Monday, September 27, 2010

I Survived The National Book Festival!

This weekend was the National Book Festival in downtown Washington D.C. It was a gloriously beautiful, albeit a tad hot, day for book lovers!

This is the tenth year anniversary of the book festival, which was begun in 2001 by Laura Bush as one of her first big initiatives as first lady. Say what you want about her husband's politics, but you gotta love a first lady who loved reading as much as she does, and brings this type of event to D.C.

The entire mall (which is NOT a shopping area!! It's the huge grassy area between the Washington Monument and the Capital Building)  fills with circus-sized tents, each marked with a particular genre. This year there were tends for fiction and mystery, poetry and literature, history and biography, teens and children, children, (Yes, I know some of these seem to overlap...), contemporary life (which this year seemed to consist of mostly cook book authors, although last year hosted the American Idol and now Tonight Show band leader Rickey Minor). I'm sure I'm missing some categories.

There are also tents for buying books, mobile RVs for testing out digital libraries, tents for PBS kids activities (which also boasted several "real" PBS characters to get your pictures with), and tables for author book signing.

Information tables throughout the grassy mall gave away free posters, bookbags, and bookmarks. I loved seeing so many red bookbags everywhere. When we went home on the metro, more than half the people crammed in the cars had red bags. I felt like nodding at each of them, silently telling them, "Yeah, I'm a book lover too."

(And as a total aside, the people working the information booths were TOTALLY cool and let me put out bookmarks for my own book beside theirs!! I was the only non-festival author that did that, and by the time I left all the bookmarks were gone, and I saw not a single one on the ground!  Book lovers love their free bookmarks!)

Can I say there is rarely anything better than being among a huge hoard of book lovers and their beloved authors??  Truly. Fun fun fun. It erases any negativity you might run across online about the demise of the publishing industry, and leaves you feeling nearly buoyant.

The best part, of course, isn't the free bags or the hoards of people (which frankly were all a bit sweaty and larger than the narrow seats they set up way too close together). The best part is listening to the authors.

This year they put all the people I wanted to hear at the same time, in different tents. I suppose that's because they were all the most popular people and they needed to spread out the crowds a bit.

I tried first to make it to hear Laura Bush. How often do you get to hear a former first lady in person? And the founder of the Book Festival to boot? 

Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to have this same idea, so that even though we arrived well before her appearance, the tent was closed off.

For any other author, they don't close the tents. They let you stand 50 people thick behind the chairs if that makes your day; but for Laura Bush, the security was a bit.... zealous. And when I watched her speech on TV (yes, I'm the kind of geek who DVRs the Book Fair on CSPAN 2), nearly everyone in that tent had passes to be there. I did feel a little put out that she was there, but not practically available to listen to. I wasn't the only one either. As we were pushed further and further away, a near-melee occurred between security guards and festival attendees. Poor Laura. I wonder what she thought of the scuffle caused by outraged admirers?

Still, I am not the scuffle-causing kind, so I took advantage of the security guards temporary lack of attention on me and scooted in towards the baffles to get some pictures. I took my very old, not very good camera, but it has a massive zoom lens. Cheers for photography that makes it look like I could actually hear anything she said!

So that lasted about ten frames worth, and then I got booted away as well. I would have been sore but two tents over Suzanne Collins (of the Hunger Games trilogy fame) was still talking. Booyah!

So I got to hear the last ten minutes of her speech, and also the ten minutes of Q&A, which is often the most entertaining time.  What I loved was that the entire line of questioners was all kids. Drooling, swooning, total-gaga kids who gushed about how much they loved her books and begged to know when she'd be writing more. I could completely see why YA authors love their audience. I must say the kids in this tent had energy and enthusiasm that put to shame every other tent.

 So I sort of saw Laura Bush, I caught much of Suzanne Collins, and I totally missed Jonathan Franzen, who was in another tent at the same time. I heard a few sentences of Diane Gabaldon and managed to shoot a few poor pictures of her that were mostly the guy in front of me's head. She's now writing graphic novels. I moved on.

The rest of the day was not quite as exciting, as I didn't know nearly as many authors this year as I did last year, and I ended up in the History and Biography tent much of the day, along with hearing some incredibly talented high schoolers reciting poetry.

By late afternoon, the only person left I really wanted to see was Mem Fox. If you don't have kids, you might not know her, but she's written 36 picture books, one of which (Time for Bed) we read every single night for over two years to our children. Every night. And I not once got tired of it.

So I went to see Mem, and let me tell you, she was not disappointing!! She had the audience laughing so hard tears were rolling down my cheeks. She started by saying, "I'm probably the only author at this festival that will tell you writing is really hard work, and I like to do it as little as possible. Five minutes a year if I can get away with it."

She talked about growing up as an Australian in Africa and learning to write while sitting under a tree and practicing her letters in the dirt as her teacher drew them with his finger in the air. She talked about how she came up with the ideas for some of her books, and why some are so special to her, and then she read some of them for us.

I could listen to her read all day. I wanted to go out, right then, and buy every one of her books, even though my kids are past picture book age. I'll probably do it anyway.

After Mem, we decided it wasn't going to get better than that, and we should pack up and head home. I'd left at 8:30 in the morning and got home about six at night. It was a long day.

A long and wonderful day.

And if any of you live in Texas or are going to be there in October, there's a Texas State Book Festival which was Laura's predecessor to the National one, and should be equally as exciting. And let me tell you, there's nothing to make you so fired up to go home and write as being part of a mass of people who love to read and write.

Cheapest therapy ever.


  1. I managed to survive, too! I was working the Pavilion of States tent, and had a great time interacting with children who completed their state maps and awarding their prizes. I did end up losing my voice though.

  2. Oh! I forgot to mention the Pavilion of States tent!! I LOVE that place!! I think the Festival does such a great job of engaging kids! Thanks for your volunteering! I'm sure you made more than a few kids' days!

  3. What a wondeful way to promote book reading! I didn't know they did that. your day sounds awesome!

  4. Sounds awesome. All such great authors to listen to.

  5. Darn! I was in MD earlier this month, and just couldn't extend my stay long enough for this. It sounds so great!

    Some day . . .

  6. I can feel your excitement over the day popping through the font, even though it is not even BOLD. Being around readers, writers, and inspiring readers and writers is energizing. I'm glad you had a great day. And nice pictures! Little cameras can be so handy at times.

  7. It sounds like you had a wonderful time! What a great event! (Do you know Buffy Andrews? She has a blog...She got to interview Mrs. Bush for her Newspaper!) You are so lucky living in a city like DC, LOL...any city... (wink) (I meant that wink...seriously...)

  8. Cool, Heidi. It sounds like it was such an awesome event. I have never been to a book festival before. But now I'll be on the lookout. Thanks for sharing your experience and your great shots of the event.