The sun was high in the sky and the air was remarkably low in humidity as thousands of people begins to fill the downtown streets and converge on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. While many might have left the city for the Labor Day long weekend, others have traveled into the nation’s capital to spend Saturday in an air-conditioned and crowded convention center talking about books. And as I have for the past five years, I joined the throng and headed down to the Library of Congress‘s 15th Annual National Book Festival.
After collecting my trusty guide pamphlet and the all important, traditional Book Festival swag—a large brightly colored tote and at least two copies of the highly collectible poster—I stopped by the Starbucks in the main foyer to arm myself with additional caffeine before trekking back to the Children’s and Teen’s pavilions.
Happily, the Library of Congress documents the multitude of wonderful speakers at this event and makes the recordings available on their website as webcasts. According, I will refrain from verbatim recaps. Instead, I will try to offer a sampling of favorite interesting moments from the presentations I attended.
- Rachel Swaby, author of Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, shared that one of her largest take-aways from the project was everyone (especially women) must find the space that works for them to pursue their ambitions and dreams–and if such a space does not exist, make it!
- Kwame Alexander is as charming and dynamic in person as his poetry is on the page! The 2015 Newbery Medal winner started his presentation by getting the packed audience to chant along with him before diving into an energetic session full of a passion for poetry and a commitment to creating books that kids want to read. In discussing his own long quest to write and publish The Crossover (2015 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults) Alexander shared advice valuable to teens and adults alike, including an encouragement to “be prepared for the ‘no’s’ ” and an assertion to “say yes to yourself” in the face of discouragement and seeming failure. Alexander also described his motivation for writing The Crossover with powerful clarity, stating that he wanted to write a book that he would have loved when he was twelve, that boys and girls would love to read, and that illustrated that boys who looked like him laugh, cry, dribble, and breathe—just like everyone else.
- The warm and energetic Naomi Shihab Nye (The Turtle of Oman) brought her growing collection of toy turtles up to the stage where she spoke eloquently about her desire to write “a book about love in the Middle East” and shared her childhood realization that she wanted her job to be writing something down so that someone else might read it and say, “I know what you mean.”
- Jenny Han discussed inspirations behind her newest novels, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, and quickly vindicated my long held suspicion that Little Women had some influence on the characters’ creation. She shared her belief that her Asian-American protagonist Lara Jean was a relatable ‘every girl’ and asserted the hope that her story’s popularity and success illustrated that “you don’t have to look a certain way to be an ‘every girl.’ “
- In nearly every session I attended, the majority of the questions posed during the Q & A portions came from children and/or teenagers. And they came from boys and girls in equal measure — even at sessions for authors whose work I have heard tagged as primarily ‘girl books’ or ‘boy books.’
- Libba Bray began with her characteristic wit, choosing to stand on a copy of her newest novel, Lair of Dreams, in order to see over the podium and selecting a teen volunteer from the audience to sing Katy Perry’s “Firework” (one of her least favorite songs) in collaboration with the time-keeper to prevent her from going over her allotted time. Bray went on to discuss the varied sources of inspiration behind her Diviners series, comparing her messy creation process to the video game Katamari — earning her a hurrah of recognition from a teen in the back of the audience.
- The winding line outside the Children’s pavilion in anticipation of seeing Cece Bell,the author of 2015 Newbery Honor El Deafo, was filled with an unusually large number of kids curled up on the carpet, fervently reading graphic novels. Once inside, a similarly large group of children was encouraged to sit on the floor directly in front of the stage. Towards the end of her engaging presentation, Cece Bell shared the following knowledge with the crowd: “It is better to share the things that make you different rather than hiding them…those are your superpowers.”
- Sonia Manzano, author of The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (2013 Pura Belpre Honor) and the new memoir Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, reflected that as a child, she had never seen anyone who looked like her or lived in an environment like hers on television and that had made her feel invisible. Manzano described her feelings of surprise and excitement when she realized that Sesame Street seemed truly committed to giving kids real answers and that the creators wanted her to the Latina person offering those answers.
Attending events like the National Book Festival remains a highlight of my life as librarian and book-lover residing in D.C. Every year I view the varied crowds flooding the festival and I see an easy counter argument to the occasional assertion that books are dead or that kids don’t read anymore. Anyone attending the National Book Festival could never doubt that books and reading are very much alive and well–especially in the lives of children and teens.
—Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Court of Fives by Kate Elliott