A Peek at the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival

September 24th was a big day in the book world. At the same time some of my Daily Geekette colleagues were exploring Boston Teen Author Festival, I attended the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival in D.C. While there, I got to meet the new history-making Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, just ten days after she was sworn in! I also met children’s author Shannon Hale (again) and attended some interesting panels, learning such things as Lois Lowry’s preferred brand of toothpaste and the difficulties of literary translation. Read on to hear about my experience!

Founded in 2001 by First Lady Laura Bush, The National Book Festival is a free event open to the public that celebrates books and reading. One of the main events of the festival is the awarding of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Thus I arrived bright and early Saturday morning to watch the recently inducted Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, confer the prize on author Marilynne Robinson, whose notable works include Gilead and Home.

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Afterward, I had the fortune to meet Dr. Hayden at the Library of Congress booth on the convention floor. It was very inspiring to be in the presence of this woman who made history by becoming both the first woman and first African-American to lead the largest library in the country (and arguably, in the world). Prior to this presidentially-appointed position, Dr. Hayden made a name for herself as Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and then as the President of the American Library Association from 2003–2004. She was affable and friendly, giving attention and handshakes to everyone who approached her.

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After I finished fan-girling from that nerd-celebrity encounter, I perused the book sales area where one could purchase some notable works of the authors at the convention, especially if you wanted to get something signed. Next, I attended a panel about the works of Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor, whose complete collection of works had recently been translated into English. Although Levi himself passed away in 1987, his works live on, though until now had only been translated in a haphazard fashion. This gave English speakers access to only his most popular works such as his collection of short stories “The Periodic Table,” and left many other stories untranslated. A team of about ten translators, including Ann Goldstein who spoke at the panel, created a collection of all of his writings and retranslated them. Goldstein spoke of the difficulties of translation, including the former-chemist’s use of scientific terminology and communicating his detached but charged tone. As someone who is interested in going into translation myself, I was interested to hear how she strived to overcome these challenges, despite the Italian saying that “every translator is a betrayer,” because she believed in the importance of Levi’s works.

In the afternoon, I went to Lois Lowry’s panel, where she talked about her updated memoir, Looking Back: A Book of Memories, originally published in 2000, but revised now to reflect the last two decades. I remember reading Lowry’s Newberry-award-winning Number the Stars as a child, but I only read The Giver much more recently. Lowry talked about how events in her life, such as the early death of her sister or her aging father’s failing memory, affected her work. She then took questions from the audience, including from one young girl who asked what brand of toothpaste she uses. Lowry fist mused on how such questions reflect our desire to get a peek into the everyday life of people we admire, and then informed us that she, in fact, uses Crest toothpaste.

Lastly, I went down to the Children II stage to watch a presentation by Shannon Hale, who I met at BEA two years ago, and whose advocacy against gendered reading we have covered on the site. The atmosphere on the children’s stage was much different from those on the adult stages, with Hale striding around the stage using big gestures, funny voices, and props, rather than sitting sedately answering questions from an interviewer. For example, she unfurled a lengthy laminated roll of the rejection letters she received for her first novel, The Goose Girl (which I highly recommend to all lovers of fairytale retellings), to demonstrate that rejection only means that this person, this time, this specific circumstance is not right, not that you and your work are not right. She made the panel interactive by calling some kids up on stage to practice inventing their own superheroes, complete with names, special powers, and an arch nemesis.

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When asked if she was writing any YA books, Hale mentioned a Squirrel Girl book based on the undefeated Marvel superhero, which will be coming out in February. In acknowledgement of the signer up on stage (all of the panels at this convention were hearing-impaired friendly), she even taught us the sign language for “Squirrel Girl” and said that a special version for the hearing impaired was also in development. Knowing Hale’s writing skills and her enthusiasm for all things superhero, I can’t wait to read her self-proclaimed hilarious rendition of such an intriguing Marvel character.

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In sum, although I only spent about half a day at the convention, I managed to pack in so many cool experiences. National Book Fest is awesome and if you live in or around D.C., you should definitely take advantage of this free event.

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