Creating a New Austin Tradition

Meghan Dietsche Goel - May 25, 2018

Kate DiCamillo wows the crowd.

Last Saturday marked the launch of Austin’s first annual summer reading kick-off festival, put on in partnership between BookPeople, the Austin Independent School District and the Austin Public Library, and it was a blast! Kicked off by the incomparable Kate DiCamillo, the day was marked by a spirit of creativity and interaction. Setting the tone with a keynote followed by a generous Q&A session, Kate answered questions that ran the gamut—from how her mom’s beloved vacuum inspired a key moment in Flora & Ulysses, to why her books so often deal with loss and sorrow, to what she recommends for a third grade class to read together as their first book next year (Charlotte’s Web, of course). No one gets a crowd buzzing quite like Kate, and from there everyone went forth to explore the rest of the festival and connect with some favorite authors, old and new.

Kids browse the festival store.

In her recent post about hosting the Elephant & Piggie Thank-O-Rama tour, my colleague Elizabeth Bluemle talked about the intricacy of planning a full day event, and it’s not a small undertaking, to be sure. But watching a real live, bustling event emerge from the hopeful abstraction of tracking sheets, press releases, scheduling grids, room schematics, moderator guidelines, and hundreds of emails can be a magical, magical thing.

Anna Meriano, Diana López, Pablo Cartaya and Tracey Baptiste talk family dynamics.

The truth is that events like these can’t be fully planned. They must be carefully prepared for of course. But the primary job of planning is to set up everything we imagine might be needed so that the show can run without too many logistical surprises. Then we can focus instead on all the unpredictable moments that make the experience come alive. Although this year marks my 10th year of large festival planning, I don’t ever feel like there’s an exact formula because each event creates its own dynamic. Festivals move too fast once they get going and are so different year to year, audience to audience. This is also a new age range for us. We’re 10 years in to figuring out the Texas Teen Book Festival, but customizing an experience just for younger readers is brand new. Even for this younger age group, panels offer essential anchors for the day—giving kids a glimpse into a bunch of different stories at once and letting authors show off unexpected talents. I only wish I had a video to share of Pablo Cartaya rapping from the stage! But I think the biggest note from this year (other than the fact that groups of younger kids are more strict about their lunch timing than teens) was that breaking up the day with looser interactive sessions allowed kids to let their own personalities shine and let out a little bit of energy at the same time. I think we’re really going to focus on building out that side of our programming for year two!

Among the interactive elements, a real highlight was a set of sessions led by Colby Sharp using prompts from The Creativity Project  to get authors, illustrators, and kids to let loose and let their imaginations fly. Kids also got the chance to pop into the Austin Public Library’s “The Van Show” as Van interviewed authors for his web series throughout the day (yes, Van’s a big blue puppet!). And BookPeople’s own Elephant and Piggie helped introduce LeUyen Pham for a special event just for emerging readers. (Later, I found pink Piggie in the hall conducting an adorably impromptu storytime of her own.)  
For our first year, we had a terrific turnout. The district facilitated free shuttle buses from a number of locations throughout the day, and librarians from all over the city came out in full force. All in all it was a wonderful, positive event, and I feel lucky to have been a part of it. Speaking of incredible luck, one of our librarian co-chairs even found a local brewer, Lazarus Brewing Company, whose menu offers a beer named after a heroic rat named Despereaux for the author party!
Thank you so much to Tracey Baptiste, Max Brallier, Pablo Cartaya, James Crowley, Tara Dairman, Kate DiCamillo, Gale Galligan, Xavier Garza, Karen Kane, Diana López, Anna Meriano, Iva-Marie Palmer, LeUyen Pham, James Riley, Geoff Rodkey, Colby Sharp, Lauren Tarshis, Judd Winick, and Jennifer Ziegler for taking the leap to help us grow this summer reading initiative and launch a new Austin literary tradition!

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