The 11th National Book Festival returned to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 and 25, 2011, with an expanded two-day schedule of events, a record roster of writers and new pavilions that reflected recent literary trends. With the theme “Celebrate the Joys of Reading Aloud,” the festival was organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama serving as honorary chairs for the event. For more information about the National Book Festival, including author webcasts and podcasts, go to www.loc.gov/bookfest/.
By MARK HARTSELL
Like a good book, the 11th annual National Book Festival took readers to places they never before had been. The festival, staged over two days for the first time in its history, drew a record 200,000 fans to the National Mall for a weekend of discussion, music, laughter, humidity and talks by 112 authors—also a record.
“For more than a decade, the National Book Festival has given book-lovers of all ages the rare opportunity to meet, interact with and be inspired by their favorite authors,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said. “Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and supporters—and the more than 1,100 volunteers who give their time to make this event possible—we can look forward to this beloved celebration of reading and literacy for years to come.”
A pair of literary heavyweights—Toni Morrison and David McCullough—provided the festival with prize-winning bookends.
Morrison, who won a Pulitzer in 1988 for her novel “Beloved” and a Nobel in 1993, gave the festival a sparkling start on a soggy Saturday morning—and picked up another prize for her mantelpiece, the 2011 National Book Festival Creative Achievement Award.
Nearly 31 hours later, McCullough, who won Pulitzers for biographies of Harry S. Truman and John Adams, closed the event.
“We are what we read—to a far greater extent than people realize,” McCullough said. “What we read shapes how we think. Know what your children are reading and encourage them to read the best works possible.”
In between, the festival showcased a first-class mix of literary luminaries and popular figures: Pulitzer-winners Edmund Morris, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Rita Dove and Jennifer Egan; author and four-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore; humorist Garrison Keillor; “tiger mother” Amy Chua; and a collection of mascots and musicians on hand to entertain the youngest of young readers.
The festival attracted all sorts: groups who traveled hundreds of miles to attend; locals who come every year; diehard fans who patiently waited in book-signing lines that stretched across the Mall; families who queued up for photos with Arthur the Aardvark; and even a man who walked a special guest to readings—a heavyset cat on a leash.
They were treated to two days of author talks, Q&As, book-signings and music that at times got downright boisterous. “Today” show co-host Hoda Kotb closed her session with a sing-along of “Play that Funky Music,” and Hip Hop Harry—a giant bear sporting a wristwatch and a plate-sized medallion—led a high-volume call-and-response with a pavilion full of shrieking children.
Fairfax County high school teacher Karla Eaton arrived at 9:05 a.m. on Saturday with a mission: get Morrison to autograph her most recent novel, “A Mercy.”
After a 2½-hour wait in line, Eaton got her wish—then walked away in tears.
“I just told her, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve written,’ “ Eaton said. “She’s the greatest living author of our time. If F. Scott Fitzgerald were here, I would have waited in line for his autograph for 40 hours. That’s how I feel about Toni Morrison. It was worth every minute.”
Ron Griswold traveled from his home in Pittsfield, Mass., to attend the festival—his 10th. Griswold, a big McCullough fan, arrived at 9 a.m. on Sunday to be at the front of the line for the author’s signing—4½ hours later.
Griswold said he was first inspired by the author’s book, “The Johnstown Flood.”
“He made it so interesting that I had to go to Johnstown to check it out,” he said. “That’s the way he writes. He makes it so alive.”
The new Family Storytelling Stage overflowed with parents and children. On Saturday, actress Moore followed Josh Lewis and his creation, Super Chicken Nugget Boy (“He’s big, he’s breaded”).
“Can I tell you a secret? This is the first time I’ve read this book to a bunch of kids,” Moore said before reading aloud from one of the books in her “Freckleface Strawberry” series, inspired by her childhood experiences.
The festival featured the debut, on Sunday, of three new pavilions: State Poets Laureate, The Cutting Edge and Graphic Novels.
Comic-book artist Kazu Kibuishi, using a marker and drawing paper, illustrated his work “Amulet” for a crowd in Graphic Novels. He also explained the wrong turns that ultimately led him to his current work.
“I decided to become a filmmaker because I thought that’s a more respectable field and I could make more money at it. I was wrong,” Kibuishi said to laughter.
Mark Hartsell is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter. Abby Brack and Donna Urschel in the Office of Communications contributed to this article.