Kate’s Kid Book Bash commemorates late Pittsburgh children’s book author


Image courtesy of Leah Pileggi, photo by Larry Rippel

Kate’s Book Bash yesterday at the Kingsley Association in East Liberty.

By Jessica McKenzie, Culture Editor

For most authors, publishing a young adult or children’s book takes years of perseverance and boundless optimism, as they are almost certain to face rejection at some point in the process. But when it came to encouraging her colleagues to keep going, Kate Dopirak was a force of nature.

Dopirak was a Pittsburgh native, teacher and writer who authored children’s picture books such as “Hurry Up!” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Car.” She passed away suddenly in 2018 at 43 years old from sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare neurological condition. To remember this active member of the Pittsburgh literary community, her friends seek to continue her legacy of determination, positivity and humor. 

Leah Pileggi, a local children’s author, co-founded Kate’s Kid Book Bash in 2019 with Pittsburgh writer Betsy Fitzpatrick in honor of Dopirak. The festival returned to East Liberty on Saturday for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It featured local bookstore Riverstone Books, as well as more than 28 children’s and young adult authors from Pittsburgh and beyond. 

Pileggi said she met Dopirak through The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Dopirak worked relentlessly to connect with the community of kids and authors. Pileggi and Fitzpatrick wanted to do just that by founding Kate’s Kid Book Bash.

“Kate was one of these incredibly positive people that you meet and you never forget. But in writing, there’s a lot of rejection and it can be very hard and she was beyond supportive,” Pileggi said. “She had a way of lifting people up.” 

The event included a series of storytimes throughout the day, as well as Daniel, the golden retriever who won the sporting category of the 2020 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Daniel was the inspiration for the book, “Daniel, the Golden Retriever” by his owner Tammy Tomlinson.

Pileggi, a Pitt alumna who primarily writes middle-grade historical fiction, said the festival was an opportunity for authors to connect with their young audience as well as each other, as writers tend to work alone.

“I think a lot of writers are introverts, and we really prefer being in a room by ourselves. When you’re starting out as a writer, it’s good to have a writers’ group for support,” Pileggi said. “But when you have professionals looking at your writing, there’s nothing better than that. They’re looking at the entire story arc, and the characterization and the voice and everything, and that’s what you really need to have a polished manuscript.”

Pileggi is currently writing a picture book. She said she took inspiration from the picture book authors around her because writing such a book is more challenging than one might think.

“You don’t get a lot of words. I am not an illustrator, I only write the story. It might be 250 words for an entire picture book. It’s hard work,” Pileggi said. “When I meet with kids, I try to explain to them… when I write something that’s going to be published, I might edit the whole thing a dozen times and they’re stunned.”

Sharon G. Flake, a young adult author who had a table at Kate’s Kid Book Bash, published her first novel, “The Skin I’m In,” when she was 42 years old, in 2000. The book, which sold about 2 million copies worldwide, follows seventh grader Maleeka Madison as she deals with low self-esteem because of her dark skin color.

Flake, whose young adult fiction discusses topics of human trafficking, racism and family trauma, said she credits her success to her ability to respect her readers’ emotional intelligence, despite their young age.

Authors Sharon G. Flake and Zetta Elliot hold up their books at Kate’s Book Bash yesterday at the Kingsley Association in East Liberty. (Image courtesy of Leah Pileggi, photo by Larry Rippel)

“I try to trust my readers to handle all kinds of different topics,” Flake said. “I try to be respectful of the young people that I write about and write for and not to talk down to them. I want an interesting, fast-paced read … Hard-hitting books that really have a lot of layers to them.”

Flake said as an author, it’s important to realize what she can learn from meeting her readers at events like Kate’s Kid Book Bash.

“When I speak to [readers], I tell them that they helped me grow up,” Flake said. “I was 42 when I wrote my first book 一 how does somebody 14 [years old] help me grow up? They help me become more confident. Because in the beginning, I was shaking whenever I was speaking about my book, apologizing, until now. I might be shaking on the inside, but they don’t see it.”

Brian Young, a Brooklyn-based middle-grade author who had a table at Kate’s Kid Book Bash, agreed that authors need to respect their young audience in order to find success. 

“I think the secret to writing literature for younger readers is to not coddle them or to not treat them… Respect your audience. They are a lot more mature, more understanding than we give them credit for. When I was that age, I appreciated it when authors would respect me and not try to kick things down.”

Young, who is originally from the Navajo Nation in Arizona, said he authored his first book, “Healer of the Water Monster” to include many details of his Navajo roots.

“I pitched it as a Navajo ‘Percy Jackson’ or a native ‘Percy Jackson,’” Young said. “A lot of the stories that my grandparents taught me growing up are reflected and influenced how I write specifically in the ‘Water Monster’ series. It’s 100% Navajo informed.”

For people who want to become children’s or young adult writers, Flake said it’s important to keep refining their craft and relating to the audience.

“Writers who write for children, first of all, realize they have one of the biggest careers in the world,” Flake said. “And most of us have empathy and a genuine respect for them.”

Flake said she felt the phenomenal impact of Dopirak’s legacy when she interacted with other writers at the event.

“I think any author would just be thrilled to feel like they have given so much to the writing community and a city that people want to honor them with a book festival named after them,” Flake said. “I think it’s just fun to connect with other writers. You can support another author by buying their book.”

Pileggi said the purpose of the festival was to encourage people to read, which was one of Dopirak’s missions in the community. She said her own book, “Prisoner 88,” is perfect for reluctant young readers to start to love books.

“It’s pretty amazing to get a book review from a 9-year-old,” Pileggi said. “We want to get kids interested. So they’ll then look for that next book and the next book and become a lifelong reader.”