Come Labor Day weekend, Decatur will once again find itself besieged by thousands of bibliophiles for the city’s annual Decatur Book Festival.
The festival, which began in 2006 and is now considered one of the biggest literary events in the country, hosts more than 60,000 visitors each year over the course of its three days. The festival also presents about 250 authors per year across 15 venues.
It’s not an easy feat to put together one of the nation’s largest and most anticipated book festivals, and planning for each one — which includes trips to New York to meet with publicists and author-event coordinators — can take up to a year, according to Joy Pope, the festival’s adult programming manager.
“What follows is a nonstop flurry of emails and phone calls as we invite and confirm authors before announcing the lineup in June,” she says. “We finalize the schedule of events at the end of July, and in the weeks leading up to the festival, we are in constant communication with all presenters and volunteers, making sure that everyone has an incredible experience.”
Little Shop of Stories co-owner Diane Capriola oversees all aspects of children’s and young adult programming for the festival, and both she and Pope have worked together with a dedicated team of interns and community volunteers to coordinate 2019’s book signings, panel discussions, readings, pop-up exhibitions, children’s activities, music, parades, poetry slams and more.
All of that planning will culminate Friday in a series of book festival kick-off events, beginning with Kidnote: Graphix Con, the festival’s version of a graphic novel convention, at the Decatur Recreation Center. The Graphix Con event includes art stations where kids can draw and storyboard their own graphic novels, and features author presenters such as Kristen Gudsnuk, Matt Holm, Ru Xu and Tui Sutherland.
Perhaps the biggest highlight this year is the PEN America Immigration and Keynote Track, presented in partnership with PEN America.
“In the festival’s 14-year history, many of the keynote addresses have been developed around an author or a book,” Pope says. “In the last few years, we have expanded that vision to structure the keynote around an important cultural tenet,” such as 2017’s focus on journalism and the importance of freedom of the press.
The idea for this year’s Immigration Track was inspired by an article from author and poet Rigoberto Gonzalez, in which he praised the National Book Critics Circle for honoring Arte Publico Press, an independent press that elevates Latinx writers. This year, Arte Publico Press, said by Gonzalez to be “a literary beacon against anti-immigration sentiment,” celebrated the 30th anniversary of its publication of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.
Immigration Track programming situates itself firmly in the current news cycle, with a keynote panel at 8 p.m. Friday at the Emory Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Moderated by Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist Mariela Romero and featuring Arte Publico Press executive editor Gabriela Baeza Ventura, topics are slated to include Latinx writing and immigration, the power of literature to affect change, who gets to call a country home and the value of providing opportunities for uncensored expression. The track continues throughout the festival and also features poetry readings by presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco and poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico.
Other standouts of the 2019 festival include “Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change,” a session presented by Stacey Abrams at the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary at 10 a.m. August 31, and “Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You,” presented by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at 4 p.m. Sunday at Agnes Scott College’s Gaines Chapel.
Fans of Georgia writer and activist Lillian Smith can attend a screening of Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence, presented by WABE, at 7 p.m. August 30 at Decatur Library (this book fest premiere is sold out). Lit: Books & Beats, which has been on hiatus for the past several months, also relaunches at the festival, with an event at the Community Bandstand on August 31 at 1 p.m.
This year’s festival hosts a slew of exhibitors, including Hub City Press, the Georgia Writer’s Association, the Georgia Book and Paper Fair, the Atlanta Chapter of the Horror Writers Association and the Pat Conroy Literary Center, which will be posted up in booths throughout the three-day event.
The festival closes with an appearance by New York Times and international bestselling author Philippa Gregory, whose historical mega-hit The Other Boleyn Girl was made into the 2008 feature film starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana. Gregory, a recognized expert on women’s history and a regent of the University of Sussex, will present her most recent work, Tidelands.
Between the authors, presenters, exhibitors and special events, this year’s festival is sure to have something for every type of book lover. More importantly, it offers an opportunity to engage with the community in conversations about important cultural issues such as immigration and inclusivity through the avenue of literature, which is arguably a book’s highest purpose.