Sunday, September 28, 2008

A First Lady, Several Renowned Writers and One Beloved Knucklehead: National Book Festival 2008

I almost didn't go (sore ankle and a forecast of rain) but then I whacked myself on the head and said: of course, you're going! Everyone else in the blog world is in Portland. Who will take bad cell phone pictures and report Jon Scieszka's hijinks if you don't?

I arrived around noon, and stumbled directly upon the Festival's hostess, Laura Bush, as she posed with some of the Festival volunteers before her departure. Her back was to me, or I would've tried for a picture. Jenna was already in the black bulletproof vehicle, waving from the back seat.

I love this shot of the Festival flag with the Capitol in the background. Note the puddles. Much muddier than last year, but not nearly as hot. Pleasant, really.

I was too late to score the full poster by Jan Brett, but the bear on the flag is beautiful, don't you think?

The session with Neil Gaiman was underway when I found the Children and Teens Pavilion, but I could've told you who was speaking without even entering, because the audience overflowing the venue was....20-somethings in funky hats and cool clothes. They absolutely didn't mind that he wasn't promoting an adult read like American Gods, but The Graveyard Book, his novel with a 14-year-old protagonist. He read a funny excerpt in which the boy seeks the help of a long-dead but still highly verbose poet. Gaiman is a natural dramatic reader. He never veers into camp, he never shortchanges a word or a pause, and he has complete confidence in his material. He took questions, and his answers were perfectly encapsulated stories, one of them involving an ancient human elbow bone. My favorite line: when talking about why he doesn't outline, he says he loves to find out what happens, except that three-quarters of the way in, he sometimes feels like "he's jumped from a plane and must knit himself a parachute on the way down."

After Gaiman, I stayed to hear the Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out panel: Mary Brigid Barrett, Steven Kellogg, and Katherine Paterson.

First, surprise guest Lynda Johnson Robb (daughter of President Johnson and former board chair of Reading is Fundamental) read her contribution as one who had "looked out." Her wry essay about how her rather boring and antique-free bedroom at the White House did not meet her high expectations had everyone laughing. (Upon further investigation, she found out that her room was witness to Lincoln's autopsy and several other deaths, which didn't improve her affection for it.)

Then, second surprise guest and National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Jon Scieszka, read a Prelutsky riddle poem that had readers guessing the identity of "who" at the White House "didn't need ID" and "did what he pleased." It turned out to be the Clintons' cat, Socks, but Jon, in his evil genius, casually mentioned Dick Cheney before he began...and the resulting parallel meaning was I was certain the Secret Service was going to haul him away. Perhaps the Ambassador medal he had received at the gala the night before protected him. He showed it to us---gleefully and to great applause---several times.

Katherine Paterson closed the panel by reading a blessing for the White House penned by John Adams in a letter to his wife, Abigail.

After that, it was time for lunch, so I headed to the National Gallery to eat at the cafe. While waiting in line, I was impressed by this eye-catching display of Iggy Peck, Architect.

One day, I'd like a book of mine to be in the National Gallery. Maybe if I name all my future characters after famous artists...

More art:

Kids doing crafts at the Scholastic table.
(I was tempted to ask them: do you know that I have a book coming out with Scholastic next fall? But you all know that I'm scared of glue.)

After lunch, I caught Mr. Scieszka again, who read from his autobiography, Knucklehead. (See Becky's great review here.) I'm telling you, this guy is fearless. Growing up with five brothers apparently does that. He was telling a story about PEE. All the while, he kept up a game with the sign language interpreter, repeating PEE in rapid fire succession to make her sign it. She played right back, switching to signing the letter "P" in retaliation instead. It was a hilarious bit of impromptu theater.

I wish I had more pictures. And a Festival poster. And a book in the National Gallery. And a voice like Neil Gaiman's. And devoted, beautiful fans of all ages like Katherine Paterson. I don't wish for five brothers. My own two are great. But I did get an afternoon on the National Mall in the company of people who love books. I'm glad I didn't stay home.


  1. Lovely Sara, thanks for sharing for those of us who would have loved to be there but couldn't!

  2. Thanks for sharing your wonderful afternoon. Lovely photos -- especially the bear banner!

  3. I adore your blog and am so glad you share your insights with the world. Thank you.

    Lisa Holmes (AKA: Stella Fey :)

  4. I love that interpreter story! Glad you got to go, and I hope your ankle heals. Thanks for the report.

  5. How is your ankle?

    Glad that you had fun!

    Ooh and aah to Neil Gaiman.

    Ah, but you do have devoted readers!

  6. I forgot about it! Agh!!!

    Hope your ankle heals up quickly; you'll be needing it for revisions. ;-)

  7. I thought I had already hit the pinnacle of jealousy over everyone who got to go to the Kidlit Conference in Portland, but NO! Now I'm doubly jealous over your fabulous festival.

    However: you'd freak me out if you ever opened your pretty mouth and Neil Gaiman's voice came out.

  8. Gotta agree with eisha on how freaky it would be if you spoke with NG's voice!

    Count me as one of Katherine Paterson's fans; I'm jealous you got to see her, and everyone else.

    Heal quickly, ankle.

  9. I'm gobsmacked! My book is at the National Gallery! And what a very cool display!!!! Thank you very, very much for posting this picture of Iggy. Sounds like the whole festival was great. Maybe next year I'll get to go and attend the Kidslit conference, too!

    Was there any word on whether the National Book Festival will continue next year?

    Love your blog!!

    Andrea Beaty

  10. Oh, thank you for going and taking me with you virtually. Jon-rhymes-with-Fresca is hilarious. Fearless is a good word for him, but I'm sure he freaked out his parents and all the teachers he ever encountered. FIVE brothers. Phew.

    How lovely to hear Neil Gaiman!!! And KATHERINE PATERSON!!! What a fabulous day.

    A book in the National Gallery is wishing upon a very bright star indeed, but you know, you're already more than halfway there...

  11. I had always wanted to know what the Festival was like. It was a fine journey, this peering over your shoulder.

  12. Thanks for bringing us along, Sara!

  13. Oh, how I wish ALL of you could have come with me. (I hate to giggle alone.) TadMack, Jon is still getting in trouble with teachers---some of them request that he not mention his pee story in his school visits because of the complaints from the custodians afterwards. (oh, my!)

    Thanks for the healing wishes. Ye olde ankle joint is definitely improving, but I'm babying it. I hate being creaky.

  14. i'm so glad you went. what a wonderful weekend. and i heard NG read from the graveyard book as well. neil neil neil! i'm a complete utter puddle of fan girl! he is so gracious and charming!! and talented!

  15. Thanks for the post, Sara! It makes me all the more excited about next year's conference being in D.C. I haven't been to the capitol since I was 16! Have I heard that there isn't certain to be a National Book Festival next year? I hope there will be.

    Anyway, we missed you this weekend! I hope the revisions are going well (I just saw your editor post about you and got a little giddy. I did not realize we now shared a publisher! Yippee!)

    Love that Neil Gaiman quote too. I'm one of those writers who's too scared to jump out of the plane with a ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles. It sounds really, really exciting, though!

  16. Wow, it's getting crowded in here. Your blog readers are really growing!

    Thanks again, for reporting from these trenches. I loved getting the inside scoop on your trip here and especially loved the pics.

    Glad the weather cooperated (kind of).

  17. Thanks for representing the Kidlitosphere at the festival, Sara. Hopefully we'll be able to hang out at the festival together next year. I sure sounds like a lot of fun!

  18. I've always wanted to go to this festival, and I am SO HAPPY that we're combining it with the Kidlitosphere Conference next year.

    I missed you out there in Portland, by the way.

  19. Oh, what great pictures! We really missed you in Portland, but I'm glad you reported back to us about the National Book Fest. And I'm super jealous--Neil Gaiman AND Jon Scieszka in one day!!

  20. Hey thanks for this reporting post! It sounds like a great day even with your bum ankle, which I hope it back in form by today. One of these years I will make it to the Nat. Book Fest. I will! I will!


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