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Book lovers from the D.C. region and beyond will gather at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this Saturday for the National Book Festival.
The free annual event, which is put on by the Library of Congress, packs 140 authors into 12 hours of programming. Attendees can watch interviews with big-name personalities like Ruth Bader Ginsburg; delve into presentations by authors of genre fiction, children’s books, popular science, and more; attend a teen poetry slam; and go to book signings. Last year’s audience was close to a quarter of a million.
With all that variety, where do you even start with planning your Book Festival visit? And what’s new this year for longtime festival-goers? We’ll discuss.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
KOJO NNAMDIThis weekend, book nerds here in the D.C. region get a gift. The Library of Congress is hosting the National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday. The annual event celebrates a staggering array of books and their authors, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to local teen slam poets. At a loss for how to plan your visit to the festival, what to know, what's new this year? We've got you covered. Joining us with some insider tips for making the most of your visit to the festival is Marie Arana, literary director of the National Book Festival. Good to see you again, Marie.
MARIE ARANANice to see you too, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIJuana Medina is a local children's book author and illustrator. Her latest book is "Juana & Lucas Big Problemas." Juana, thank you so much for joining us.
JUANA MEDINAHappy to be here.
NNAMDIAnd we all know Mikaela Lefrak, so we won't even introduce her anymore. (laugh) No. And, last, she is the arts and culture reporter at WAMU, and the host of the What's With Washington podcast. Mikaela, always a pleasure.
MIKAELA LEFRAKThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIMarie, for the uninitiated, what is the National Book Festival, and how is it different from other big book events?
ARANAWell, let me start by saying that we're celebrating our 19th year, so it's been around a while. It was established by First Lady Laura Bush and a librarian of Congress, Jim Billington, 19 years ago. I was just saying to Mikaela, it's grown like topsy, from 30,000 people who attended the first book festival, to a quarter of a million people who attended last year's festival.
ARANAIt's a wonderful festival, very different from any other book festival I know, because it is really a celebration of the reader and the writer. It's not a professional festival, in any sense. No editors or publishers are making deals at this festival. It's basically people who love to read, and you can feel it, which is a wonderful thing about it for me. You can feel that passion for books, and the authors are just, you know, rock stars at this festival. So, it's a wonderful joining of the art of writing and the pleasure of reading.
NNAMDIQuarter of a million people attended last year. I suspect there will be more this year. How many authors?
ARANAWe have 145 this year.
NNAMDIOne-hundred-and-forty-five authors, and maybe a quarter of a million people or more showing up. Mikaela, Marie's not allowed to play favorites, (laugh) but you are.
NNAMDIYou've got a suggested itinerary for this year's festival. It's up on the WAMU website, WAMU.org. Tell us about some of the authors you think listeners might enjoy.
LEFRAKSure. Well, I went down a real rabbit hole putting together the suggested itinerary, because there's just so many options, like Marie, like you were saying. But a couple people that I'm really excited about. Jose Andres, our own local, homegrown hero. He's the James Beard award-winner, founder of the Think Food group family of restaurants, and one of Times' most influential people. And he'll be discussing with our very own Diane Rehm two books, one "Vegetables Unleashed," which is this new cookbook about, he says, harnessing the power of veggies, which seems great. And then he'll also be talking about "We Fed an Island," which is the book that he wrote about feeding Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
LEFRAKThe other one that I really am excited about is this author Ngozi Ukazu, who's going to be on the teen stage in the early afternoon. She's the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, and she wrote this really fun, online graphic novel called "Check Please." And it's about this little boy -- well, not a little boy, a young man. He's a gay figure skater from Georgia. And he goes away to college and joins the hockey team. And this graphic novel she wrote was so popular that she ended up getting it printed with the most-funded web comics Kickstarter ever. She raised all this money online. And I'm just really excited to hear about her story.
NNAMDIWell, how did you even begin to narrow down your choices? It's a daunting task.
LEFRAKIt really is. And one thing I always like to keep track of is who's going to be on the mainstage, which has been expanded this year. It seats 4,000 people now. So, for my suggested itinerary, I have a couple folks from the mainstage on there. But then I love looking around, you know, at the -- the pavilion even has some great offerings. The Library of Congress will have librarians there talking you through how to do research or figure out your family genealogy. So, I like to put in a couple of those, too.
LEFRAKAnd then the last thing I'll say is that I am a big book nerd. I keep a book spreadsheet throughout the year of everything I've read with all these stats on it. So, I went through it yesterday and kind of looked at the authors that I've loved, and tried to see if they were coming to the festival, too.
NNAMDISo, you'll have a busy day on Saturday.
LEFRAKI will, yes.
NNAMDIMarie, do you think about hitting a balance between serving up the really big household name authors and including writers who are not quite as famous, so that readers can discover someone new?
ARANAOh, absolutely. That's the great joy, I think, of putting this festival together. You know that you want to bring the big authors that everybody knows and fill up those big halls and the stages. But then you want to introduce people, because, you know, as readers ourselves on this team at the Library of Congress, we're passionate about, maybe, authors who are not so well known.
ARANAAnd so to layer them so that you have, you know, a hall of 1,500 people coming to see a star, and then suddenly you surprise them with the next, you know, author who is not so well-known. And they love that author for the same reasons that we do. So, it's really satisfying when that happens.
NNAMDIIn that spirit, you've brought back the International Stage this year, which features important writers from other countries. You work with a number of embassies here in D.C. to make that happen. What's that process like?
ARANAOh, absolutely. Yeah, it's an interesting process, because you go basically with your hat in hand, and you say to the ambassador or the deputy chief of station, you say, we would really like to have somebody from as far away as, you know, Latvia, which we have this year. But we can't afford to bring them over. Can you sponsor them?
NNAMDIYou're going to have to fly them over. You've going to have to house them. You're going to have to take care of them.
NNAMDIAnd how do the embassies respond?
ARANAAnd the embassies are wonderful. We have a great assortment of embassies this year, from Mexico to Spain to Ireland and Germany and, as I mentioned, Latvia. And we're really thrilled to have -- and Australia's bringing Aboriginal authors to us. And we're thrilled to have this international stage, because people wander in. They've never heard of these authors. They are hugely famous in their own countries. And they're surprised by, you know, the passion that they bring to the stage and to their works. And they're very interested in the stories that they tell. So, that's a lot of fun.
NNAMDIJuana, you have participated in the National Book Festival as an author once before, and you've also been an attendee, in the past. What is special to you about the book festival?
MEDINAThat's right. Oh, the book festival is just fantastic in terms of feeling part of the larger, as Marie was saying, celebration of readers and writers. So, whether you are onstage or listening to someone, you're always gaining something and seeing the richness that is in the city and all that is brought in from the world.
NNAMDISpeak more specifically about what it's like to participate as an author. Anything you're especially looking forward to?
MEDINAWell, more than anything, it's just a great honor to be at home, sharing my work, in this case, reading for the first time "Juana & Lucas Big Problemas," and sharing it with young readers and their adults, and waiting to see what their reaction is. And that is huge. It's just starting a conversation in a very intimate way at a large space. So, it's a great honor.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned "Juana & Lucas Big Problemas," which you might be doing some reading from. It's the second in your series about Juana and Lucas, and I can't help but notice that you apparently share a name with the title character. What is -- it took me a while to notice it. (laugh) What is this series all about?
MEDINAThank you for asking. Well, “Juana & Lucas,” as a series, is based -- it's semi-autobiographical so it's about stories of growing up in Colombia with my dear dog and sidekick, Lucas. So, each book is about certain challenges or experiences that Juana goes through with the great company of Lucas. It's somewhat meta to speak about myself (laugh) in third person, but a great opportunity to revisit life.
NNAMDIThe books are written in English, but you mix in a lot of Spanish words, too. What was behind that choice? What's the reasoning behind that?
MEDINAWell, as a child growing up in Bogota, Colombia, I was speaking mostly Spanish. And more than anything, it's a clue into Juana's life as a character, and to invite readers to learn more about how she expresses, and hopefully an encouragement for them to learn some Spanish.
NNAMDIAnd I am most interested in your niece's response when she read "Juana & Lucas." Tell us about that.
MEDINAOh, happy to. I had promised...
NNAMDIIt has to do with the inclusion of Spanish, yes.
MEDINAAbsolutely. I had promised Macey, who was, at the time, six years old, when I made the deal for this book, that she would be the first reader of it. So, as soon as I got the first copy out of publication, I gave it to her. And she sat on the floor right away and read through the book. And then she left the room, and I was a little surprised. I figured she didn't like it that much. (laugh) And then she came back...
NNAMDI(overlapping) And she doesn't speak Spanish.
MEDINAShe does not speak Spanish. Yes. I should say. She doesn't speak Spanish, at all. She left, and a couple minutes later, she came back and she said to me, Juana (speaks foreign language), which means Juana, I loved your book. And what she had done was to go and Google how to say I loved your book in Spanish. (laugh) So. after that. I was. like, I don't care about reviews, sales, anything. (laugh)
NNAMDII got the most important endorsement I need. (laugh)
NNAMDIMarie, there are two children's stages at the book festival, the Green Stage and the Purple Stage. Is there a distinction between the two?
ARANAThere's absolutely no distinction between them. They do progress from youngest, to older child, as you go through the day. So, the very young ones, the picture books are in the beginning and the reading books for older children are at the end. But they are basically interchangeable. You could dash from one to another on the expo floor and enjoy both. And they're packed with wonderful, wonderful writers, like Juana Medina. And we're very excited to have them all.
NNAMDIGot any tips or tricks you can share with parents who want to bring their kids to the festival?
ARANAOh, my goodness. Be prepared to stay all day, because there's so many...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Twelve hours.
ARANA...there's so many things to do. The expo floor with the children's books and the many activities that these sponsors bring to storytelling and all kinds of activities. Meeting characters from books who are there dressed up for photo ops, and all sorts of fun things. So, they should plan to bring a lot of energy and spend the day.
NNAMDIThat's what struck me last year, as I was driving in that area, people in all kinds of costumes, (laugh) And I was, like, oh, they're dressed up as characters from the books. That's what this is.
NNAMDIMikaela, you highlighted some great children's authors in your guide to the festival. Tell us about some of your picks.
LEFRAKYeah well, I may be an adult, but I love a good children's book still. One of my favorite authors, Jon Klassen, is going to be there. He's the author illustrator of such classics as "I Want My Hat Back" and "This is Not My Hat," a tale of, clearly, a missing hat. Also, Jon Scieszka, who wrote one of the best children's books ever, "The Stinky Cheese Man," is going to be there with Steven Weinberg. And they have this really fun-looking new book out called "AstroNuts Mission One. And it's sort of like this climate change tale, but for kids, plus space, plus crazy animals. And I'm sure that'll be a really fun presentation.
LEFRAKAnd then, lastly, every year, there's a poetry slam, which I love to watch. And I've never caught it live, so I'm hoping this year might be the year. But all of these teen poets from around the region, so from D.C., Baltimore, I think Salisbury, Maryland, they're coming in and they do this great poetry slam and recite their poetry. And it's always just such a blast to see young talent.
NNAMDIOh, that's going to be a lot of fun. Here's Martha, in Washington. Martha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTHAHi, Kojo. I have kept a list of all the books I've read since 1960, when I was in eighth grade. And as a part time book seller for Politics and Prose, I worked at the National Book Festival last year. And I was thrilled to see people of all ages there, because they love books. And I just want to commend the Library of Congress for the fabulous job they do in putting this on.
NNAMDIGive me a quantitative analysis. How many books have you read since 1960? (laugh)
MARTHAYeah, you know, I started that list because my parents gave me a typewriter for Christmas one year. And I put in a piece of paper and typed, “books I have read.” And yesterday I hit 1,700.
NNAMDIGood grief. I thought it would be a big number. So, thank you very much for your call, Martha.
NNAMDIMarie, what feedback do you hear from authors who participate in the book festival?
ARANAWell, you know, the feedback is wonderful. And what I especially enjoy is hearing from people who -- you know, the writing life is not the easiest life in the world. It's a solitary profession, when you're writing. And you go out in the world, and sometimes it can be disappointing. You go to a book reading at your local bookstore and maybe, you know, your aunt and uncle show up, and that's it. Or, you know, 10 people show up, and that's it.
ARANAWhat's really, really wonderful in the feedback from the authors is when they have walked into a hall with, you know, 2,000 people, and they're absolutely in tears with joy that there are that many people who are interested in what they're going to say. That's what makes all of this worthwhile for me, is that moment when people see the impact of writing and storytelling in the world. And that's just a joy.
NNAMDIJuana, one of the things that people love about seeing authors in person is that you can often get a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process behind the work. Give us a preview, how does your work take shape? Do you start drawing or writing first? (laugh)
MEDINAI question that myself. You know, it sometimes comes through an initial little doodle. Sometimes, that's enough of an idea just to just start exploring a whole story. Sometimes, it's a little bit more. But it feels like a three-layered cake, where (laugh) you're doing different things all at the same time. Writing, then you give it a break by drawing on the sidelines, and then going back to, you know, revising what you were just writing, and so on. Just like baking a cake, putting it in the oven, working on the frosting, going back. So, it's a complex process, but in the end -- and I think this festival shows it -- very rewarding.
NNAMDIMikaela, we're talking about the National Book Festival, but, as we said, it happens every year, here in D.C., a city that people may not always associate with literary culture. What have you learned about the literary community here in this region, through your reporting?
LEFRAKWell, all those people who say that D.C. doesn't have a great literary scene, you send them to me, because I have some things to say to them, and I disagree strongly.
NNAMDIWrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. (laugh)
LEFRAKI mean, we have a number of amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists who are from here. I interviewed Andrew Sean Greer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. We have amazing libraries, great independent book stores, from Politics and Prose, the Classic, the kind of Mother Load to Solid State books and Mahogany books.
LEFRAKAnd then there's also a lot of really big-name writers who live here, who you may not realize, because you see them on TV all the time or in the New York Times, like David Brooks, Michael Beschloss, lots of folks. But, you know, D.C. also has a really cool, like, underground comic scene. We have some small comic book publishers. So, I think it's one of those places where you just kind of have to, like, dig one level below the surface. And then you just find so many literary treasures.
NNAMDIWho are the D.C. writers to watch at the festival? Juana, and who else?
LEFRAK(all talking at once) Mainly Juana. That's right. Be camped out in front of there. (laugh) That's my plan. Yeah, but there are so many from smaller names to big ones. Again, I'm really excited about Jose Andres. He's kind of one of my local heroes. So, that's the one that, you know, if I'm going to be waiting in line to see somebody, that's going to be my guy.
NNAMDIMarie, what have you learned about D.C. readers and writers through your work on the book festival?
ARANAWell, you know, having been in the books trade for such a long time, in publishing and then as a literary critic, editor of books for the Washington Post, you see the commerce of books and literature in this city. And Washington, D.C. is very well known in the publishing community as being the best hardcover trade market in the country. And why is that? I suppose it's because people have disposable income. I suppose it's because people have -- you know, we have the greatest cultural institution here, the Library of Congress. We have science institutions throughout. We have political institutions throughout, where people are alert to books.
ARANABut it's also -- you know, there's a difference between being a market for hardcover and a market for paperback. And a market for hardcover means that people need to read the books right away. They don't want to wait. And this is what I feel about Washington, D.C. It's a community that really is up to date on the latest publications. And that's, you know, a real treasure for somebody in my business, to be working and living and talking about books in a place that cares so much about books.
NNAMDIWe have some people who have some very specific questions it shouldn't take you long to answer. Here is Ginge in Burke, Virginia. Ginge, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GINGEYes, I love the book festival. I've been to every one except one. But my question is: how early do I have to get there Saturday to get into the main stage to see Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Jose Andre?
LEFRAKI can't believe you haven't talked about Ruth Bader Ginsberg yet.
ARANAI know, I know. And what a courageous woman, you know, having gone through the health issues that she's gone through and to say, nope, I am going to be there. I will be there. So, we are thrilled. The doors open at 8:30 in the morning to the public. And I understand that there's a great, passionate crowd of people who will want to show up for Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
NNAMDISo, 6:00 a.m. might be good, Ginge. (laugh)
ARANAYeah, her program is at 11:30, and the doors open at 8:30 so, you know, you do the math. And, you know, hopefully, you will get it. It's a very, very large hall this year. We've doubled the capacity. It's 4,000 people-plus who can get into that hall. So, you know, we expect we're going to pack that hall. So, you want to get in line early.
NNAMDIYou might have a good chance, Ginge. And, finally, here's Elaine in Washington. Elaine, your turn.
ELAINEHi, you've answered part of my question. I was going to ask about the time of the festival. And I now know that it starts at 8:30 in the morning. When does it end?
ARANAIt ends at 8:00 p.m. at night. So, it's almost a full 12 hours and...
NNAMDIDoes that work for you, Elaine?
ELAINEYep, it does. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, and I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Marie, it's always a pleasure to see you.
ARANAThank you. It's great to see you, too.
NNAMDIMarie Arana is the literary director of the National Book Festival. Juana Medina, thank you so much for joining us.
MEDINAMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIJuana Medina is a local children's book author and illustrator. Her latest book is "Juana & Lucas Big Problemas." And Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and cultural reporter at WAMU, and the host of the What's With Washington podcast. Mikaela, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIThat's it for today's show. Our look at this year's National Book Festival was produced by Margaret Barthel. And our conversation about lack of protections for domestic workers in the District was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, we'll be participating in Street Sense Media's annual Homelessness Media Blitz. We'll talk about how local school districts and advocates are supporting homeless students as a new school year gets underway. And we'll take a look at food insecurity and the push to end hunger in the region. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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