Black Authors Will Be the Standouts at This Year’s (Virtual) National Book Festival

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Author Danielle Allen speaks during the 2017 National Book Festival on Saturday, September 2, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Author Danielle Allen speaks during the 2017 National Book Festival on Saturday, September 2, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post (Getty Images)

In 2001, when the Library of Congress’ inaugural National Book Festival kicked off in Washington, D.C., some 50 award-winning authors, illustrators and storytellers peopled the pop-up tents on the East Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to read excerpts of their work, sign their books and interact with fans. That was September 9. Two days later, our national sense of normalcy and security were toppled by the 9/11 attacks.

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Now in the festival’s milestone 20th anniversary year, we’re collectively confronting another crippling tragedy—this one interminable and even more deadly in its seven-month siege on American’s health and stability—but festival organizers have chosen to pivot, not cancel. Instead, the 2020 National Book Festival, from September 25–27, will be an online experience for book lovers and literary enthusiasts. Books are a source of joy, Marie Arana, literary director of the Library of Congress, explains to The Root—and if folks ever needed a jolt of joy, it’s right now. Organizers chose to focus on authors who can offer some reassurance in a time of turmoil.

“The theme for the festival is ‘American Ingenuity.’ Ingenuity is when you’re in survival mode and you do the right and the smart thing. Somehow, you’re resilient enough to prevail, right? That’s ingenuity,” Arana says. “So that’s really our position—uplift everybody and say, ‘Look, things may be rough. We’re reckoning a number of things that haven’t gone right and should be better. But look at these smart, ingenious authors and the creative things they can teach us. Not only about the imagination but also the concrete information they’re giving us.’ So that’s the spirit with which we’re building the festival.”

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The energy and buzz of being there live and in person will be missed—authors are kind of like rock stars to the thousands of people who love their work. Black writers like Lalita Tademy, Wil Haygood and Kwame Alexander have been highlights in previous years but 2020, just by default, calls for a more bold, responsive design. Arana created “Hearing Black Voices,” one of three scheduled tracks, to guide festival-goers through author talks, panel discussions and interviews that represent a diverse range of storytelling perspectives. Of the 124 authors participating in the festival, 25 percent are Black. Arana had already started extending invitations when 2020 turned into the year that it is, after which she became even more intentional in representing people who needed to be heard in a time like this.

Jessica and Parker Curry, the mom-and-daughter co-authors of Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment, and Jerry Craft, winner of the 2019 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Author Award for his graphic novel New Kid, will discuss their children’s books in pre-recorded videos that will be available to watch starting on Friday, September 25. Jason Reynolds will talk about his bestselling Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You and Tomi Adeyemi will thread her first book to her second, Children of Virtue and Vengeance.

“It’s remarkable to me because I’ve been in book publishing for a long, long time and to see the needle move so distinctly toward publishing Black voices, all of it is sort of amplified by the fact that we have had two major publishing houses hire Black American women to the highest position in their publishing company,” Arana notes. “There is a kind of recognition among the authors themselves about where we are in history. How far have we pushed it? How much are we held back?”

Since its first year, participation in the National Book Festival has blossomed from a modest 25,000 attendees and 40 authors in 2001 to more than 200,000 attendees and 175 authors in 2019. Arana is optimistic that the festival’s online accessibility will allow people who haven’t been able to travel to Washington, D.C. to experience the spirit of the event this year—albeit from afar, via the world wide web—and keep the momentum of attendance going.

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Pre-recorded presentation videos for children and teens will be released at 9 a.m. ET on Friday, September 25, and will be available on-demand on the festival’s website, the Library of Congress’ website and YouTube. Author presentation videos on other stages will be available at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday, September 26. The schedule will also include interactive live Q&A sessions with select authors—check under “Live Events by Stage” and “Live Events by Day” to confirm dates and times. Registration is required to attend the events.

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