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What Does American Ingenuity Mean to You?

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This post was co-authored by Kaleena Black, Educational Resources Specialist, and Megan White, Visitor Services Specialist, in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement.

The theme of the 20th National Book Festival is “Celebrating American Ingenuity.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ingenuity means: “Having an aptitude for invention or construction; clever at contriving or making things; skillful.” Many people associate this definition with tinkering, mechanical problem solving, and creating inventions.

However, we can demonstrate ingenuity and inventiveness in many ways, including how we share stories, persuade others, solve problems, and fight for justice. Included below are a few examples of American ingenuity considered through the lens of the three Timely Topic Threads that are woven through this year’s festival—Fearless Women, Hearing Black Voices, and Democracy in the 21st Century—as well as activity ideas and prompts to encourage discussion between you and the children in your life.

Fearless Women

The Timely Topic Thread “Fearless Women” will bring together conversations that shed light on the struggle for women’s right to vote, as well as broader discussions about gender equality.

In her interview for this year’s festival, Rebecca Roberts, co-author of The Suffragist Playbook: Your Guide to Changing the World, noted that “The ingenuity of the suffragists shows up again and again…every time I see a picture of a protest, I think, yep, suffragists invented that, yep, they did that first.”

You can explore the Library’s online exhibition “Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Right to Vote” together with children. It highlights the many “ingenious” forms of protest women created while fighting to pass the 19th amendment, including picketing the White House, the first group of activists to do so.

Woman Suffrage Pickets at White House by Harris & Ewing, 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Woman Suffrage Pickets at White House by Harris & Ewing, 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As you view the exhibition materials, keep an eye out for examples of marketing materials, costumes, posters, and banners like this one about maintaining hope in the face of obstacles. Ask your children to pick out the different messages they see displayed. Consider together how modern protests draw on some of the practices of the suffragists, or what new technologies suffragists might have embraced if they were sharing their messages today. Or, make your own banner on an issue that matters to your family, or consider what new technologies your family might embrace to share their messages.

Hearing Black Voices

The topic thread “Hearing Black Voices” will convene authors whose works share diverse experiences of Black people, address racism in the United States, and explore Black history and culture – and the ingenuity reflected there.

Sarah M. Broom, author of The Yellow House about her family’s home in New Orleans, explains in her interview for the festival that “What jazz teaches us is that we pull from all the disparate pieces of the world…and from that pulling we can try to make something new, we can try to make a new tapestry.”

Ingenuity is expressed in jazz music, for example, and in its uses in the fight for racial and social justice. Consider this essay on jazz, which explores details about the genre, as well as this blog post by the American Folklife Center, “The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz” (2017), which discusses its origins, including its roots in New Orleans, having evolved from earlier African-American music.

Explore the role of jazz in the Civil Rights Movement by visiting this section of the online exhibition “African American Odyssey” or listening to audio recordings of jazz titles (among many other genres) that are available in the Library’s National Jukebox.

Portrait of Max Roach by William P. Gottlieb, 1947. Music Division, Library of Congress
Portrait of Max Roach by William P. Gottlieb, 1947. Music Division, Library of Congress


The Timely Topic Thread of “Democracy” will offer reflections on democracy from the historical perspective into the present day, including discussions on civil rights, civic engagement, social justice, and political affairs. Like the other topic threads, you can focus on related programming that is geared toward a younger audience.

In her interview, Rebecca Roberts says that “the very idea of American democracy is already ingenious.” After learning more about democracy at the festival, you might talk about that idea—why do you think she said this? In what ways is it ingenious? How can we apply ingenuity to American democracy for the 21st century?

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