Ryan Snider enjoys writing and creating stories. Like most writers, Snider’s passion for reading and writing started at a very young age. “My fourth-grade teacher helped my brother and me by spurring our creativity, igniting a passion in us that we really didn’t know we had. Ever since then, we have been writing all kinds of stories.”
A Palm Beach Central sophomore, Snider, 16, won last year’s BAM Festival’s Flash Fiction Contest, part of a writing workshop which made it possible for him to publish his first novel, Seventy Meters, about a kid named Dylan Stone who lives in a floating city over Atlantis. What inspired his idea? It just popped into his head one day, he says. “I did some research and found out that if all the ice on the earth melted through global warming, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, the sea level would rise 70 meters. So, I got my title and built the story from that.”
The intense writing workshop challenges young minds to think outside the box. It also boasts a chance for a local kid to win a mentorship and publication with one of their authors. “It’s extremely difficult to ask any writer to come up with a story idea within 30 minutes, but it does activate your creativity,” says author, Stephen Kozan, one of the presenters of BAM’s Flash Fiction awards. As the author of The Great Green Tree and the Magical Ladders, Town, and The Journal of a Lifetime, he knows how difficult it is to break into the book industry, and wants to give kids like Snider a leg up. This year’s winner is Caitlyn de la Cruces, whose flash fiction one-page submission wowed the judges, including Kozan. “All the students who participated showed that [creativity],” he explains. “Sadly, the panel could only select one winner, even though they all had immense talent. It’s not about what’s good or what’s bad, it’s about what’s more creative.”
De la Cruces will be working on her novel for the next six to seven months.
Casey, a student from Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach, joined her class’ field trip to BAM this Saturday, April 9, which was hosted by Mandel Library in Downtown West Palm Beach. Casey and others in her class are part of a book club at Atlantic that entered a competition called Battle of the Books. Most of the 37 authors whose books were in that competition were at this year’s BAM Festival. “We wanted to come here and meet them in person!” she says, giggling excitedly. “We got to ask them questions about why they wrote those stories, and how they created the characters the way they did. They signed our books, so I was really happy!”
Author and illustrator, Claire Salmon, who’s been president of BAM Festival since 2020, came to the first festival in 2011, at the request of her writing mentor. Immediately, she was on fire for BAM’s mission—to provide a country-wide literary experience that brings together authors, teachers, students, families, and the whole community to share their love for books. She volunteered, helping to coordinate the event, most especially last year’s virtual experience which attracted 5,000 attendees. “I feel next year may be a big year for BAM, depending on how far the newly elected president, Peter Cruise, plans to take it,” she says.
Peter Cruise first volunteered as an author panel moderator five years ago. As Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics Commissioner, Palm Beach County Inspector General Committee Executive Director, FAU-LeRoy Collins Public Ethics Academy, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, he remembers talking to BAM founders Helen Zientek and Lisa Butler, who had approached the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches for financial support and for volunteers to help at the festival. His first author panel included well-known Young Adult authors such as Neil Shusterman. He enjoyed the experience so much he’s been a part of BAM ever since.
“Reading opens the world of possibilities for young people,” says Cruise, who remembers voraciously reading books from an early age imagining traveling the world—to other planets and other times like the protagonists in the novels he had read as a kid. “Writing, especially creative writing, communicates these possibilities to readers. Also, as a college professor, I know how critical written communication skills are for young people who plan to enter the workforce.”
Author, Cristina Diaz Gonzalez, who grew up in a small town in Florida as the daughter of Cuban exiles, has used her family as a source of inspiration for her work. In her first novel, The Red Umbrella, Gonzalez tells the story of how her parents, both 16 at the time, and many others came to the US through Operation Peter Pan [Pedro Pan]. The Red Umbrella is now required reading for seventh graders in Florida.
Gonzalez, the author of many titles, from middle-grade to young adult, graphic novels and historical books, has been a featured author at BAM since 2011. She wanted to inspire kids to write—to just dive into their stories and put words on paper, even if it was not so good at first. “The idea is to write, and write often, letting the words flow,” she tells a young girl at this year’s “Middle Grade is for Magic” panel. The girl listens intently as she nods, making a mental note of the author’s advice.
“When I was ten years old, I had an idea that I wanted to be a writer, but it was more of a secret dream,” she tells her. “I loved books and I had my own stories in my head. But, I had never met an author or a writer, so it didn’t seem like it was something people like me would ever do.”
For a long time, Gonzalez put aside that dream. She went to the University of Miami, where she studied accounting—numbers . . . as far away from letters as you can go! Right before graduation, she realized she really didn’t want to do accounting, so she went to law school. Soon after, she became a lawyer. And it wasn’t until she became a mom when her kids started reading, especially her oldest, who read everything he could get his hands on, that her childhood dream about becoming a writer reignited.
The Red Umbrella was her first published book. “My parents always told me how they came to the US, but I never knew that was going to be my first book,” says Gonzalez. “We often take for granted what’s around us and the stories we hear. Sometimes we don’t value our own stories as much as someone else’s. We think theirs is exceptional, theirs is unique.”
It wasn’t until she heard another author speak about her story that things changed for Gonzalez, who recalls reading Ruth Vander Zee’s picture book, Erika’s Story. This story is both uplifting and heartbreaking. The refrain in the book gives us a clue: “my mother loved me so much that she threw me from the train.”
Erika’s Story tells the story of a woman with a baby riding on a train that’s headed to a concentration camp. When the train slows down a bit as it passes a small village, the mother makes the heartbreaking decision to throw her baby up and out through a hole up the top, hoping the baby won’t land on the opposite train track, but somewhere soft on the grass below. Two people on the field see the bundle flying off the train and run towards it thinking it is food or something. To their surprise, they see it’s a baby. They take the child and raise her as their own. They don’t know anything about her, not even what country she’s from, or if the mother ever survived the war. The only thing they can tell the little girl when she’s old enough is, “your mother loved you so much that she threw you from the train.”
That’s the power of stories. It ignited in Gonzalez a story, too. And it still has the power to shake her as she tells it. “My family is not Jewish; their story didn’t happen in WWII. But that story made me think of my grandparents and the sacrifice they made with my parents. They believed that the only way to save my parents from Castro’s regime was to blindly send them away, not knowing if they would ever see them again, and trust that when they would land in Miami, they would be okay.”
Like most of us writers who have been told family stories our entire life, Gonzalez remembers her parents’ experience and of the other 14,000 Cuban kids’ that weren’t being shared. It was buried in a footnote in history books; it was a big event for the US, but no one was talking about it. That was what inspired her story—a compilation of all kids’ stories who came to America via Operation Peter Pan. The Red Umbrella was published in 2010, and her next historical fiction, The Bluest Sky, will be released this September. The story follows two characters from The Red Umbrella—two boys who were childhood best friends and reunite in the Mariel Boatlift that happened in 1980.
There were so many incredible stories like this told at BAM Festival last weekend, and not all were written or told by authors. BAM’s Art Contest awarded to Jacklyn Cohen, 16, and Gyongy Szaszvarosi, 16, art students from A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach showcases the beautiful art by these two amazing young artists. “We’ve been street painting for the past four years, but really since we were kids,” explains Cohen about their love for art and their beloved Dreyfoos. “It’s where we get to improve our portfolios, as I’m aiming to be a book illustrator.” Last year, after answering, and winning, the City of West Palm Beach’s Call for Artists, they were commissioned to paint a 70-foot mural on Olive and Clematis Street, for which they got paid $5000. Their BAM street painting was amazing, not only because of their masterful technique but because of the story behind it. “Our picture is about a large deer protecting a small forest,” explains Cohen. “We just did it because we thought it would be a cool thing to do for the festival, and for the kids in our community!”
For the kids. And that, in a nutshell, is the reason why BAM Festival exists.
For more information about the BAM Festival, visit www.bamwpb.org.
Best Stories from BAM Festival 2022