The 16th Annual Library of Congress National Book Festival —
Celebrating the Journey of Reading
On September 24th an estimated 200,000 people journeyed to Washington, DC, for the National Book Festival. This free festival hosted by the Library of Congress featured over 120 authors. Somewhere, my friends, Ray Bradbury is smiling.
2016 National Book Festival highlights included:
- The first major public appearance by Carla Hayden, who is the first woman and the first African American to be appointed as the Librarian of Congress.
- A 2,500 seat auditorium festival main stage featuring Stephen King (his National Book Festival Debut, receiving special recognition for his contributions to literacy), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shonda Rhimes.
- A programming block dedicated to the graphic novel. Authors included Rep. John Lewis (fresh from an appearance at opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture earlier that day, discussing the “March Trilogy”), Ed Piskor (creator of the “Hip Hop Family Tree” series), and new MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang.
The Wonder Wordsmiths, King & Yang to Literacy’s Rescue
Gene Luen Yang and Stephen King connect in National Book Festival media lounge. Photo by Library of Congress.
I was thrilled to cover the Stephen King and Gene Luen Yang panels! Being both writers and educators, their panels underscored more than anything why literacy matters. Seeing the hundreds of young minds in attendence at the National Book Festival–young minds who will face a world with opportunities and obstacles we have yet to imagine–this is a message we need to share now more than ever.
Stephen King: On Reading
Stephen King, in his first appearance at the National Book Festival was presented with a special recognition for his efforts to champion literacy. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden introduced King as someone who gives back to his readers and ensures that the number of readers continues to grow. Sitting a mere two rows from the main stage, I was in perfect view of the genuine surprise King had for the sold-out crowd. “Writers are supposed to be secret agents. We observe you–you don’t observe us” King said with his tone dancing the line of astonishment and admonishment.
As you would expect, King was an amazing storyteller. He shared some hilarious anecdotes of fan encounters throughout his career as a writer in a country where people are more likely to engage in a debate about the films they watch than the books they read. The audience roared with laughter watching King writhe in anguish at the often-uttered line “I’ve seen ALL your movies” and then hearing King lament that any individual who has says that must have watched “The Mangler” and all the unneccessary “Children of the Corn” sequels.
Once King put the audience in the ‘story time’ sweet spot, we were ready to take on the deeper messages. King’s love of reading was instilled in him at a very young age. As an educator in his twenties, he began to notice that his students treated reading as a means to an end, seeing it as “hardwork with no reward”. For the first time, the master of horror saw something very frightening and real: the emergence of a world of non-readers. King stressed that reading opens up our abilities to empathize and analyze, skills key to being an informed thinker and better human being. King has made it part of his life’s work to inspire young audiences to read so they may know “learning to think is a result of hard work and steady effort.”
King’s advice to unlock a love of reading for the next generation includes patroning independent book stores, becoming a bold reading ambassador in schools by telling students to unplug, and reading with your family. Fun fact: King started his own children on reading comics at a very young age. One of his sons, writer Joe Hill, is the creator of the comic series “Locke & Key”.
Gene Luen Yang: The Genius of Reading Without Walls
2016 is turning out to be a banner year for cartoonist and computer science teacher Gene Luen Yang. The Library of Congress selected Yang as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position with a two-year term, created to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people. Yang is only the fifth writer and the first graphic novelist to hold this positon! A few days before the National Book Festival–where Yang was featured in 2 programming blocks (one for teen literature, and the other for graphic novels)–word reached the world that he was one of the 23 individuals selected for the 2016 class of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grants.” This prestigious award comes with a $625,000 no-strings prize and is given to inspiring innovators with exceptional creativity. Recent Genius Grant recipients include essayist Ta-Nehesi Coates and artist Lin-Manuel Miranda. Needless to say, Yang is in good company.
Yang’s work spans a variety of themes–from the technical (“Secret Coders”), to the historical (“Boxers & Saints”) and to the deeply personal (“American Born Chinese”). Hearing Yang speak in light of all of this great news bringing more visibility to his work was a true highlight!
Indeed, Yang’s geek hustle as both an artist and educator is the stuff of origin story legend–he was teaching by day and creating comics by night. Worlds fortuitously collided when Yang started preparing his computer science lessons in a highly visual way (Sigh, where was a Mr. Yang when I was in school!?). The process of creating comics for the classroom even challenged Yang’s own assumptions of how students learned: he thought his students preferred to learn from the screen rather than the page, but just the opposite occurred! In the classroom, Yang realized that comics could be a powerful teaching tool that allowed students to unpack information at their own speed and increase comprehension. Pro Tip: Supporters of S.T.E.A.M. education should get hip to Yang’s “Secret Coders” series–it’s the perfect example of teaching computer science through arts integration and a very fun read!
Yang also talked about “Reading without Walls”–his platform as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature:
Criteria for Reading Without Walls Challenge, image from geneyang.com
Much like Stephen King, Yang wants to inspire young people to see reading for the world-opening adventure it is. Full geek disclosure: my #ReadingWithoutWalls read is “The Shadow Hero” by Yang and Sonny Liew–a graphic novel re-examining the origin story of The Green Turtle, who is likely the first Chinese American superhero. It is worth noting that Yang is now penning for DC Comics “The New Super-Man” which is set in China and follows the character development of superhero Kong Kenan.
The long Q & A line I observed made it clear that Yang’s work resonates with readers and his enthusiam for reading has an impact. When a young writer asked Yang for advice for Asian American writers starting out, Yang shared that for writers self-doubt will always loom and and as an Asian American writer: “If you get specific in your own experience, it becomes universal. Get over the fear, go deep.” In that moment, I saw the spark of encouragement in the young writer’s eyes and suddenly my Gene Luen Yang bookmark transformed into an action figure.
My Gene Luen Yang Bookmark/Action Figure!
The 2017 National Book Festival will take place in Washington, DC, on September 2nd.