America Reads

Labor Day brings Americans an extended weekend often filled with end of summer parties, family trips, and barbecues.  For a couple hundred thousand attendees, the Labor Day weekend also brought the opportunity to browse books and meet and listen to authors from all genres.  2018 brought the 18th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown DC.

The Festival was the brainchild of then First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian and founder of the Texas Book Festival.  The National Book Festival was one of her first projects as First Lady, with a goal of promoting reading for the young.  As then Librarian of Congress (and Festival co-founder) James H. Billington put it, "We must all try, in every way we can, to send the message that reading is critical to our lives and to the life of our nation."  The Festival has grown each year since its founding, usually with significant backing from US leadership.  Mrs. Bush served as honorary chair through her husband's time in office.  President and First Lady Obama served as honorary co-chairs after his election.  It does not appear that the Festival has had an honorary chair the past two years, however.

Look at this line and tell me we don't read.
It's an oft-repeated stereotype that the average modern American does not read, that it is viewed as an antiquated pastime that's been replaced by video games and social media.  A 2018 Pew survey does not bear that out.  About 75% of Americans have read a book in the past year, roughly the same as it was in 2012 when Pew started tracking this.  These numbers are helped by the fact that 84% of adults 18-29 read (shattering another stereotype of millennials), helping to offset the fact that the elderly do not read at the same pace as the rest of Americans.  America may read different types of things these days (the rise of supernatural romance as a recognized genre is a good example), and it may read in different ways (with e-books and audiobooks becoming more popular over the years), but America reads.

The massive turnout for the Festival backs that up.  It's grown from an initial attendance of 30,000 in 2001 to well over 200,000 today, growing to the point that it's now housed by DC's massive convention center instead of the National Mall, where 2013's turnout caused the U.S. Park Service to worry about the health of the grass.  Politics and Prose, the DC area bookseller who implements a popup store as the Festival's official bookseller, reported they sold more than 17,000 books on the day, a new record for them.  As the purchaser of three out of that 17,000, I can attest to how busy they were, with a wait time of almost half an hour to check out despite there being 20 open cash registers.

That line on the upper floor is all to see Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The Festival has tons of activities, especially for kids, as well as booths set up to allow attendees the chance to get to know the Library of Congress better or watch C-SPAN's Book TV being filmed live.  But the real draw was the 100+ authors who attended and gave readings, talks, and panel sessions throughout the day.  Big names in fiction like Amy Tan, Brad Meltzer, and Dave Eggers were in attendance.  Historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin was there to talk about her new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, which you could pick up three weeks before its wide release if you attended the Festival.  And Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor introduced her new children's book.

My time was spent in the Genre room, where I would catch the annual graphic novel session after being introduced to the All Souls trilogy by author and professor of history Deborah Harkness.  All Souls is not a work that I would pick up off a shelf (seated firmly in that supernatural romance genre I mentioned earlier and which assuredly is not my cup of tea).  However, listening to Professor Harkness talk about how the trilogy secretly serves as a study into the history of the book, I'm now intrigued.  Though the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of fans who turned out to hear her talk indicate my dollars are not needed here, Dr. Harkness might have picked herself up a new reader anyway.

The real star for me, though, was the graphic novel session.  A now-annual sub-event to the Festival.  The graphic novel session features Washington Post writer Michael Cavna emceeing a speedy set of interviews with various cartoonists and comics professionals.  In the grand tradition of the talk show, each guest would stick around for a brief period after his or her solo interview was completed and take part in the initial minutes of the next interview.  As a result, the audience gets treated to interactions that we otherwise would never witness, and in some cases, might never otherwise happen.

This year's slate included Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, who talked about the ties between his strip and Peanuts, the origin of Mooch's lisp, and the origin of the Shelter Stories series within a series.  McDonnell is a graceful gentleman, soft spoken and clearly affectionate over his characters.  He appears to feel very strongly about the movement for adoption over puppy mill animals, and that comes across clearly in his work.  Charles Schultz once called Mutts "one of the best comic strips of all time."  It's clear that McDonnell takes that praise to heart.  I wonder to what cartoonist McDonnell will pass that mantle to when he's done with it.

Definitely a worthwhile read.
Penelope Bagieu and Tillie Walden did a joint session discussing their newest graphic novels.  Bagieu's Brazen: Rebel Ladies who Rocked the World collects individual stories originally published in France that describe women from various parts of history (though mostly from recent history) who have rejected their society's norms and/or overcome great obstacles.  She shared some of the stories with the audience and also remarked that for the American edition of Brazen, one of the stories (on Phoolan Devi, the Indian Queen of Bandits) had to be replaced due to its rape content not being appropriate for the younger audience the volume was being aimed at.  Instead of Devi, the American edition includes a story on the author herself.

I was most looking forward to Tillie Walden's time in the spotlight because I had just discovered her graphic novel memoir, Spinning, a scant two hours prior at the Festival popup store.  Between the packaging and the bits of story I caught while leafing through it, Spinning gave me a similar vibe to Craig Thompson's amazing Blankets.  Having finally gotten the chance to read it in full, the comparison is apt.  Walden presents a tapestry of raw emotions as she tells her story of growing up in competitive skating with parents who were not necessarily all that attentive to her needs and while navigating her discovery and early exploration of her own sexuality.    It's heartfelt and accessible to any reader, which is something difficult to achieve when talking about personal journeys that only a small percentage of people go through.

Ed Piskor was chill.
Following the tag-team interview, Cavna next welcomed on stage Ed Piskor, who talked about both the current series X-Men: Grand Design but also his prior series, Hip Hop Family Tree.  Piskor came out almost in character, channeling a hip hop vibe with dark shades and Pittsburgh Pirates hat throughout the interview.  His journey from alternative comics to the edge of mainstream is an interesting one, but the real meat of his interview centered around his process for achieving acceptance doing Hip Hop Family Tree.  As was stated many times throughout the conversation, that's a community where not getting things right could result in the entire project failing, but Piskor earned the trust and open cooperation of the artists he was profiling.

The grand finale and star of the graphic novel showcase, however, was Roxane Gay, author of a diverse set of works, writer for Marvel's acclaimed World of Wakanda series, and professor of English.  Dr. Gay spoke at length about representation in comics and the importance of Ayo and Aneka, the Dora Milaje members and lovers who starred in her portion of World of Wakanda.  The room had been full throughout the graphic novel session, but Professor Gay's interview had it packed.  She also took charge during the interview, extending the Q&A past the planned stop time so that she could get to the last couple of questioners in line. 

For those who missed the National Book Festival, select sessions from it will be broadcast on C-SPAN.  But there's nothing like being there live.  The 2019 National Book Festival will be held August 31, 2019.  Make your arrangements now and join America in reading.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog,  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.
America Reads America Reads Reviewed by JL Franke on Wednesday, September 05, 2018 Rating: 5
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