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Shawnee Mission East sophomore aims to get her generation LitUp about reading

Shawnee Mission East sophomore Emery Uhlig, 15, has rounded up 60 volunteers, 16 literary celebrities, an entire library, and multiple food trucks in organizing LitUp, a youth book festival she hopes will inspire even non-readers.
Shawnee Mission East sophomore Emery Uhlig, 15, has rounded up 60 volunteers, 16 literary celebrities, an entire library, and multiple food trucks in organizing LitUp, a youth book festival she hopes will inspire even non-readers. Special to The Star

Emery Uhlig has rounded up 60 volunteers, 16 literary celebrities, an entire library, and multiple food trucks. She’s a 15-year-old sophomore at Shawnee Mission East who loves books and has orchestrated an event called LitUp, which she hopes will inspire non-readers to pick up a book.

She said books give readers “the experience of learning new things and seeing new places in a different way, and expanding your imagination and meeting new people.”

Maybe because she’s been an avid reader for as long as she can remember, Uhlig never thought a whole lot about how many other kids don’t read at all. However, when she was 14, that thought lodged in her mind and she couldn’t shake it.

“I thought, maybe if teenagers are actually able to meet the people who write these books and get advice on their own writing or their own art or meet these graphic artists or illustrators, maybe that’ll help bring more teens into reading,” Uhlig said.

So, she called the Mid-Continent Public Library and asked if they’d partner with her to create a literary festival just for teenagers — and any interested adults who feel like dropping in.

After the library staff said yes, Uhlig dreamed big.

“My personally ideal book festival would have a lot of authors who are dead already,” she said before cracking a wide smile. “I got as close as I could.”

The first person she contacted was bestselling author Ishmael Beah, who wrote “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” Beah was born in Sierra Leone and was forced into military service at the age of 13 after his mother and siblings were killed at the outset of the civil war in the early 1990s.

Uhlig describes Beah’s book as “amazing” and thinks it will appeal to a lot of young readers.

Beah and other authors won’t simply lecture during the event. Some guests will lead workshops, and several of Uhlig’s teenage volunteers will interview the authors in front of an audience.

She’s assigned herself to interview Madeline Miller, who wrote the bestseller “Song of Achilles” about the youthful friendship of Patroclus and Achilles.

“It was an amazing book and it inspired me to read the ‘Iliad’ and it was just amazing,” Uhlig said. “I’m super excited to meet her.”

Because she wanted to appeal to a variety of interests, she’ll also include illustrators like Kansas City’s Elizabeth Baddeley, winner of the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal, and a rapper among her line-up of poets.

The rapper is a social studies teacher at her high school, David Muhammad, who performs under the name Brotha Newz. Muhammad said he was too impressed by what Uhlig is doing to turn down her invitation to the festival.

“It’s hard to say no to a 15-year-old kid who is this driven,” Muhammad said. “I’ve had stuff come at me before and it just wasn’t organized, so it seemed like okay, I’m not going to bother. But the way she already had her location and everything, I was like, ‘Wow, she’s got it together. I definitely want to help her out in achieving this goal.’”

Muhammad thinks her idea for the festival is brilliant and points out that teachers have been trying to figure out how to get kids reading for years. He said that if anyone can make kids want to read it’ll be someone from their generation. Someone like Uhlig who took the time to create a roster of “people who are having some successes in different genres due to reading.”

The event on May 12 at the North Independence Branch, 317 E. U.S. 24 in Independence, Mo., is free and open to the public, but registration is required through the Mid-Continent Public Library’s website.

Although Uhlig has heard it said that her generation actually reads more than kids in the past due to near constant use of social media and quick access to an internet full of information, she said that’s just not the same as reading a book.

What’s missing, she said, “is the generalized experience of spending a lot of time in your own head and having to create your own world.”

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