The National Book Festival has always been an emotional experience for me. The librarian in me can’t help but get choked up at the sight of thousands of people crowding into over-stuffed tents and waiting in hours-long lines to see their favorite authors. But the DC local in me takes one look at the crowds and wants to scream and run away.
I decided that this year would be my learning year. I spent the day Saturday wandering through every tent, browsing the events, and putting together my strategy for how I would dominate the event next year. Here’s what I came up with. (Please share your tips and tricks in the comments.)
1. Bring snacks. And water. And maybe a catheter. I’ve been living in DC for seven years now, and I still have no idea how you get a seat in the Teens & Children tent. My powers of logic have led me to believe that the people with seats must volunteer to help set up the chairs Saturday morning and then never get up. Ever. For anything. They all have Mary Poppins bags filled with everything they need to sustain them for 48 hours, or they fast for two days before the festival so that all bodily functions stop. It’s the only explanation. Here is what the tent looked like 10 minutes before the end of Walter Dean Myers’ presentation:
Here is my view for the Lois Lowry presentation 15 minutes later:
Somewhere in front of that impenetrable wall of people, I’m told there are a couple hundred chairs.
2. Convince Occupy DC to move to the Mall so that you can camp out for John Green. If the situation in the Teens & Children tent wasn’t bad enough, the festival organizers decided to put John Green first thing in the morning on day one. I realize that this is the only logical time slot for a man who seems to be the non-creepy, super-nerdy equivalent of Mick Jagger in the young adult fiction community, but it leaves me dumbfounded at how one would possibly secure a spot within hearing distance of the tent. Showing up early and pretending to help set up chairs isn’t going to cut it when you’re going up against an army of teenage girls with Nerdfighters for Obama T-shirts and hardback copies of The Fault in Our Stars that they can clock you with. Next year I’m definitely camping out.
3. Keep your elbows out and your stance wide when approaching the shwag tables. Either that, or consider wearing a helmet. I think I might have mild PTSD from trying to get my free, hot-pink National Book Festival tote bag. I thank all that is good that the Library of Congress sent me an advance copy of the poster so that I didn’t have to try for that, too. The organizers must have ordered 20,000 tote bags and twice as many posters and brochures, but the tables still looked like a Black Friday sale at Walmart. The rule was one bag per family, but I swear mothers were taking their kids right from football practice to the book festival and sending them in on their own to snag extras.
4. Don’t even consider getting in a book-signing line unless you have a devoted friend with you. The lines, oh, the lines, stretching out to infinity. The book signing area reminded me of what it must have felt to get off the boat at Ellis Island: an endless mass of people all penned in it together, waiting with a mix of excitement (I can’t believe she’s going to sign my book!), anxiety (what if she doesn’t get to me before the three hours are up?!), and terror (what if my bladder bursts before I get there?!). And friends and family are clearly just as critical for success in the book-signing lines, because you can bet when you need to leave to pee nobody else is going to save your spot.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what I saw when I began to approach the book-signing area:
Not so bad, right? Well that’s because most of the people were being held on the other side of the walkway:
5. Develop an affinity for biographies or “contemporary life.” People friggin’ love their books. There is no better evidence for this than the spilling-out-into-the-street, standing-room-only crowds for every single tent at the festival … except the tents for History & Biography and Contemporary Life. I don’t even know what “contemporary life” means, but apparently, if I wanted to learn, I would have been able to take a seat in the front row to find out. These two tents easily had twice as many seats as any other tent (or perhaps I just think that because I was never able to see the seats in any other tent?), and the rows were never full. I almost went in and sat down just for the anomaly of getting to sit in a chair for a talk, but then I got worried that there was a reason everyone was staying away. I have vowed to learn more about these genres for next year so that I can enjoy the festival from their lap of luxury.
6. Avoid the temptation of empty seats in the storytelling tent. Don’t be fooled by the empty seats — the storytelling tent is AMAZING. Getting read to and watching children’s book illustrators draw pictures on the big screen is exactly what a festival-goer needs as an afternoon pick-me up. But this is one refreshment best enjoyed standing. Let’s consider the scene. Who’s there? Toddlers. Lots of toddlers. Who else? Parents. Lots of parents. What do parents have with them? Strollers and bags. Lots of bags. If you choose to try for a seat, you will be surrounded by a three-foot tall fort of small children, large adults, and even larger baby equipment. It’s basically the Hotel California: you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave. Best to stay at the periphery.
7. Add at least one of the following items to the weekend must-pack list: periscope, ear trumpet, platform shoes, fake pregnant belly. Even if you do everything right — camp out or get to the festival ridiculously early, insert a catheter and bring snacks to last the entire weekend, and never ever give up your seat to anyone but the most loyal friend — you have to accept the likelihood that there will be times when “watching” an event means staring at the back of a 10-foot-tall person and pressing your thumb on a magical remote control, trying to turn the volume up. If you have no moral code, consider pretending to be pregnant or carrying a small, screaming child so that people let you edge up to the front of the crowd and possibly even give you a seat. If you do have morals, some combination of Inspector Gadget tools should help you at least see the top of the author’s head and catch every third word he or she is saying.
And hey, if all else fails, the Library of Congress does post videos of all the events online after the festival. Check out the National Book Festival festival website in the days to come!
— Annie Schutte, currently reading Son by Lois Lowry (that’s right, they had it on sale early at the festival!)
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