2011 National Book Festival Report

This year, I had to work on the Saturday of the National Book Festival, but that worked out nicely, because this year they decided to extend the Festival to Saturday and Sunday. I was happy to attend Sunday, since that was the day Gary Schmidt would be speaking, author of the book I’m rooting for to win the Newbery Medal, Okay for Now. Since events started at 1:00 on Sunday, instead of at 10:00, as on Saturday, the event ended up being less tiring for me this year. That was a good thing, since exactly two months after my stroke, I’m still not quite up to the same energy level I used to have.

So, right after church, I headed downtown. I did arrive on time for most of Susan Cooper’s speech.

Susan Cooper is the amazing author of the Dark Is Rising series and many others, like the Boggart books and a wonderful book about writing.

She talked about the magic of reading, and how a book is the ultimate door to the imagination. She talked about the magical connection that’s made between readers and writers. And she had the whole audience shut our eyes and she led us through the reading of a poem to see a unicorn. It was a lovely talk, and I was thrilled to hear her.

Next, I went to hear Terry McMillan.

She read from her work-in-progress, currently titled You’re Telling Me? It’s going to be good! I laughed in many places, but the only line I wrote down was: “You get used to men, just like you do a household pet.” (The main character’s husband has dementia.)

Then I waited in line to get two copies of Okay For Now signed by Gary Schmidt.

I had a chance to tell him a little story that a friend of mine told me: She is a girl scout leader and was discouraged about a poor kid in her troop with NO family support. She read Okay For Now right when she was most discouraged, and it reminded her that though she couldn’t change that girl’s family, she could touch that one girl’s life. (Such a great book!)

While waiting in line, I got a good view of Garrison Keillor, also signing autographs.

Then my plan was to go to the Teen tent and sit there for the rest of the afternoon. First up, I got to hear the end of Kadir Nelson’s talk.

He told the entertaining story of how he’d dress up like the historical characters he was going to paint if he couldn’t find a model. Even the women. He says, however, that those pictures have been burned.

Patricia McKissack is someone I probably wouldn’t have gone to hear if she hadn’t been in the tent where I wanted to be. But her talk was delightful! (And that’s one thing you can be pretty sure about at National Book Festival. The speakers will be good.)

She said that she writes to tell the different story. And that she’s a listener first. She gave us the background of some of her books, like The Dark Thirty, in a most entertaining way. Then she talked about writing her first science fiction trilogy by taking the news and doing some “What-Iffing.” She started with a news article about cloning bacteria that would eat oil spills and went on to think up an entire future society where human clones are created to do certain jobs. She made clone codes based on the old slave codes of the past. Don’t teach the clones to read. Don’t let the clones gather in groups of more than three or four. She made these books sound very fascinating.

Finally, it was time to hear Gary Schmidt, the author I’d particularly wanted to hear. My phone ran out of batteries just as his talk started, so I wasn’t able to Live Tweet his speech, as I had the others. However, before it ran out, I was able to connect with Sara Lewis Holmes and sit with her, which added to the fun.

Gary Schmidt was, no surprise, a wonderfully funny speaker. He told about the real things from his life that he put into his books — like having to be in Mrs. Baker’s class every Wednesday afternoon and scraping gum off desks until the principal intervened.

He said that his books answer one question: In times like these, how does a child turn his face to adulthood?

Particularly in a culture where we don’t want children to grow up?

For the humor, he takes real things, and heightens them.

For him, it’s all about voice. He has to hear who’s talking.

Why does he do it? In a world where we throw kids away, books are companions. He told a story about visiting a group of teens in a high-security prison. Books can reach kids like that. Books provide friends.

Someone asked if his faith affects his writing, and he said that it does. He believes that grace is given to everyone. That was why he gave the father at the end of Okay for Now a small moment of grace. He’s gotten all kinds of flak about that! But he believes there’s hope for everyone.

Afterward, my friend Sara talked about how Gary Schmidt’s books are like Shakespeare — they take the ordinary and make you believe in the extraordinary. She said that with both, you shouldn’t ask if this is realistic. They take you to a place where you believe the extraordinary can happen. We were talking so much, all the people clamoring around Gary Schmidt had left, so she told him about the Shakespeare Camp she’d just been to, and then I got a picture with him and Sara.

So it ended up being a lovely afternoon. I’d been feeling quite tired and fuzzy-headed in the morning, but National Book Festival perked me right up! It did help that I stayed sitting the last few hours. But it was a lovely time to stop and hear people talk about how wonderful books are.

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