It’s possible, at times, I am a bit dramatic. It’s also possible I really, really love books.
In the case of the National Book Festival, a giant one-day book event extravaganza in Washington, DC, my Drama Mama self kicked into full effect.
Before the festival I sent this very subtle email to my family with my preferred itinerary for the day. It was a difficult agenda to create because the National Book Festival has nine official stages, all filled with incredible authors, speaking at the same time.
To: My husband and daughter From: Me Subject: My (Un)Ideal Itinerary for National Book Festival Hello Dear Family, Below is my (un)ideal itinerary for Saturday's National Book Festival. It's un-ideal because it doesn't have all the people I want to see, but I had to make some choices. You'll see it wasn't easy. The ones in bold I really want to see and if the name has asterisks, I will DIE if I don't get to go. Yes DIE. (But, you know, if you guys have someone you want to see, I'm totally open to it...) BTW: Note to National Book Festival - You need to be longer and not make me choose!! It's like Sophie's Choice here! OK....coming down off my drama pedestal.... 10:00 - 10:35 Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi) or 10:00 - 10:45 Poetry out loud 11:25 - 12:25 - Justice Sotomayor (main stage) 12:25 - 12:50 - Rachel Renée Russell (Dork Diaries. I bet she's funny) or we could break for lunch during this time and come back by 1:35 to see JW and figure out my 2pm dilemma.... 1:35 - 2:00 Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) (talk)** 2:00 - 2:50 Andrew Sean Greer (Less!!!!!) (talk)** 2:15 - 3:15 Madeleine Albright** (Yes I know this conflicts!! I don't know how to do it! Split myself in two? Cloning? Turn into the flash?) 2:30 - 3:30 Jacqueline Woodson (book signing) 3:30 - 4:30 Andrew Sean Greer (book signing) 3:55 pm - 4:20 pm Jason Reynolds 4:00 - 4:45 Jennifer Egan (Here Comes the Goon Squad) 4:10 - 4:40 Roxanne Gay** (It's like the book world is suddenly working against me!!!??? BTW that's not the book title. How can something I love hurt so much?) 4:55 - 5:40 - Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows and Language of Thorns, which I just finished reading....) 6:00 - 7:30 Poetry slam Can't wait for Saturday!!!
The Day of the Festival – First Try
It starts out typical for us. We wake late. (Because, come on, it’s Saturday. The day was made for sleeping in.) We don’t arrive until 10:45, so we miss the first person on my agenda. BUT, she wasn’t in bold, so it’s OK.
We decide to go ahead and get in line to see Justice Sotomayor and are shocked to find, with nearly an hour to go before her talk, people waiting along the entire expansive third floor. It is a line that would make Disney World proud.
We hop in line quickly, or at least we think it’s a line. It’s more like a mass of people all asking the existential question of “Am I in the right place?”
At first the excitement of seeing a Supreme Court Justice, the first Hispanic justice to serve on the court, bonds us with our line compatriots. But as we look across the expanse of people and begin to understand just how many others got here before us, we wonder if we’ll even make it inside.
The clock ticks closer to 11:25. The line squishes forward with anticipation but has no true movement. A volunteer holding a giant sign that says “End of the Line” tells us she’s reasonably certain we’ll get in. As the talk start time comes and goes, and the line hasn’t moved, we need to make a decision.
Do we spend the entire National Book Festival waiting or do we attend the events where we can actually listen to writers speak? Not all lines can be this long. There aren’t enough people in the world!
So, we do what any reasonable humans would do in this situation.
We go to lunch.
We’ve come to the National Book Festival. We’ve left the National Book Festival. We have not seen a single person on my dramatic itinerary. Things are not looking good.
Luckily, nearby, there is Busboys and Poets. The perfect bookstore and brunch spot to eat away our woes and regroup with a new plan. Although I’ve vehemently stated over and over that I MUST see Madeleine Albright, my determination begins to wane. Plus, she conflicts with Andrew Sean Greer, the author of Less, which may be my favorite book I’ve read this year.
Please note, in an all equal situation, I would certainly choose Madeleine Albright. She’s an icon. But this is not an all equal situation.
As I ponder the complete upheaval of my well laid plan for the day, I relax into the art-filled, echoing walls of Busboys and Poets and enjoy a meal of books and some seriously good grits.
Food makes everything better.
Return to the National Book Festival
With a new plan in place, we set off back through security and try again. (I’m not really one for giving up.) We head downstairs to the children’s area where Jacqueline Woodson will give a presentation on the Purple stage.
First there is Love…
The children’s stages are the best kept secret. People think if you don’t have children, why bother? But there are no lines for the children’s stages. The three stages sit in a giant basement and if you can stand you can watch.
We arrive early, as there are couches and beanbag chairs to snuggle into if you’re strategic. A writer and illustrator are giving a presentation about their new picture book. Obviously, I’m an adult with a teenage child so I don’t really read pictures books. Still, I move into the crowd, forgetting I’m there to scope the best seat for seeing Woodson.
The authors of a book called Love talk about their collaboration and the unique illustration methods. It’s fascinating. I suddenly want to buy this book even though my head tells me it’s silly. You’re a grown woman. But as Jacqueline Woodson will say later, writers can learn a lot about character development and storytelling from a well-written picture book and I believed her because, well, she’s Jacqueline Woodson.
Then there is Jacqueline Woodson….
Finally, Woodson arrives on stage, accompanied by none other than THE Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. If you don’t know this first female and first African American to lead the country’s biggest library, here is a link about her. She’s incredible.
The two settle into plush chairs as Hayden reads off Woodson’s many, many, many accolades and awards. I know her from the incredible book Brown Girl Dreaming, but she’s done so much more. I learned she even has an adult book I must now read.
As the two discuss her books and writing, Jacqueline Woodson exudes an infectious happiness. In the audience, smiles beam, heads tilt, enthralled by her words. She talks about her work, gives advice like, “It’s OK to read slowly. Everyone reads differently. Reading slowly is reading like a writer.”
Riding her wave of positivity up the escalators, I am excited to finally check off at least one box on my itinerary. Next up is Andrew Sean Greer.
Now Less becomes more…
Since I’ve given up on my hope to see Madeleine Albright, refusing to stand in another never-ending line, I’m slightly miffed to find I’m stuck outside the doors to see Greer.
In line I see a friend and fellow writer and we quickly clump together like little excited electrons. We chat about our day so far. (She was on floor two trying to see Sotomayor and didn’t get in, but she ended up at a talk from a mystery or spy writer, not something she normally reads, and enjoyed it.)
Less-on of the day: Don’t wait in line for the ‘famous’ people. It’s a book festival. Find a new writer to listen to, they all have something interesting to say.
Luckily, we don’t have to wait long and are ushered into seats by volunteers with fingers over their lips to remind us to be quiet because the presentation has already started. Greer is just like his book, full of humor and doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, despite a Pulitzer Prize win. He’s nothing like me, other than he’s a writer. He’s a gay white male, but he could be the most relatable person I’ve ever seen. I think it’s is vulnerability and his humor. He put the whole audience instantly at ease. We all felt like his friend.
The woman who needs no introduction…
After scooping another writer friend into our group, we posed for a few pictures and then set off to see Roxanne Gay, who we find in the Graphic Novel section of the day.
The first thing that surprises me is that Roxanne Gay wrote a comic. I’m not sure why I’m shocked. The woman could do anything.
This was my daughter’s first introduction to Roxanne Gay and it was great to see her walk onstage to a standing ovation. She’s a woman of few words when she speaks, but those words are powerful and often humorously poignant. She talks about how Ta-Nehisi Coates approached her write comics as part of the Black Panther series and how she prepared for the new medium.
Her entire presence feels honest. There is no other way to describe her. There is no, pardon my language, bullshit with Gay. She says what she thinks, but never says more than is necessary to convey her point.
My favorite part was getting share the experience with my daughter, to introduce her to such a female role model and icon.
It Always Ends with Pizza
Sadly, my family does not have my same book stamina. Despite 3 more hours on our itinerary, they wanted to leave.
Another lesson of the day: Take separate cars or buy a metro ticket so I can stay longer when my family wants to leave.
Since I got to see three of my “must see” authors, I couldn’t really complain. It was a wonderful day. And, like with last year, we wandered through the streets of DC and capped off the day at Pi Pizzeria down the street. I think this may become our National Book Festival tradition.