Reprinted with permission by the Commercial Appeal
by John Biefuss
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
That quote is attributed to (of course) Groucho Marx. We repeat it here because it reminds us (do we need reminding?) that books can be fun (even funny), in addition to being educational and informative. Their pages might be called the original flat screens, and they are as much a source of portable entertainment as any electronic device. They deserve to be celebrated, which is why Literacy Mid-South this week hosts its second annual Mid-South Book Festival, a literary addition to a September schedule already crowded with public events dedicated to music, film and fatty foods.
In addition to “book,” a key word from that Groucho quote is “outside.” The Book Festival runs Wednesday through Sept. 13, with panels, workshops and other events, mostly inside Playhouse on the Square and Circuit Playhouse, but its centerpiece is a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday “street fair” on Cooper, which will be blocked to traffic for the block between Union to Monroe. Demonstrating that reading and writing and other bookish pursuits can be enjoyed outdoors, the free street fair will be packed with family-friendly activities related to books, art and the exercise of the imagination. Organizers have high hopes, and expect 5,000 people to attend the festival overall, with much of that number arriving Saturday, where they will be able to interact with nationally recognized writers, as well as local favorites. (Last year’s Book Festival, at the Memphis Botanic Garden, drew some 3,000 visitors.)
“We’re big on sports in the South, television is popular, movies, so it’s nice for book lovers to have their day, especially since reading and writing often are so solitary,” said Memphis’ Barry Wolverton, a festival participant whose new fantasy-adventure novel “The Vanishing Island” is the inaugural installment in a trilogy published by Walden Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South, said the Book Festival “fills a vacuum” in the Memphis arts calendar. It also fills a geographical hole: Nashville, Little Rock and New Orleans already host major annual book fairs. He said the event — funded mainly with sponsorships and a $5,000 grant from Humanities Tennessee — is not so much a fundraiser as a way to promote the fun of reading in general.
“Part of the main focus is to create an atmosphere of community for authors and readers to come together in a shared space,” said Dean.
His organization is much needed in Shelby County, where 14 percent of adults read at third-grade level or lower, according to a 2003 federal study.
“It’s a relaxed, mellow festival, and a chance for us to show off what we do,” he said.
“What we do,” in this case, includes tutoring some 500 adult students annually, with the help of 250 volunteers. Literacy Mid-South also works with children, and provides books to needy households. (In March, the group, in partnership with Washington-based First Book, distributed some 500,000 books intended for beginning readers, ages 4-6.)
Also present will be many of the festival’s 100 (more or less) guest authors, a roster that includes both local and national writers of national best-sellers; children’s and Young Adult books; genre fiction; literary fiction; history and biography, and more.
A few of the recognizable names include mystery writer Ace Atkins; former Bee Gees drummer Dennis Bryon (“You Should Be Dancing: My Life with the Bee Gees”); historical nonfiction specialist Mary Caldwell Crosby (“The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History”); Eric Jerome Dickey, prolific author of best-selling page-turners; novelist Tom Franklin (“Smonk”); Mark Greaney (chosen by the Tom Clancy estate to continue the adventures of Jack Ryan); Janis F. Kearney, Clinton White House staffer for eight years; and NAACP Image Award finalist Dolen Perkins-Valdez (“Wench”).
Wolverton, 47, who works in creative advertising at Archer Malmo, also is the author of “Neversink,” another fantasy novel aimed at “middle grade” readers.
He said he enjoys writing for young people who are becoming “independent readers” for the first time, and choosing books about topics that appeal to them.
“Kids are a great audience because they don’t have preconceived ideas about what a book is supposed to be,” he said. “They’re also a ruthless audience — a brutally honest audience. They either respond to the story or they don’t.”
Former Memphian Mary McCoy, a Rhodes College graduate who now is a Los Angeles librarian, will be at the festival with her debut novel, “Dead To Me,” a Disney-Hyperion hardcover that she describes as “a film noir-inspired Young Adult mystery set during the golden age of Hollywood.”
She said the book has a Memphis connection in that its plot was inspired in part by Peter Taylor’s classic 1979 Memphis story “The Old Forest,” in which a young sleuth faces obstacles of class while investigating a mystery.
“I’ve done a number of book festivals around the country,” said McCoy, 38, returning to Memphis for the first time since 2003, “and I’ve been so impressed with the way this one’s been organized. You have popular writers, commercial writers, small-press poets, cookbook authors — pretty much any type of writer you can name. You can come to the festival for the food and the books, and maybe meet a great new children’s author while you’re there.”