By Jenny Rollins
BU News Service
BOSTON — Ten years after its first opening, the Boston Book Festival has more than tripled in size, and this year was the largest gathering yet on Saturday. Despite the rain, bibliophiles were crammed in every old church in the vicinity, squeezing into back rooms and basements and cafes to hear from their favorite authors.
During the first year of the festival there were only around 30 programs. There were over 100 this year.
The continual increase in size of the festival is exciting, but has been causing some problems for the coordinators of the event.
“There’s only so much finite space in Copley Square,” said Raquel Hitt, director of operations for the book festival. “The street fair is at capacity.”
But meeting in the old churches and buildings also develops a sense of community and “the magic of historic venues that add to the festival,” she explained.
“We love having the festival in the old spaces,” Hitt said. So they decided to stay put for now.
First-time visitor and volunteer for BBF, Natasha Williams, said that seeing these old spaces and forming community was the best part of the entire book festival.
“I’ve loved just meeting people,” said the graduate student from William James College. “You immediately have a connection to people because you have similar interests and are reading the same books.”
The size is not the only thing that has changed. After founding the Boston Book Festival and running it for the past ten years, Deborah Porter announced Friday night that she is stepping down to let her second in command, Norah Piehl, former deputy director, take over.
Facing the future
This year, the sky was not the only thing that was darker and heavier. For the first time, there was a major session on climate change, as well as panels on gun violence, #MeToo, social change, racism, the opioid crisis and many other weighty topics.
“This year, the Boston Book Festival encourages us all to look deeply in root causes of societal issues and to think hard about our own roles in both creating them and fixing them,” wrote Porter in the introduction to the book festival.
Why more doom and gloom than usual? Because that’s what society is thinking about, explained Hitt.
“A lot of it is what books have come out. We’re responding to what we see, and a lot of it is Doomsday,” she said.
But there is also a thread of hope woven into the book festival, including Steven Pinker, who argued that this really is the best of times.
“Book people are inherently optimistic,” Hitt said. “A lot of the rhetoric we’re hearing today is an attack on the community, and book fest is about feeling like you’re not alone.”
Or, as Deborah Porter put it, “because in the uncertain times, there’s nothing better than a good book.”
The bright side
There were also more the of the typical fun events usually associated with a book festival, like a dance party to start off the day; readings from fun, feminist historical fiction; advice columnist Meredith Goldstein talking about her new podcast; journalists that covered everything from wine forgery to black market dinosaur bones; and, of course, a couple of youth keynote speakers.
Kids Keynote with Kate DiCamillo
Writing, Kate DiCamillo said during her keynote address in Old South Sanctuary, is simultaneously hard and magical.
The Newbery Award-winning author of “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “The Tale of Despereaux,” the Mercy Watson series and many other books including her most recent, “Lousiana’s Way Home,” began her address with a story about digging and finding a bone in her backyard when she was young.
She rubbed the bone and wished and believed that her magical bone would bring her a pony. Imagine her surprise when she looked up and found one.
Not pictured in this true scene was the man waiting to take the horse back to the place it had escaped from. Because young Kate had believed, she had conjured a horse from nothing.
“And that’s what writing is,” she said. “Conjuring something from nothing.”
DiCamillo went on to explain that many writers talk about the hard work, which is true, but they leave out the part where it just comes into being. Writing is magic, she explained to the church full of wide-eyed children (and wide-eyed adults).
“It is a wish that comes true against all odds,” she said.
During her address, DiCamillo interacted with children as equals, not varying in eye contact or tone when switching from speaking with an adult or a child.
When one young woman stood up and asked where DiCamillo got her inspirations for her writing, DiCamillo responded by saying that she carries a notebook with her and eavesdrops on conversations and life around her.
“And you,” she said, bending down just a little to make full eye contact with the little girl. “You’re pretty inspiring, too.”
YA Keynote with Becky Albertali and Adam Silvera
Long before the previous session had ended, there was a line out the door of the Church of the Covenant for the YA keynote featuring Becky Albertali, author of bestseller “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (made into the movie “Love, Simon”), and Adam Silvera, author of bestseller “They Both Die at the End.”
Although Kayla Burton had already seen Albertali and Silvera before at bookstores and comic cons, she was still eagerly waiting in line to see them again.
“My sister got me into them a while ago, and I read all their books in two months,” Burton said.
Burton is a middle school language arts teacher at Hanson Middle School, so she loves how these books speak to teenagers—but also feels they carry value for adults.
“There’s just something hopeful about YA,” she said.
When Albertali and Silvera arrived, they walked past their fans and greeted them with smiles and positive energy. The two have recently co-written and released a book together called “What If It’s Us.”
Albertali and Silvera met online and quickly developed a friendship, mostly because of their similar tendency to overshare, said Albertali.
The book is a love story about two boys that have a missed connection and have to find each other. So far, they found on their book tour that the reactions have been mixed.
“This is the first time either of us has written a book that you can tell even from the cover that these boys are outright gay,” said Silvera.
During the audience Q&A, one young woman was passed the microphone, stood up in front of the full pews, thanked the authors and came out publicly for the first time. The audience clapped and cheered to show their encouragement and support. And the authors look stunned.
“Am I allowed to say ‘badass’ in a church? Because that was badass,” said Albertali to the young woman.
Many others took time to express gratitude to the two authors for adding to young LGBTQ representation, which caused Silvera to become emotional and explain that he never enjoyed reading until he could find stories of people like him and now he can pay that forward.
“For me, the best part is all the joy because I didn’t really get to do that when I was younger,” he said.