National Book Fair 2014: One Reader’s Trip and Reflections

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During the waning summer days, hundreds of readers, writers and authors descend on D.C.’s Mall for the National Book Festival. Since 2001, the Festival has attracted some of the biggest names in literature, spanning all genres and writers and readers young and old for two days amongst the sights of Washington, D.C. Not this year, though.  The 2014 National Book Festival was a one-day affair, this  time held in the Washington Convention Center, and moved to Labor Day weekend instead of late September.

I had been to the Festival once before, back in 2012, when my aunt invited me to go with her. I’d spent the weekend running up and down the length of the Mall from the speaking pavilions to the signing booths, stood in a line for three hours to get my books signed, heard from some really great writers and had an all-around blast. I wanted to go back last year, but I didn’t have enough time off to wrangle off a long weekend in mid-September. But I did want to go to another one eventually, and thought that this year would be a good year to go—there’s authors that I liked, but no one that I desperately wanted to see, and I hoped to see more and get more of the festival experience. (Do I regret standing in line for three hours to see John Green? Not really. But I’m still miffed about missing three of the presentations and signings that year because I couldn’t leave.)

My journey started around eight-thirty Saturday morning when I boarded the Metro to head into downtown D.C. (Well, actually it started at four-thirty on Friday afternoon when my mom and I left Pittsburgh, PA for Arlington, VA. But that’s not entirely pertinent to the Festival as a whole.) Although the Festival opened its doors at nine A.M., author presentations weren’t starting until  ten o’clock, and I was hoping to get a sense of the layout before I started the running back and forth from the conference rooms to the signing areas. Split across two buildings and three floors, this year’s Festival was actually pretty easy to navigate once I got the sense of my surroundings. My main plan was to decamp in the Teens pavilion on the first floor for most of the day, with periodic jaunts upstairs for signings, sales, general wandering around and getting food, and then going to the evening Graphic Novels Super Session across the hall from the Teens pavilion.

Once I arrived and figured out that I had a good hour and a half until the first presentation I wanted to go to, I headed up to the second floor to look around. The Book Sales tent was opened at nine as well, and I headed in to pick up some books and generally glance around. Politics & Prose, D.C.’s main independent bookstore, were running the Sales tent this year, and I stopped to chat with the employees about indie bookstores and sales. Afterwards, I poked around the Pavilion of the States, featuring displays from libraries across the country and various territories about writers and books from or about the different states featured. There was also a display from the Washington Post, one of the festival sponsors, featuring several book-related Peep dioramas from their annual Easter contest.

Peeps

(Starring Harry Peeper, Spider-Peep, Peeply Wonka, and Peeping Beauty.)

After I finished milling around upstairs, I headed back downstairs just in time for the first panel of the day in the Teens Pavilion, featuring Kate DiCamillo.  DiCamillo asked for a full audience Q&A session, talking about her inspirations behind her numerous books and how she approaches writing in general. One of the more poignant pieces of advice that DiCamillo talked about was about an descriptive essay she had written in college, and that what made that essay important wasn’t her writing but that she had noticed someone that the world hadn’t noticed.

Kate DiCamillo

(Kate DiCamillo)

Following Kate DiCamillo was Tanuja Desai Hidier, author of Born Confused and its newly released sequel, Bombay Blues. After a reading from Bombay Blues, Hidier talked about growing up “confused” in America, having only living in India as a infant and how she discovered New York’s underground Indian music scene, which was a large part of her inspiration for Born Confused—“I wanted to explore what happens when a subculture reaches its mass.” Hidier also conducted a Q&A session with her readers, answering questions about her writing inspiration and processes (she recommended writing in cafes for the white noise). I didn’t stay around for the following presentation by Rita Williams-Garcia, opting to head up to get my new copy of Born Confused signed.

Tanuja

(Tanuja Desai Hidier)

After I returned from Hidier’s signing (and a quick stop for lunch), I headed back in time for the end of Rita Williams-Garcia’s presentation, where she was engaged in a lively Q&A discussion about the “We Need Diverse Books” movement. Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Want to Kick Your Ass, continued with the diversity in YA theme, and also touched on the need to talk frankly about bullying in schools. Medina’s main argument for diversity is that “We need the universal growing up experience but through a different lens.” Following Medina’s presentation was her signing, where I went up to thank her for writing a book that I needed back when I was teenager.

Meg Medina

(Meg Medina)

Following Medina’s signing, I walked around the convention center a little more. Along with the signing and book sales on the second floor, there were also areas for young readers sponsored by Scholastic and PBS Kids. There was also a cooking demonstration area, which I stopped and watched for a little while. (I’m a little disappointed that Carla Hall, from Top Chef and The Chew, was not one of the featured chefs for the cooking demos. I wasn’t able to go see her regular presentation as I would be at other presentations during hers.) I also stopped by the Library of Congress’s presentation and sales booths, featuring displays on everything from Copyright Law to Folklife  to Publishing services.

At two-thirty, I headed back downstairs for Jacqueline Woodson’s presentation. Woodson read from her new verse memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, which was largely spurred on by the deaths of her mother and grandmother and realizing that “my family were becoming ancestors” and her need to preserve their stories. During her Q&A session, Woodson also called for the need for diversity in YA and what it was like to grow up in the Civil Rights Era.

J Woodson

(Jacqueline Woodson)

Following Jacqueline Woodson, Kendare Blake came on to talk on about her books, Anna Dressed in Blood and Antigoddess. Blake’s was one of the more low-key presentations of the afternoon, as she chatted amiably about writing about “blood and guts” for teenagers and taking questions from the audience about Anna…and her other books.

Kendare Blake

(Kendare Blake)

As the afternoon wore down, I headed back upstairs for one more round of signings and grabbed dinner. It had been a fun afternoon and talking about books and young adult literature, not just with the authors, but with the people waiting in line or after presentations. And although in previous years, I would be getting ready to head back ‘home,’ this year I was planning on staying a little later for the evening sessions. Typically held on the second day of the Festival, this year’s panels focused on Poetry Slams, Mexican Literature, Books to Film and the panel I attended, the Graphic Novels Super Session.

The Graphic Novels session, emceed by the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna, kicked off with Raina Telgemeier, author of Smile and Drama. She kicked off her presentation by doing a live reading of her newest graphic novel, Sisters, with help from several audience members. She then talked about her process of drawing and writing graphic novels, and talked about how she approaches the autobiographical aspect of her work.  Following Telgemeier’s session was a short Q&A session with Gene Luen Yang, talking about how he started using comics as a teacher and the inspiration behind his latest graphic novel, The Shadow Hero.

     Raina

(Raina Telgemeier)    

Gene LY

(Gene Luen Yang)

After Yang’s short session, Bryan Lee O’Malley took the stage for a Q&A session featuring questions from both Cavna and the audience. O’Malley talked mainly about Scott Pilgrim and his newest book, Seconds and about writing “jerks who still manage to be really likeable people.” He fielded multiple questions from the audience about the Scott Pilgrim movie, plans for writing more stories in that series and the inspiration for what one audience member claimed “the greatest character of our times—Wallace Wells.” There was a signing following O’Malley’s presentation, and I got my copies of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life and Seconds signed (and also mentioned that I wanted to bring my copy of Geektastic, which O’Malley contributed several illustrations for and was my first exposure to his work).

Bryan Lee OM

(Bryan Lee O’Malley and Michael Cavna)

Although the evening presentations weren’t over just yet—the Books to Film panel was still going strong, and Bone’s Jeff Smith was scheduled for nine o’clock—I was getting tired and decided to head home. So I packed up my much heavier bag full of signed books, texted my ride and began heading back toward the Metro.

One of the big things that I noticed during the panels and Q&A sessions was diversity—not just in the range of panelists who I saw throughout the day, but the number of readers who were present at these sessions as well. And that the majority of questions were focused on “What did you want to say as a diverse author to a diverse audience?” And there was an immense push from nearly all of the authors present to get more diverse books to a younger audience; to quote Meg Medina again, it’s about the “universal growing up experience through a different lens.” And this wasn’t solely present during the Teens presentations—during Raina Telgemeier’s session, she got a range of questions from a number of attendees, mostly girls, about working in comics and writing graphic novels.

As for the venue and date change, I can’t really say if moving to the Washington Convention Center was a good or bad move. Having attended only one Festival on the Mall, I did think there’s a much different atmosphere holding it outside, but I can see the positive side to having the Festival indoors. (For one thing, have you ever had to run across the Mall in ten minutes to get in line on time? Multiple times in one day? It’s not fun, trust me.)  I did really enjoy this year, especially since I had more time to sit through more panels and explore more of the presentations instead of being trapped in a line for the best part of the morning session. I had an absolute blast this year, and I cannot wait to see who’s going to be on the line-up for 2015.

For those of you interested in seeing the presentations and panels discussed, the Library of Congress website has webcasts available for streaming. The 2014 National Book Festival isn’t up yet, but the presentations from previous years are available.

Laura Martinelli is a writer and bookseller from Pittsburgh, PA. When she’s not ranting on Twitter and Tumblr, you can find her books at Smashwords and Amazon.

All photos owned by the author.

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