West Virginia Book Festival

Book Festival chairwoman Pam May exits

If the West Virginia Book Festival is to return — and we still hope it does, in some fashion — it will have a new director.

Pam May (right) with Diana Gabaldon at the 2010 West Virginia Book Festival.

Last month, Pam May left her job as marketing supervisor at the Kanawha County Public Library — where her duties included being chairwoman of the Book Festival — to take a similar job at the YWCA Charleston.

Pam had been the Book Festival’s chairwoman since 2008or. Anyone who’s enjoyed themselves at the festival in the intervening years — or even before then, since she also worked with the festival’s original director, Cindy Miller — should thank Pam for the incredible amount of work she did in shepherding the event each year.

After this year’s festival was canceled, I talked with several people who wondered why it was necessary to shut down the event months before it was scheduled to happen. They didn’t understand that the planning process for the Book Festival is practically year-round, and that there was only a small break between the end of one festival before Pam and others would begin planning the next one. (As someone who was occasionally on the periphery of that planning, I don’t fully understand it either; I just know it was a lot of hard work.)

But now, maybe now she’ll get to celebrate her birthday — which always fell around the same time as the Book Festival — in peace.

So bon voyage, Pam. Best of luck, and thanks.

2013 festival canceled

We regret to announce that the 2013 West Virginia Book Festival has been canceled.

The cancellation of the festival is caused by the loss of significant funding to Kanawha County Public Library for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.  The library provided the bulk of the staffing and organizational support for the festival.

The festival Steering Committee, comprised of representatives from charter sponsors Charleston Newspapers, Kanawha County Public Library, West Virginia Humanities Council, and the West Virginia Library Commission, wants to thank you for your support and participation in the West Virginia Book Festival.  The committee will explore all options to try make the festival happen again in the future.

Don’t forget about us.  We intend to be back, and when we are, we hope you will be, too.

Requiem: The West Virginia Book Festival

As you may have heard already, the West Virginia Book Festival scheduled for this October has been canceled. The Kanawha County Public Library board of directors decided Monday that they couldn’t support the festival this year — and despite the support of many others, the fact is that without the Kanawha library, there is no West Virginia Book Festival.

This year’s festival, which was scheduled for Oct. 19 and 20 at the Charleston Civic Center, would have been the 13th annual event. The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail, both charter presenters of the Book Festival, have coverage of Monday’s events.

The library board’s decision is a direct result of last month’s state Supreme Court decision, in which justices agreed that part of a special law that told the Kanawha County Board of Education to fund the Kanawha library — a law that, in some form, had stood for more than half a century — was unconstitutional.

The Kanawha school board — Jim Crawford, Becky Jordon, Bill Raglin, Robin Rector and Pete Thaw, who declared the library a parasite after the Supreme Court decision — had been trying to get out from under the library funding requirement for years.

The money was only about 1.25 percent of the Kanawha school board’s budget — but was 40 percent of the Kanawha library’s budget.

In light of that massive cut, I imagine it was a clear, if not easy, choice for the Kanawha library board of directors to eliminate funding for the Book Festival. If the money from the school board isn’t replaced in some way, much more draconian cuts to the Kanawha library system are on the horizon.

There are, of course, people and organizations besides the library and its workers who have helped make the Book Festival what it is. The West Virginia Humanities Council has been a charter sponsor, and the Gazette hosts this blog (the future of which is unclear, to say the least). Volunteers throughout the community have given their time and effort to the event over the years.

What’s so frustrating about this — well, there are lots of frustrating things about this — but one of them is that the Book Festival had really grown over the past few years. A few years ago, as people began to plan for the 10th edition of the festival, they felt that the event needed to grow, and to raise its profile.

A crowd of about 2,500 people gathered to hear Nicholas Sparks at the 2010 West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Civic Center. Photo by Vic Burkhammer.

The result was that Nicholas Sparks and Diana Gabaldon were brought in as headliners for the 2010 event. It was, by just about any measure, the most successful West Virginia Book Festival ever, and it was not close.

In the following years, 2011 headliners Lee Child and Jerry West and 2012 headliners Charlaine Harris and Craig Johnson may not have brought in Sparks-level crowds, but they lent the Book Festival a significant buzz.

I can’t tell you how many people I talked to at the Book Festival over the past few years, or interacted with on Twitter, who were genuinely surprised to find an event like the Book Festival in Charleston, or in West Virginia.

The Book Festival was the kind of event that politicians and other local leaders always bring up when they talk about making this a place where young, bright people want to live, and move to, and raise their kids — the kind of event that makes some people say, “Yes, this is a good place. This is a place I want to be.”

And now it’s gone.

Former president Bill Clinton (left) is introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., at a campaign rally for President Obama in Pittsburgh on Monday. AP Photo by Gene J. Puskar

Did you hear about the time a former president of the United States almost came to the West Virginia Book Festival?

If not, Election Day seems like a good time to tell the story. (I wasn’t there for this bit of Book Festival history, but I heard the story several times afterward, including from one of the direct participants, so I’ve got the gist right. If not, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

It was Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007, the first day of the festival. It was also the day of the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner and fundraiser. The two events often coincide, but don’t clash, because the JJ Dinner is in the evening at the Marriott.

That year, though, West Virginia Democrats hooked a big fish: former president Bill Clinton. They broke all kinds of records with their ticket sales (surpassing that first-term Illinois senator who was here the previous year; whatever happened to him?).

So expecting a crowd of several thousand, the Democrats moved their event to the Civic Center, home of the Book Festival. Things were a little crowded, and as I recall, the festival got some spillover crowd from early arrivals to the Clinton event. The backstage rooms and hallways were also set up differently to accommodate the 42nd president.

Late Saturday afternoon, Secret Service agents asked Book Festival workers and attendees in a few rooms to stay where they were as the former president made his way through the hallways of the arena. Everyone agreed, and the Secret Service set up curtains along the route that Clinton was to take.

After a while, a few Book Festival workers heard approaching footsteps. I don’t know if they heard that familiar Arkansas drawl, but they knew who it was, and it was too much for one of them.

As the footsteps were nearby, she yelled (or at least said audibly), “Yay, Bill!”

The footsteps stopped. The curtains flew open.

In his best Elvis style, Bill Clinton said, “Hello, ladies.”

I gather the reaction, although enthusiastic, was more restrained than, say, a Beatles show in 1964. Clinton walked around and shook everyone’s hand. One of the workers asked if he was coming, or wanted to come, to the Book Festival.

Clinton sighed, and said, “I wish I were going to the Book Festival.”

And then he was gone, whisked off to his fundraiser.

I can’t believe I forgot to put this in my earlier post about the just-completed West Virginia Book Festival. But I did, so here it is now:

Dan Chaon (left) and Ray Bradbury

Dan Chaon (author of “Stay Awake,” “Await Your Reply,” etc.) was talking about how he became a writer, and about his boyhood in a tiny town in western Nebraska. He wrote letters to several writers, and one of them wrote back — Ray Bradbury, one of the true giants of science fiction and the American short story in the 20th century.

Here’s video of Chaon in an interview with CBS, talking about Bradbury’s advice to him.

Bradbury, of course, died earlier this year at the age of 91. About a month after his death, “Shadow Show,” an anthology of stories inspired by him and written by a wide array of some terrific authors, was published. Chaon’s contribution is titled “Little America”; a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books called it one of the best stories in the collection and said:

Dan Chaon’s “Little America,” for example, is a grim tale of a boy apparently being abducted by a sinister adult in a brutal post-apocalyptic America — until we learn the boy’s true nature and the abductor’s true motives. There’s virtually no echo of Bradbury-style prose here, but there’s an acute understanding of the sensibility of a strange child in a strange and violent world

Besides Chaon, authors in the book include Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Dave Eggers and Harlan Ellison, as well as the man himself, Bradbury.

Also included is a story from Julia Keller, Huntington native and longtime Chicago Tribune writer, whose first novel came out earlier this year. Keller’s story, called “Hayleigh’s Dad,” was described in the LARB review as “a tale of childhood friendship that turns dark in the manner of some of Bradbury’s atmospheric early horror tales.”

What I learned at the W.Va. Book Festival

Charlaine Harris (right) autographs a book for Jessica Bennett of Cross Lanes during the 2012 West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday. Photo by Chip Ellis

 My favorite thing that I learned over the past weekend at this year’s West Virginia Book Festival? I think it’s a tie:

| Dan Chaon, a National Book Award finalist and generally fantastic author, first began to hone his writing skills at 7 or 8 years old in a tiny western Nebraska town. He knew about TV shows such as “Bewitched” and “The Brady Bunch,” but his family’s TV aerial antenna didn’t pick them up — so he would write his own episodes for them.

| Rahul Mehta‘s appearance at the festival was his first as a published author anywhere in his home state. (A childhood friend and his seventh-grade English teacher were among those who came to hear him on Sunday.)

A few of the other things I saw and learned over the weekend (keeping in mind that there’s so much going on, it’s impossible to attend every session):

| Charlaine Harris is a very nice woman.

| Harris’ fans luuuuuuuvvvvvvvv her. Seriously. There were fewer fans there for her than for Nicholas Sparks a couple of years ago, but I’m giving the overall love-per-fan title to Harris’ readers.

| Craig Johnson is hilarious. His speech is probably the funniest I’ve heard an author give at the festival. He even got Mike Albert, chairman of the Kanawha County Public Library board, to wear his cowboy boots and show them off to a room full of people, twice.

Kanawha County Public Library board chairman Mike Albert, Karan Ireland of the library, Craig Johnson and his wife, Judy Johnson, model their boots before Johnson’s appearance at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday. Photo via Susan Maguire

| Johnson carries a C&O railroad watch with him, as a reminder of his early years in West Virginia.

| Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s new poet laureate, is going to be fairly energetic in his post. He gave a reading on Sunday that had people in the audience buzzing afterward.

| Harshman said that his stolid Midwestern farmer father used to read him “When The Frost Is On The Punkin” by James Whitcomb Riley — which Harshman acknowledged many in his audience would probably consider close to doggerel. But as a boy, he said, it taught him that language could sing.

| WVU music professor Christopher Wilkinson, author of “Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia,” and his former graduate assistant, West Virginia State University music professor David Williams, used to try to guess which century a random piece of music came from — or, if they were feeling confident, which decade.

| The first minutes of the Kanawha library’s used book sale, which have verged on chaotic in some years, weren’t as frenzied this year. There were still hundreds of people lined up waiting for the doors to open, and they poured in and grabbed a lot of books in a hurry, but they weren’t nearly as determined as I’ve seen. Or maybe they were just nicer.

| Reaction in the festival marketplace seemed a little mixed. Some vendors said they had good traffic and sales; others were a little disappointed. The WVU football game helped reduce numbers late Saturday afternoon (and I think everyone Mountaineer fan who watched that game would have had a better time at the festival).

| Pop-up books have been around since the 1200s, and Robert Sabuda incorporates techniques from that and subsequent eras into his work.

| Every year, it seems, there’s one session that surprises me with how well it’s attended. The Sabuda session was this year’s surprise. There were probably a couple of hundred or more adults and kids watching and listening to him, and they were rapt.

| Betty Rivard‘s book of New Deal photographs of West Virginia, which should be out in a few weeks, will have something of interest for just about anyone concerned with the history of the Mountain State.

I heard others speak well of the sessions I didn’t attend: Tamora Pierce; Marc Tyler Nobleman; David Corbin; Tamera Alexander, Lynn Austin and Julie Klassen; Sarah Dooley; Don Teter; and the West Virginia Storytelling Guild.

But what I heard most often, from a couple of authors and from several festival-goers, was just how much they enjoyed it, and how fortunate this area is to have an annual event like the West Virginia Book Festival. That’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more, and the festival workers and volunteers who make it all happen deserve more credit than I can possibly give them in a single blog post.

So the 2012 festival is in the books. It wasn’t perfect — what is? — but I’d call it a success. The Book Festival blog continues year-round; keep checking here for other reading-related news for West Virginia. As for next year’s festival, you can check the blog and the official website for developments.

You can also mark you calendars now:

Book memories, old and new, at the used book sale

Early on in the children’s book section of the used book sale at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday.

I made a pass through the children’s section of the Kanawha County Public Library’s used book sale Saturday morning because you never know what you’ll find.

I found a worn but serviceable hardback copy of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson, the funniest Christmas book ever (and deep and moving). Already have an adequate paperback. Put it back.

Grown-ups shuffled along, heads and lower backs bent to the task of sifting for fiction and non-fiction treasure. Kids wiggled in between, forming an inner line along each table, like the front row along a parade route. One girl weaved fearlessly in and out of the formation.  She examined and gathered items from the picture book table and carried them neatly to a distant box her mom was filling. They looked like they were stocking up for the winter. Other families did the same. They piled books into their strollers and carts and other load-bearing vehicles. One boy nabbed every volume in the Dragonball  series that he saw. Another pulled two books out of a lineup of early chapter books, slipped them deftly into his father’s shopping bag without distracting Dad from his own browsing, and went back to the precise spot where he had left off as if it were bookmarked. A preschooler pulled a book out of a pile and sung out triumphantly, “Toy Story!” Adults laughed, but didn’t look up.

At the big kids book table, an older woman carefully turned over every Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book one by one. I saw “White Fang” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” and I’m pretty sure the exact edition of the Classics Illustrated “Black Beauty” that I read in third or fourth grade. I opened  Anna Sewell’s 1877 classic:

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.

While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.

Yep. Still a classic.

I really don’t need any more books. The crowd was thick and intent at this hour. It was time for me to get to a 10 a.m. program, so I backed off my browse. As the children’s books disappeared behind me, I heard a gruff man’s voice exult, “Stone Soup!”

Abra Sabuda!

We haven’t seen much of pop-up book wizard Robert Sabuda here on the blog in the run-up to the West Virginia Book Festival. Honestly, it is pretty difficult to describe the magic of opening one of his books and getting Peter Pan’s cloud-level view of London, or seeing a deck of cards appear to flick through the air. Here, watch this video:

Robert Sabuda’s Beauty and the Beast

That should give you some idea of the experience. Then you can come see for yourself. Sabuda appears at the Book Festival at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

West Virginia is one of the least-diverse states in the nation. Those are the facts. So it’s a little surprising that an acclaimed gay Indian-American writer would hail from here.

But here comes Rahul Mehta, native of Parkersburg and author of the short-story collection “Quarantine.” Mehta’s characters not only have to deal with the usual prejudice that gay people face in America, or the culture clash that first- or second-generation Americans face when their new American ideas come up against their families’ cultural mores; they face a combination of the two. Their parents and grandparents are from a country where homosexuality is viewed much more harshly than it is here (although things have become more open in recent years, frank talk about sexual issues is still discouraged in much of India, and homosexuality was decriminalized there less than three years ago).

The title story, “Quarantine,” involves at least one location familiar to many state residents. The narrator and his boyfriend come to visit the narrator’s family in West Virginia, and they take a day trip to “a town seventy miles up the Ohio River, famous for three things: ancient Indian burial mounds, after which the town is named; a state penitentiary; and a large Hare Krishna commune.”

(Hmmmmm, a town named after mounds …)

Mehta’s narrator says he and his family used to visit the commune when he was a boy:

“It is beautiful, set atop a hill with views of the river valley. There is a temple and a Palace of Gold. My family went a couple of times a year to worship. In those days, there were no Hindu temples nearby, and my father figured the Hare Krishnas were the next best thing. But my mom was wary. She thought they were weird.”

When the men get to the town, though, some things are different:

“The Hare Krishnas own the whole hill, including the road. It is in such bad condition, I have to drive extra slowly. The sign for the temple is so faded I almost miss it. Once there were cows on the green hills and white men with shaved heads wearing necklaces made of tulsi beads, and women in saris with hiking boots and heavy coats in the winter. Now the hills are empty. Many of the houses are boarded up. The cows are gone.”

Mehta returns to the Mountain State this weekend, at the West Virginia Book Festival. He’ll read from “Quarantine” at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.

It is upon us. The 2012 West Virginia Book Festival is this weekend.

Here on WVBF:TB, we’ve tried over the last several months — and particularly over the past few weeks — to let you know why you ought to come to the Book Festival, and what you should look for once you get there.

We’ve talked with supernatural mystery author Charlaine Harris about meeting fans, and suggested audiobooks as a way to get to know Sookie Stackhouse and her crew. “Longmire” series author Craig Johnson talked about how he didn’t begin writing until he was in his 40s. We’ve had reviews of works by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Lynn Austin, and we’ve talked about the awesomeness of Dan Chaon and Tamora Pierce. WVU music professor Christopher Wilkinson talked about a forgotten musical subculture in West Virginia, and Rahul Mehta set the title story of his collection about growing up gay and Indian-American in the Mountain State. And … and …


Look, the fact is, we could write a couple of posts every day and not tell you about all the cool stuff at the West Virginia Book Festival. Between the programs and book-signings, and the Word Play area for kids, and the used book sale, and the plethora of vendors throughout the marketplace, there’s practically guaranteed to be something that appeals to you.

There’s only one way to find out. See you at the Civic Center. (And we might blog a little during the festival, but a bunch of people will be on Twitter talking about it. So join in, and use the hashtag #wvbookfest)