Connecticut Book Festival
UConn-Greater Hartford Campus, May 21, 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (both days), 85 Lawler Road, West Hartford, (860) 704-2214, ctbookfestival.org; for more Karen Romano Young, go to karenromanoyoung.com
Connecticut is all booked up. You can't toss a Frisbee in this state without hitting an author (or wannabe one), agent, book seller, buyer, packager, librarian or, last but not least, reader. Though it's well established that we love books here, Connecticut has yet to organize an annual event that brings all parties together under one or more tents. In a word, a festival.
That oversight is now, perhaps permanently redressed with the 1st Annual Connecticut Book Festival on May 21 and 22 at the University of Connecticut Greater Hartford campus in West Hartford. Headlined by honorary chair Wally Lamb, the festival also boasts 30 other state authors, including the state poet laureate Dick Allen, book illustrator extraordinaire Wendell Minor, novelists Alice Mattison and Michael C. White, prolific mystery scribe Chris Knopf, stone wall documentarian Robert Thorson and children's book author Karen Romano Young.
Spearheaded by the tireless Kat Lyons, former director of Hartford Public Library and Connecticut Center for the Book, the event is expected to draw 10,000 visitors over the two days.
“We had our first book festival meeting in July 2009, convened by the Humanities Council,” says Lyons, who retired from the Hartford Public Library in February, just in time to throw herself headlong into the festival frenzy. “We [representatives from state commission on culture and tourism, state library, the Thomas Dodd Center, and others] were tossing around ideas about what we can do to keep from being repetitive or how we could let the rest of the state know about what we all do. I suggested a book festival, because I've wanted to do one for so many years.”
Lyons also has experience doing them. Since 2002, she's held down the Connecticut pavilion at the National Book Festival each summer on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
“We looked at other state festivals, studied their websites and activities,” she said. “I know roughly how they go about it, so we didn't need to entirely reinvent the wheel. It has been interesting to watch the demographics change over the years at the festival on the Mall. It started as just white, middle-class people and has now drawn from the whole spectrum.”
The Connecticut Book Festival will, likewise, draw from the whole spectrum, with one tent for exhibitors' booths and another tent set aside “for the kids.” That is, there will be greyhound therapy dogs to which children can read and Bill Thomson, a Connecticut Book Award winner for children's illustration, will conduct a sidewalk chalk drawing contest themed “Making Books Real: Draw something from a book that you would bring to life.” In addition, the Amistad Center for Art and Culture will host a journal-making workshop for young readers.
Among exhibitors will be the Antrim House, Connecticut Poetry Society, Connecticut Valley Calligraphers, Drunken Boat, Grayson Books, Hill-Stead Museum, the Jewish Book Festival, Mark Twain House, Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society and Sustainable Food. All-ages activities include performances by state troubadours, including the current troubadour Chuck E. Costa and his predecessor Pierce Campbell, on May 22 at 4 p.m. And a multicultural modern dance ensemble called dancEnlight will perform “Ink Passion” on May 21 at noon. And, finally, in various UConn campus buildings several panel discussions and presentations over the course of both days.
Karen Romano Young, a children's book author of mostly science-related titles, seems to have found the secret to keeping and holding a young audience, a secret much in demand in these days of e-books and Internet distractions. Her secret is that there is no secret; it's all about effective storytelling.
“People are telling stories and looking for stories at least as much as ever, and maybe much more than ever,” says Young, whose most recent book is Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles that owes some of its playful yet profound “vibe” to the work of Lynda Barry, of whose work she's a “big fan.” “All of us are telling stories in long and short form, in photos and illustrations and videos — and I think it's an incredibly great time to be a good storyteller. I'm having a blast writing and drawing for this audience. …This approach extends to science, too. If it's a good story, well-told, with great images — well, everybody wants that.”
Young is as enthusiastic about the book festival, saying, “Connecticut is a bright and sparkling community of thinkers who embrace books for entertainment, enlightenment and inspiration. I'm so glad the state is going to have an opportunity to gather each year to see what's new in the field, share what they've been reading, and meet a rich variety of authors and illustrators who live here. Kat Lyons has done a fantastic job. … Her passion and expertise regarding books and their creators and readers shows in every detail.”
The acerbic Chris Knopf, who in his “day job” runs the marking communications firm Mintz & Hoke in Avon, will be on a panel with other mystery writers. The fifth in Knopf's Sam Aquillo crime novel series, Black Sun, was just published. He looks forward to chinwagging with fellow panelists James R. Benn and Rosemary Harris, as well as moderator Kim Sheridan, who runs the popular blog Murder, Mayhem and Mystery.
When asked if mystery writers are a breed apart, Knopf says, “You'd have to be to engage in such a difficult, stress-riddled and time-consuming pursuit. We are curious, anxious, puzzle-lovers, compulsive storytellers, and on the whole, very pleasant people to hang out with. Just don't try to murder us. We know all the tricks.”
Like most writers of any genre, Knopf is wary of the future of books, though he takes a philosophical view. “At 60 years old, books in their present form will likely outlive me. So who cares,” he says. “The genre's faring better than most, but publishers are nervous as cats. It's not that they fear for their lives, but the uncertainty as to what the future state will look like is legitimately unnerving.”