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Why should you go to a book event if the theme doesn’t interest you?

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The Chesapeake Black Ink Festival:

My Experience

After enjoying the National Book Festival a few weeks ago in Washington, DC, I decided to go to a much smaller festival hosted by my city’s local library system.  The festival was called, “Black Ink”, and the theme was urban literature, which means literature by and about Black people.  I don’t necessarily think that literature by and about Black people is not for other ethnicities, really I would guess these authors need a wider readership to be economically feasible, but still, urban literature isn’t my thing. And I knew I would probably be one of the very few white people there. The festival was located about a 15 minute drive from my house; however, so I decided to give it a try.   

My attitude is always that if there are books involved, I’m sure to find something interesting.  Anyway, I admire people who have the fortitude to work creatively, usually in addition to day jobs, and also spend their weekend promoting their work.  Supporting them is the least I can do. 

I felt really awkward and conspicuous when I arrived, but not so much because I was almost the only white person there (other than library employees) but because there was almost no one there period.  Certainly no one bothered me, and some of the people there greeted me and made me feel welcome.  I always feel awkward at these events whenever there is sparse attendance because I know that the people performing and selling things have made investments in several ways, and they do not get compensation if there are not people at the event.  I want to support them all, but I can’t.  

I was so busy adjusting my surroundings that it took a while for me to realize my sense of discomfort wasn’t from my white face, and it wasn’t because attendance was low.  Overall, there just really wasn’t much to do, and what was on offer was organized in a uninviting way and wasn’t appropriate for the location of the event, which was in what one of the lowest income neighborhoods in the city. 

The bookmobile was the first thing I saw when I stepped out of my car.  It was obviously positioned to be noticed, as a showpiece.  I agree that it is pretty cool, and the bright red color definitely is attention grabbing.  It kind of reminds me of an emergency vehicle, but I can get past that.  As a middle class suburban resident, I have never actually seen the inside of a bookmobile, strange as it might sound, so I was kind of excited.  Especially because this one looks brand new and state-of-the-art. 

I was disappointed to find that the bookmobile was completely locked up and no one was around to show it off.  In fact, it was kind of swathed in posters, which would have been disturbed if anyone tried to get a closer look. 

I moved on past the bookmobile, and I saw a group of tents to one side, with vendors, stage on the other, and a small information booth in between.  I went to the information booth first because I had been unable to find the schedule of events online.  The staff at the booth gave me a schedule, but they really weren’t that friendly.  I later noticed later they were giving out fans, which they didn’t offer to me (they were on a side table and out of site). Since it was an unseasonably muggy day, I would have appreciated it.  I’m lucky the attendees and participants were more friendly. 

A poet was reciting at the stage over to my left, so I went over to listen to her.  I enjoyed her poetry, which was recited in English and Spanish, but finding a seat was awkward because I had to cut right in front of the tiny audience to sit down on the metal bleachers.  At festivals, the normal expectation is that people will come and go, but the arrangement of the raised bleachers set dead in front of the stage made doing that difficult to do without disturbing others.   

After a few minutes, I realized that the day wasn’t as cloudy as I thought, so in between performers, I left to get my sunglasses out of my car.  Then I decided to wander around the tents.  It seemed that most of the “vendors” were actually authors, the same ones who were scheduled for the panel discussion.  After a brief chat with one of them, I discovered that the authors were also selling their books!  So awkward.  I was so thrown off, I spent $15 on a paperback book that I later discovered was offered on Amazon Prime for free. Normally I go online and check out my options before purchasing a book, but I just couldn’t say “no” to the guy, who had put so much into being there, and honestly I was really caught off guard. I wanted to read the book, but $15 is a lot, especially for a young adult book that I knew was going to be a two-hour read, maximum (I calculate my reading budget by dividing the cost of the book by the number of hours it will probably take to read it). 

I don’t know why the event organizers were so thoughtless.  The point of a literacy festival is to promote books and reading in general.  Without authors, we don’t have books.  These talented individuals should have been treated as honored guest artists. The two authors I talked to were selling books they had written but also self published, which means that they paid publication costs out of their pockets up front.  I really admire these people, who actually completed the writing of the books, most likely in addition to holding a regular job, and then have the guts to go through this…and did I mention it was unseasonably humid?….but asking them to both provide free entertainment at this event (through panel discussions some had been invited for) and shill their own creations is demeaning.  

Usually, the way it works is that the authors get publicity and the chance to sell books to attendees (but through actual booksellers), and the event doesn’t have to pay for “talent”.  If you go to a signing at a bookstore, it’s the same thing: the author doesn’t get an appearance fee, both the author and store do it for publicity and additional sales, through which both profit. 

After wandering around for a while, and talking to two authors, which I discuss further below, I went back to the bleachers to watch the performers.  As with the authors, I was sympathetic to the performers who were doing a great job in the heat with a very sparse audience.  I wanted to make it through the next 30 minutes or so to see the two main events, which would last another two hours after that.   

But then I started to feel warm. 

And then to sweat. 

As a Southerner, I am supposed to mist, but ya’ll, I don’t. I sweat like a farmer.  Then the back of my hair started to go damp. 

I checked the angle of the sun to see if there was any hope of shade.  No, not for a while.  Especially because, as I then realized, the bleachers were not only awkwardly placed: they were aluminum.  So in addition to the muggy, airless day, every ray of sunshine was being sucked to us, the few intrepid book lovers, as though we were sitting on a mirror.

I had two books that I had picked up from the authors, so I decided my afternoon would be spent reading them.  I called it a day and went home. 

I hate to admit how nervous I was about going to this event because I knew I would be one of the few white people there, but in the end, being white and attending this event was ok: the problem was that it was poorly organized.  I had the distinct feeling that there were some sort of politics at play.  The event was held in the most low-income section of a “bedroom city” (mostly suburban and rural), but the only thing there was to do that didn’t cost money was sit in the blazing heat and listen to performers, and the stage itself was kind of hidden.  The biggest thing that the performers and authors have in common with the local residents is their ethnicity, as far as I can see.  I know the residents can’t afford $10-15 for a book; I was upset about spending $15 on a book that I had only an academic interest in and that I knew I would read in a couple of hours, and I’m middle class. 

There were no games for the kids, no crafts, no freebies.  No balloons, no music.  They didn’t even bring a fire truck out for the kids to see, and as I said, the bookmobile was locked down.

Don’t we all enjoy seeing a fire truck? 

There was a pretty big police presence at the event.  I can understand the reasoning, but if they are going to be there anyway, why didn’t they bring anything along for the kids? 

There had been a monthly Friends of the Library book sale just one week before this event, why couldn’t it have been combined with this event?  Why couldn’t they have some door prizes or something, and give away some of the local author’s work?   

I don’t get it. 

But to answer my initial question: would I do it again?  Yes.  I got to talk to two great authors and nice people who back up their ideas with action…and not to mention the fortitude that it must have taken to get through that afternoon. 

Although I knew that self publishing is on the increase, mainly as a result of the Internet, I really haven’t read any, other than some how-to books.  What I discovered is that seeing authors who are just starting out, or creating as a hobby or a sideline, helps me appreciate the craft (and art) of writing even more.  It’s the same as watching people participate in sports at low levels: I understand the skill of performers at top levels much better when they aren’t the only participants I’ve seen.   

Despite the flaws of this event, I got a chance to find out that we really do have a local literary scene. 

 

Gross Heroes:

The Snot-Free Zone

by D.W. Dawson


D.W. Dawson and her mom brave unseasonable Virginia humidity to share her hilarious book.

One of the displays I was taken in by was a cheerful green and yellow poster, so I went up to talk to the author.  Also, I couldn’t stop laughing at the title of her book, which is Gross Heroes: The Snot Free Zone, by D.W. Dawson.  Ms. Dawson told me that she wrote her book because her son was having trouble finding interesting books after he outgrew Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Although parents and teachers may groan at the sight of these books (Captain Underpants anyone?), it’s important to remember that parents and teachers are not the intended audience of these books.  There is a time and a place for everything, including disgusting gross out books.  As I mentioned, there were people at this event selling entire series of books that are niche genres to begin with, and then these are specifically written and marketed to Black Americans.  If there is interest and enough of a market to make those profitable, why don’t we have more disgusting books for boys, who make up 50% of the population?

This book is both gross and funny: even I laughed out loud in parts.  But the underlying message of the book is one that I think middle schoolers need to hear: We are all disgusting.  We all have things we are embarrassed about.  Ms. Dawson also taps into an idea that is not new, but important: take what you think is your worst flaw and figure out how to make it your strength.  Freddy, the protagonist of this story, has the super curse/super sized power of super farts. 

Sorry for my language, but there’s really no good way to say it. 

He falls in with a group of kids at his new school who each have a super curse, and of course since they’re boys, they all give each other nicknames based on them, and in some way, each one of them turns their curse into a superpower, including an excessively snotty nose, super stinky feet, and super bad breath.  By the end, they even have a girl in their group. Because, ya’ll, girls can be gross too. 

I enjoyed this read, and the style is good for kids.  The topic is fantastic!  I was a bit bothered that there wasn’t much description of the kids other than their super traits, and the setting was also very vague except a mention of the Campostella Bridge, which I immediately recognized since it’s right in the community where this event was held.  On the one hand, it allows readers to put themselves in the story, so it might be a good thing, but we know that readers need to picture something, so I think ultimately more description, and illustrations, would be good.  I also had a little trouble with the pacing and the resolution of the two main plots, one of which involved Freddie’s Pet Iguana and another that involved the development of Snot Balls, which both seemed a bit flat to me. 

But there is definitely enough to pull a 12 year old through this book, and I think Ms. Dawson is on to something.



The Athlete-Student: Freshman Year

by Eugene Holloman


Eugene Holloman tells student-athletes the truth.

Eugene Holloman is a local to my area, and he played football for my alma mater, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  He had assumed that he was going to turn pro, got injured, and had to redirect his life. Among other accomplishments, Mr. Holloman decided to write a young adult series about being a college athlete. I’m really glad he has taken the initiative to tell his story.  So many families dump so much time and money into kids’ sports, and they take on more importance than they should. Families need to know the truth: there is no such thing as a free ride.  They need to know the reality of the situation so they can make informed decisions about costs versus benefits. I hope once Mr. Holloman finishes with his series on the university years, he has the time to write prequels about his life as a younger athlete and maybe additional series about other sports. 


Related Quick Read

The Shame of College Sports from The Atlantic, October, 2011, by Taylor Branch. I knew there were problems with the system, but not what I expected. This article horrified me.