Not many events can bring together a pastry chef, a poet laureate and the current president’s sister, but this year’s National Book Festival is designed to do just that.
Held Saturday on the National Mall between Seventh and 14th streets, the festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress and hosted by first lady Laura Bush, will connect book lovers with more than 70 of their favorite writers, including three-time Caldecott Medal winner David Wiesner, “Miss Manners” author Judith Martin and award-winning historical documentary director, producer and writer Ken Burns.
Also included on the list of authors is President Bush’s sister Doro Bush Koch, who last year published a memoir of her father George H.W. Bush, titled “My Father, My President”; famed cookbook writer and D.C. pastry chef Ann Amernick; and Charles Simic, who recently was named the 15th U.S. poet laureate.
Librarian of Congress James Billington said the festival, funded entirely by private donors at a cost of $1.75 million, is hosted on the Mall because it is relevant to the whole country.
“It really is a national event because the first lady is involved and we are the de facto library of the United States,” Billington said in an interview.
The festival, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is meant to bring the reading world to life, Billington said.
“One of the things we like to encourage besides reading in general is meeting authors,” he said.
The festival is free and open to the public and will organize the authors by genre into several pavilions: Children, Teens and Children, Fiction and Fantasy, Mysteries and Thrillers, History and Biography, Home and Family, and Poetry.
Other featured tents include the Pavilion of the States, which will promote reading and library literacy programs around the country; the Let’s Read America Pavilion, which will house interactive family events; and the LOC Pavilion, which will showcase portions of the Library’s collections.
According to Billington, the event will be run by 900 volunteers, many of whom are LOC employees volunteering on their weekend.
Jodi Picoult, the New York Times best- selling author of “My Sister’s Keeper,” said she was excited to see one of her favorite authors whom she has never met, David Baldacci, on the festival lineup.
“Even writers are fans,” said Picoult, who said she is disappointed that she will not be able to meet Baldacci in person because of a scheduling conflict.
But meeting famous writers isn’t the only reason Picoult said she is looking forward to participating in the annual festival, which began in 2001. Picoult said she also is excited to meet her fans.
“It makes me understand who my readers are,” Picoult said.
Simic said he frequently meets his fans at lectures and large book festivals such as this one that mostly attract seasoned literature fans.
“All the people that come to these events love books,” he said.
But Billington said the festival is meant to reach a broader group. “The whole idea is to attract people who aren’t reading, especially young people.”
“Certainly the poetry pavilion attracts a lot of people that don’t go to poetry readings,” Billington said.
Attracting new, young readers is particularly difficult today, said Simic, who also is a professor emeritus of creative writing and literature at the University of New Hampshire, because of the distractions of new technology such as DVD players and iPods.
“When I was a kid I read books, my friends read books, because there was nothing else,” he said.
The festival is only one way to try to draw children to literature, Simic said, and there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
“Every year, students who come in have learned less and less,” Simic said.
In addition to targeting younger readers, the LOC made a special effort to reach out to minorities when promoting the festival, Billington said. The LOC targeted black and Hispanic communities by making phone calls, sending out announcements through the mail and running an ad in a Hispanic language newspaper.
To reach a wide audience even after the festival ends, selected authors’ interviews will be made available through podcasts and all of the authors’ presentations will be available on the LOC Web site.
Billington, who plans to bring his grandchildren to the festival, said families usually make up a large portion of the 100,000 attendees.
“When the families come, then reading and conversations about reading become inter-generational,” he said.