Student Thoughts: DC’s National Book Festival

by Emi London

Among the politics, traffic, and National Treasure references, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the fact that D.C. is home to one of the largest libraries in the world. But the National Book Festival is exactly what it sounds like: a festival hosted by the Library of Congress, dedicated to celebrating the written word.

The National Book Festival started in 2008 by former First Lady Laura Bush. Once a year over 80 authors, poets, and illustrators are invited for lectures, book signings, readings, and interviews on the grounds of the National Mall. Last year over 200,000 people attended. After experiencing the crowds this year I wouldn’t be surprised if that number doubled, especially with superstar names like Margaret Atwood, Terry McMillan, and Joyce Carol Oats scheduled to take the stage and speak.

But because so much happened over the course of two days, I’m going to split up my first experience with the festival into two parts.

national book fest

Tents and booths at the National Book Festival. Photo credit: Emi London.

PART 1: SATURDAY

This year, the festival took place over two days—September 21st and 22nd. White tents pitched like kingdoms shielded the kings and queens of the represented genres as they stood up and spoke about their recent work, influences, or about the publishing industry in general.

Unsure of where to start, the other publishing students and I split up to meander between tents and buy books before taking our place in line to wait for Veronica Roth’s book signing. I managed to catch Patrick Ness at the end of his signing, and proudly showed off my new copy of More than This.

There were so many people that shortly after we settled in to wait they began to separate and number us into rows. It figures that they cut off the line before getting anywhere near us (after all, Veronica was only supposed to sign books for half an hour), but the extra time allowed us to run and snag decent seats for her talk, which in some ways was even nicer than walking away with a signed copy of Divergent.

The talk turned out to be more of a Q&A, with the host and audience asking questions about Veronica’s thoughts on writing and finishing the Divergent series. Veronica was very animated, especially during her discussion of the difference between writing “strong” female characters (characters who are complimented by being compared physically and emotionally to men) and strong female characters (characters who write their own definition of strength and react to situations like an actual human being might). Soon it had started raining, driving the crowds from the Mall as soon as the talk was over. We were among those huddled under umbrellas waddling our way towards the Metro with one last concern—keep the books dry.

PART 2: SUNDAY

I drove back down and stalked the children’s and teens tent all afternoon to ensure that I had a seat to see the one author I desperately wanted to see: Tamora Pierce.

We all have that one book or series that changed our life, right? For me, it was Wild Magic. I read it when I was 13, just before my parents announced that they were getting a divorce. Now that I’m older I’m glad that they did it because they’re much happier now, but when you’re 13, it’s a big deal—especially when you don’t see it coming. At the time, Pierce’s books provided a form of escape. I was able to relate to Daine and the other characters in Tortall and find joy in their adventures, so much joy that the books got me reading and thinking about fantasy all the time. They completely changed my perspective, taught me about the importance of courage and friendship, about believing in myself and the everyday magic of persistence. Pierce’s books inspired me so much that by my junior year of high school I knew I wanted to go into writing and publishing. Since then, it’s been a dream of mine to meet her and thank her for writing the books that helped me grow up. For the first time this year, I was actually within driving distance to do so.

While waiting, I listened to Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising series, Ghost Hawk), Matthew J. Kirby (The Clockwork Three, Icefall), and D.J. MacHale (the Pendragon series, Sylo). Susan discussed the things in her life that influenced her writing, with particular emphasis on place. She also spoke briefly about her education at Oxford and a class she took that was taught by—surprise, surprise– J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis! “They taught us to believe in dragons,” she stated, subsequently giving everybody in the audience goose bumps. Kirby talked about the use of history in his novels while MacHale read the first chapter of his book to demonstrate how important it is for authors to hook the reader within the first few pages. Needleless to say, he succeeded; I don’t think there was a reader in that tent who wasn’t interested in picking up Sylo when he was finished—myself included.

And then it was time for Tamora Pierce. A hush fell over the tent as seats were traded and readers of all ages took their place to see the award-winning author herself. I’ve listened to interviews before, but being there, seeing the author herself was better experience than anything I could have ever possibly dreamed.

tamora pierce

Tamora Pierce at the National Book Festival. Photo credit: Emi London.

Like Veronica Roth’s talk, the majority of Pierce’s was a Q&A with the audience, except she gave her fans permission to ask about anything. She was hilarious, and the fans asked really interesting questions. They asked about what characters she planned to focus on in the future, her inspiration, which character she thought herself most like, the romantic relationships her characters go through, and even about her tattoos. It was an amazing discussion, concluding with the heartfelt message that it’s important to continue writing about women and minorities because it’s not enough to include them once in your work; as people, they deserve to be treated as more than just a check mark on a writer’s laundry list. I’d be lying if I said my eyes were 100% dry at the end of the discussion.

Learning from our experience with Veronica Roth’s book signing, after Pierce’s Q&A I booked it (pun may or may not be intended) over to the other side of the Mall. Even though I ran, I still ended up waiting an hour and a half to get my tattered copy of Wild Magic signed, but it was worth it. And as I achieved my dream and babbled a thank you for writing the books that changed my life, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Not only for Pierce for sticking around longer than she was scheduled to so she could sign everyone’s book, but for everyone who played a part in orchestrating one of the largest gatherings of book lovers in the country.

So this time next year, if you’re anywhere D.C., take a few days off to attend the festival. Spend more money on books than you probably should. Listen to the writers who write them. Run between tents to get those books signed. Talk to a kid who just read your favorite author’s book for the first time. Because sometimes it’s important to take a break and remember the heroes we work so hard to publish. After all, they’re the reason we’re here, isn’t it?

 

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