Jason Reynolds: The 2020 National Book Festival

This is the September newsletter by Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

I have an announcement to make: The 20th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival is coming up!  I repeat, the 20th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival is coming up!

I have another announcement to make: This may very well be the first year the National Book Festival is, in fact, national. At least, in the true sense of the word. And by true sense, I mean the Jason Reynolds definition of it. Let me explain.

The National Book Festival, for as long as I can remember, has been an extraordinary event. Every year there were tons of  authors scattered across the National Mall, with the Washington Monument temporarily and inadvertently becoming a giant pencil for the celebratory weekend. Then it moved—the festival, not the monument—from the unshaded lawn into the air-conditioned convention center, where it became a glorious labyrinth of readers and writers. Elevators and corridors slammed with like-minded people talking and laughing, shoulders and elbows bumping, tote bags swinging, shuffling from one session to the next. But extraordinary, celebratory and glorious aren’t the only adjectives that could be used to describe this festival. Informative, inspiring, organized, communal, life-changing are a few others, and I could go on. However, there’s one word I wouldn’t use to describe it, and that’s national.

National is one of those weird terms often deployed loosely to color something with importance. Like, if you call something national it suddenly means it should be acknowledged or paid attention to. It impresses people at parties and, take it from me, even gets people to overlook your hair, tattoos and dirty sneakers. For instance, the position I hold at the moment—the one affording me the opportunity to write this letter—the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, doesn’t sound nearly as big without that first word, right? National gives it some sauce, lifts it up a bit. But the truth about the word national is that beyond the weight it adds to any title, it has the potential (I’d even go as far as to say the responsibility) to serve as two things. The first is to present and spotlight something as representative of the nation, which basically means I’m currently the country’s mascot as it pertains to young people’s literature (and I’m honored, but where’s my furry book costume?!). And the second thing it does is imply that whatever it’s attached to is accessible to the nation.

  1. representative of, plus 2. accessible to, equals national.

(Again, this is from the Jason Reynolds Dictionary.)

What does this mean?

Well, in my case, one has to do with my voice, and the other has to do with yours. And to really feel like I’m checking the national box, I’m working to find some kind of middle ground where both are true, where I’m representing America’s kid lit world and am also accessible to the young people who read it and need it. But honestly, due to COVID-19 and the quarantine, carrying out my plans has become complicated (but not impossible!)

That being said, when it comes to the National Book Festival, in its 20th year, I actually think the state of our country has made this important festival, which, to its credit, has been representative of the nation’s writers, now far more accessible to the nation’s readers. You know why? Because for the first time, book fans don’t have to travel to Washington, D.C., to take part in it, or be forced to settle for next-day highlights. Everyone with Wi-Fi can bear witness to the word. Anyone with a signal can see the country’s stellar storytellers at the touch of a button. From Muskogee to Memphis, from Winslow to Wilmington, Lindsborg to Lancaster, America’s book people, from the prairie to the projects, can gather around their screens as if they were hearths and finally be engulfed in the warmth of this national celebration, which could actually make it…a NATIONAL celebration.

There’s such beauty in that. Such connection. Such promise. And I, for one, in the midst of this novel time, will take this moment as a silver lining, a hopeful lanyard on which I’ll attach my medal and hang it proudly around my neck.

So be sure to log on to this legendary, national festival, and let’s collectively celebrate stories. Because, after all, to celebrate stories is to celebrate us.

I repeat, to celebrate stories is to celebrate us.

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