday as LitFestKC.
The new festival is presented by Cowdin and Pettid’s nonprofit, the Rabbit Hole, which aims to inspire the reading life of children and adults, in partnership with the Kansas City Public Library and Crossroads Charter Schools. Seven celebrated authors and illustrators will attend, including Javaka Steptoe, who won this year’s Caldecott and Coretta Scott King book awards (see accompanying story), Sophie Blackall, who won last year’s Caldecott Medal, and perennial best-sellers and lit fest favorites Jon Scieszka and Brian Selznick.
Cowdin and Pettid are already planning more author visits — Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) in May — and more children’s book festivals. Cowdin says he could see doing three or four festivals a year in Kansas City focused on varying themes such as comics or literature for young adults.
Such well-known authors could help boost excitement about the Rabbit Hole’s future “Explorastorium,” a national immersive museum that Cowdin envisions as a “temple to literature.”
Imagine ever-changing, interactive storybook galleries that take visitors inside classics such as “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Curious George” or “The Lorax.” Now add on a working printing press, writing labs, a theater and a bookstore.
“It’s a big picture with lots of moving parts,” Cowdin says.
The Rabbit Hole currently operates out of a temporary studio at 110 Southwest Blvd., where some of the LitFestKC events will take place. Step inside and the first thing you see is a rainbow-colored mural of the future Explorastorium by Kansas City illustrator Charlie Mylie. The mural depicts a bright, wide-open space populated by children playing alongside famous storybook characters such as Curious George, Frog and Toad, and Mary Anne, the steam shovel from the 1939 classic “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.”
Go deeper inside the Rabbit Hole and you’ll find a workshop that smells like sawdust and is filled with handmade art from past Rabbit Hole events: figures from “The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau,” dresses inspired by “The Scrambled States of America” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a six-sided, 6-foot-tall pop-up that makes kids feel like they’re walking among the pink strawberries, sunflowers and butterflies featured in Kevin Henkes’ “My Garden.”
Cowdin says he has found what could become a permanent home for the Rabbit Hole offices and the Explorastorium and hopes to secure the building this summer. After acquiring a building, the nonprofit will launch its capital campaign. Cowdin says that a specific fundraising goal won’t be announced until a site has been secured but that the effort will focus on individuals, corporations and foundations.
The Explorastorium also raised more than $114,000 last year from an IndieGogo project.
If everything goes as planned, Cowdin says, the Explorastorium will open in 2019. The ambitious project is at least two years from completion, but it already has the full support of many authors, illustrators and publishers.
“Simply put, it’s a brilliant idea,” says Selznick, who has become close friends with Cowdin and Pettid over the years. “Being able to walk into the physical space created by the imaginary world of a book is really magical.”
Blackall, who says she was so obsessed with Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as a child that she tried to grow a “candy garden” by sticking candy to leaves, says the Explorastorium could help a new generation of kids fall in love with books.
“It’s a place that sort of makes your head explode, which is just fantastic,” Blackall says. “It’ll be like Disneyland, but without the commercial aspect, and with books.”
Scieszka, who is on the Rabbit Hole’s national advisory board with Selznick, says the Explorastorium will invite visitors of all ages to connect with the rich history of children’s literature. It could also inspire young readers from near and far to unplug from screens more often and dive into the pages of books.
“It would be such a feather in the cap of Kansas City,” Scieszka says. “I’ve gone all over the world, and there’s nothing like the Rabbit Hole.”
▪ Sophie Blackall, an Australia-born illustrator with more than 30 books under her belt, including the “Ivy + Bean” series and “Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear,” which won the 2016 Caldecott Medal.
▪ Nina Crews, the Brooklyn, N.Y., picture book maker behind “One Hot Summer Day” and “The Neighborhood Mother Goose.”
▪ Shane Evans, a Kansas City author and illustrator who won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Book Award for “Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom.”
▪ John Bemelmans Marciano, a Brooklyn writer and illustrator whose credits include four “Madeline” books and “The Witches of Benevento,” a collaboration with Sophie Blackall. He’s the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, who created the “Madeline” book series.
▪ Jon Scieszka, author of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” and “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.” Scieszka, who lives in Brooklyn, was named the country’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2008.
▪ Brian Selznick, the award-winning author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film “Hugo.” Selznick lives in Brooklyn and San Diego.
▪ Javaka Steptoe, a New York City author who won the 2017 Caldecott Medal and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Book Award for “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.”