This Saturday, when book lovers descend on the D.C. convention center, many will no doubt lose themselves in a good book (or two). But if they also find themselves in the process, the festival’s carefully crafted lineup will have achieved its mission.
In its 23rd edition, the National Book Festival’s theme is “Everyone Has a Story” — meaning those attending as well as onstage. From 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., more than 70 authors will engage readers on topics across American life and beyond.
Festival-goers will encounter poetry, history, memoir, horror, sci fi, children’s lit, popular fiction, literary fiction, food, social justice and science. The list goes on. The breadth of offerings guarantees every type of reader will hear conversations reflecting their own stories or deepening their understanding of the world.
A few things are new this year. For one, the date. The Library moved the festival earlier in the summer — Aug. 12 as opposed to Labor Day weekend — based on the convention center’s availability.
The festival also has fewer authors this year and will unfold over less square footage: six stages compared with 11 last year. The 2022 festival — the first held in person since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic — attracted smaller crowds than past festivals at the convention center.
In response, Library organizers recalibrated, seeking to determine what size festival audiences are comfortable with in a post-pandemic world in which COVID-19 remains on people’s minds.
“This is an experiment this year,” said Jarrod MacNeil, director of the Signature Programs Office. “We’re seeing what it looks like to have a smaller footprint, to have fewer stages.”
Clay Smith, the festival’s literary director, sees potential benefits in bringing readers and sessions closer together.
“When you have the geography of the festival smaller, you’re having more interactions between readers. That’s very positive,” he said. “And when you are making it easier for people to get to sessions, you increase the sense of discovery.”
Each of this year’s six stages — Creativity, Inspiration, Insight, Understanding, Curiosity and Discovery — mix genres. Session titles alert festival-goers to subject matter.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden will officially welcome festival-goers on the Creativity stage at 9:30 a.m., followed by a session with beloved children’s author R.J. Palacio. She adapted her graphic novel “White Bird: A Wonder Story” into a prose novel with Erica S. Perl, who will appear with her. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Meg Medina will moderate the session.
Medina and Palacio are among 12 authors of Hispanic heritage to take the stage at this year.
Although last year’s festival may have had smaller crowds, the group was the most diverse of any National Book Festival. The Library aims to build on this success, understanding that authors’ backgrounds do not necessarily correlate with those of audiences.
“We want to diversify our overall attendance at the festival,” MacNeil said. “We want to have a good representation of Americans.”
The sessions following Palacio on the Creativity stage — which, like the Inspiration stage, will be livestreamed — reflect the variety of genres festival-goers can expect on stages this year.
David Grann will discuss his new release, “Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder,” with National Book Festival Co-Chair David M. Rubenstein. TJ Klune will present “In the Lives of Puppets” about artificial intelligence robots and their human son. And Beverly Gage will discuss her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about J. Edgar Hoover, “G-Man,” with author James Kirchick.
Then, Oscar-nominated actor and trans activist Elliot Page will discuss his memoir, “Pageboy,” and NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly will speak about hers, “It. Goes. So. Fast.”
Their memoirs are among 10 the festival will showcase, including Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil’s “Waiting to Be Arrested at Night”; teacher Chasten Buttigieg’s “I Have Something to Tell You”; football player R.K. Russell’s “The Yards Between Us”; and Atlantic writer John Hendrickson’s “Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter.”
In other highlights, author Amor Towles will discuss his latest bestseller, “The Lincoln Highway.” Tananarive Due and Grady Hendrix will talk horror fiction in a session titled “Hauntings Aren’t Just for Houses.” Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist Matthew Desmond will discuss his latest book, “Poverty, by America.” And festival stalwart Douglas Brinkley will pair up with David Lipsky in the session “History Is Heating Up,” about climate change. Food as a key to people’s hearts takes center stage in “Dig In” with authors Cheuk Kwan and Anya von Bremzen.
At 5:15 p.m. on the Inspiration stage, Hayden will confer the Library’s 2023 Prize for American Fiction on acclaimed author George Saunders, after which Saunders will speak.
As always, the festival will feature rich selections for children and young adults, the aforementioned titles by Palacio, Medina, Buttigieg, Due and Hendrix being only a small sample.
Children can also enjoy a new offering on the expo floor, Story District, where festival authors will read to families. At Roadmap to Reading, kids can visit Center for the Book affiliates to learn about authors from different states and win prizes.
Book sales and signings and Library merchandise will also be on offer on the expo floor (located where the Main Stage was last year), as will a Library of Congress area where staff members will present Library-based content and activities.
Those who visit will get to try their hands at transcribing historical documents; learn how to research LGBTQ+ history in Chronicling America; find out about culinary treasures and comics in the collections; and discover the Library generally, including through a Spanish-language overview.
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