Welcome to fall 2020: democracy at risk, a continuing pandemic, clashes in the streets, threatened food supplies, fires, a looming election, and skyrocketing anxiety as our cooped-up selves try to manage a cacophony of bad news. How to make sense of it all, and what to do? On Sunday, October 4th, the Bay Area Book Festival will showcase 22 world-renowned personalities who will share their knowledge and visions for a more sustainable future in a one day virtual mini-fest, Berkeley #UNBOUND. Our recommended reads for this September will introduce you to some of the brilliant minds we’re featuring this fall, in Berkeley #UNBOUND and beyond. We hope these titles comfort, inspire, and empower you to use your own voice and take action.
WHAT WE’RE READING – ADULT BOOKS
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-up Comedian by W. Kamau Bell
This autobiography by the man The New York Times called “the most promising new talent in political comedy in many years” is just as irreverent, brutally honest, and thought-provoking as you’d expect. Bell delves into his upbringing, the intersectionality between racism and sexism, the challenges of an interracial marriage, and his status as an unapologetic “blerd” (Black nerd) with a verve and depth that earned hearty praise from Shelf Awareness: “Awkward Thoughts is definitely entertaining, but it also invites readers to look through different eyes.”
On October 3, Bell will be showcasing his trademark wit and incisive commentary with Warriors coach and activist Steve Kerr in an exclusive conversation, “Politics, Race, and the State of Play in our Nation,” the kickoff keynote our October 4th virtual mini-fest, Berkeley #UNBOUND.
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
This brilliant 1972 satirical novel by UCB Professor Emeritus and MacArthur fellow Reed is a favorite of Thomas Pynchon’s. It was reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2017, dazzling a whole new generation of readers with its prescient, blazing take on race and America’s ethos. (Its description of America as “mercurial, restless, violent … the traveling salesman who can sell the world a Brooklyn Bridge every day, can put anything over on you” may remind you of a certain someone). Says The Guardian, “We can read [Reed’s] work now with a similar urgency to what its first readers might have felt.”
In these times of profound reckoning around issues of race, equity, and America’s soul, we need Reed’s vision and singular perspective more than ever. Hear him and other brilliant literary fabulists expound on where we can go from here in Berkeley #UNBOUND’s virtual conversation, “Writing a New World Into Existence: Lessons from Literary Futurism,” on Sunday, October 4th.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
Macdonald dazzled critics and readers with H is for Hawk, her poignant meditation on falconry and sublimating personal grief. From songbirds atop skyscrapers to vanishing orioles in forests, her latest, the essay collection Vesper Flights, is also buoyed by the enchanting spell it weaves around all things winged, rooted, and of the earth and sky. At a time when the natural world is under siege, Macdonald shows us the wonders that persist, and redoubles our resolve to preserve them and respect their mystery. As the Wall Street Journal raved, “Dazzling…Ms. Macdonald reminds us how marvelously unfamiliar much of the nonhuman world remains to us, even as we continue to diminish it.”
On October 6th, learn from Macdonald in “Poised to Soar,” a conversation with poet Camille Dungy on what we can learn from nature’s limitless secrets.
WHAT WE’RE READING – CHILDREN’S AND YA BOOKS
Everyone’s Awake by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Shawn Harris, ages 5-8
“Will we ever settle? Will we ever sleep? Or will we be reduced into a shambling sleepless heap? … I think we may just become FOREVER EVERYONE AWAKE” Not the lines that assure parents of the merits of Meloy’s goodnight routine and true: it’s a rick rollicking ride he takes us on in pitch-perfect, silly but clever rhymes. Dad bakes bread, Mom fixes the roof, Grandpa and the dog throw darts… Through all that Harris’s illustrations leap off the page in a joyous celebration of color. But it works and not only that, this is the most delightful bedtime story I have read in a long time. Children will giggle their way to sweet and silly dreams. Added bonus: find the frog that is hidden on every page.
Equality Girls and the Purple Reflecto-Ray by Aya de Leon, ages 7-10
Wouldn’t you sometimes wish your angry stares turned your adversaries into pillars of salt? Or better still into exactly that what they wish upon you? Fourth grader Daniela Santiago, budding feminist and warrior for equality gets just that wish fulfilled. An accident and a touch of sci-fi land her with superpowers. When she meets inequality, she gets so mad that purple laser rays shoot from her eyes and mean boys get a taste of their own medicine. Can you imagine what happens when the president refuses to sign the Gender Equality Bill and dares to come down to judge a tween beauty contest?
De Leon’s middle grade debut is funny and subversive. At a time when the amplification of the stories, perspectives, and interior worlds of girls of color is more urgent and important than ever, she gives us a fierce and sparklingly genuine protagonist, who deals with sexist stereotypes in wittily, healthy ways. Catch her in Berkeley #UNBOUND’s virtual conversation, Writing a New World Into Existence: Lessons from Literary Futurism.
Ink for the Beloved (The Tattoo Teller Series) by R.C. Barnes, ages 14 and up
R.C. Barnes first book of her YA Tattoo Teller series, Ink for the Beloved is a love letter to her adolescent years in Berkeley. Barnes’s heroine is 16-year-old Bess, an amateur detective but also a tattoo teller. She knows the truth behind a tattoo by just touching it; the ink speaks to her. Her mercurial mother is a legendary tattoo artist but the people who come to her for inks are often shady and some have murder in their hearts, causing trouble for Bess and her little sister Echo.
Barnes weaves a story that pulls you in from the first pages. Bess immediately captures your heart with her fearlessness, her confusion, her defiance, her tenderness, especially toward Echo. Be ready for a story that slips under your skin. Barnes’s gorgeous writing will make you want more. Luckily, this is just the first book in the series! R.C. Barnes will be one of the featured authors in Berkeley #UNBOUND’s youth program, Unleash Your Creative Superpowers with National Novel Writing Month.
Resilience: “The ability of a substance or object to spring back easily into shape.” The Oxford English Dictionary could have been describing this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Although the beloved festival only announced its cancellation due to COVID-19 safety concerns on March 11th, festival director Cherilyn Parsons and her indomitable team have already developed an online alternative: Bay Area Book Festival #Unbound. The restructured event will feature several lecture tracks: voting rights (the original headliner for this year’s festival), health and wellness, and the power of literature during times of crisis.
Beginning on May 1st, virtual attendees can browse the Festival’s website to access #Unbound’s stimulating programming. Live Zoom workshops include “Vote by Mail,” a voting rights discussion with New York Times editorial board member Jesse Wegman, author of Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College and Amber McReynolds, co-author of the book When Women Vote. “Restoring Democracy,” an additional panel with Carol Anderson, Jeff Fleischer, and Elizabeth Rusch, educates young adults about the American election cycle, why voting matters, and how they can participate.
Health and wellness highlights include a panel on end-of-life planning with local COVID-19 expert Dr. Sunitra Puri and Shoshana Berger and BJ Miller, coauthors of A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, as well as “Parenting in a Time of Crisis,” featuring psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Madeline Levine.
#Unbound’s literary lineup delves into diverse topics from mysteries to children’s creative writing and women’s literature. “Queens of Mystery: Writer-to-Writer with Rachel Howzell Hall and Meg Gardiner” is the first installment in the festival’s writer-to-writer conversation series, which will continue through the end of June. “Ready, Set, Write: NaNoWriMo Middle Grade & Young Adult Challenge with the Bay Area Book Festival” is a one-hour challenge for young creative writers designed to help them finish the first draft of a novel. The Festival’s year-round Women’s Lit program will debut its virtual version, Women’s Lit Lunch Hour, with a conversation between novelist Chelsea Bieker and Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress.
Streaming events through Zoom or posting interviews to YouTube might seem straightforward enough, but the Bay Area Book Festival is aiming higher than spur-of-the-moment uploads. Director Cherilyn Parsons recently paused from her flurry of planning to chat with Capital Books about what to expect from #Unbound, as well as what emotional support readers and writers can offer each other during the COVID-19 crisis.
Edited excerpts from the conversation appear below.
Capital Books: Your cancellation statement came out pretty recently. Can you tell us about everything that went into the original festival?
Cherilyn Parsons: Yes, it came out March 11th, and we were supposed to go live with the schedule on March 20th. We start planning the year’s festival in the previous July actually, because you have to book the authors that far in advance. We were watching the news, and were hugely concerned about public health, and not wanting to risk anyone. We’re a nonprofit festival and this is a public service, and the last thing we would want to do is create any kind of risk. At first, a few days before the full cancellation, we had decided internally to cancel the outdoor festival. We have a big outdoor fair, which has a San Francisco Chronicle stage which seats about 650 people, we have a big children’s area, then we have a couple hundred literary exhibitors, and then we have a bunch of literary programs which are indoors. First we canceled the outdoor fair, but it became clear that we just had to cancel [the festival]. But we wanted to make sure the authors heard from us before they heard about it on Twitter. Same thing with the exhibitors. There’s a lot of constituencies: our board, major donors, the venues. It’s like a thousand people directly involved in putting on a festival like ours. These are our partners, and we wanted to communicate to everyone.
Capital Books: Your original cancellation statement pointed participants toward the 2021 festival, so it’s amazing you’re developing an online festival on such short notice. Can you tell us what to expect?
CP: We previously had 265 authors and 130 programs, and there’s no way we can do all of that online. We respect the authors so much that we want to give them a really solid platform and high production value. So rather than putting two people up in front of laptops with Zoom and then slap it up on YouTube, we wanted to prepare them and make sure of the lighting and sound, so we have now a full system and platform for doing high-quality production for the sessions. We’ll launch it on May 2nd and 3rd, and we’ll likely do one live event on Saturday night that would a fundraiser, but I don’t know all the details yet. We’ll probably do the first program on the Friday night before the festival weekend [the 1st], then we’ll have a kids’ program on Saturday morning, then the fundraising top-billed, author head-liner event that Saturday night, then another kids’ event on Sunday morning, then another event on Sunday night. And then the plan is to go to Tuesdays and Thursdays, probably around 7pm, festival events, and then we’ll do kids’ events. And we’re trying to figure out still the best days, whether like a weekday, or a Sunday morning is a best, but we’ll have at least one kids’ program a week as well. We’re planning to continue through July at least.
CB: Something that stood from last year’s festival was your author interviews that were led by kids and high schoolers. Is there still going to be a chance for kids to do that this year?
CP: Absolutely! We would welcome engagement on that front. So there are these four areas of the Festival this year: There’s the Voting Rights, Wellness, the pure Literary, and then the fourth area is Children’s. And we are looking at the same kind of thing that we were going to do at the Festival, which is picture book writers doing story times with the kids and little performances. And then [we’re going] to have young people interview authors, middle-grade and YA. So exactly the same thing.
CB: How do you think readers and writers can support each other during this time? We’re used to FaceTiming friends and family, and many of us have attended the Festival in person. But this whole idea of connecting with your favorite author online, how do you see facilitating that inspiration?
CP: Books themselves seem like a very solitary, interior kind of experience. Usually it’s just you engaging with the book. When the writer is writing the book, it’s just the writer delving deeply into their own heart, soul, mind, what they care about, and then they channel that and put that on the page. They can write the book and read the book at different times and different places but you have this sort of amazing connection between two human beings: the writer and the reader. In a sense it’s already a little bit of virtual reality. You’re entering into this space, and yes, the “screen” is your imagination, and yet that’s sort of what reading is like. When we bring the author into a virtual space and the audience is there, it’s sort of “unbound,” to use our term for the festival this year, in that you can ask questions of the author in real time. And I think we’ll get to hear some of the magic that went into creating this book: how they wrote it, what they were thinking about, what some of the challenges were, what the inspirations were. And the fact that it is sort of live does give you a feeling of participating. For example, you can also do that chat on the right-hand side…I love those! It really creates a sense of community of people who are watching. So in many ways, the online experience offers something the in-person doesn’t offer. Even if we have a physical festival, which of course we hope we do, we’re planning to do this again next year.
Cherilyn Parsons may fill her answers with the pronoun “we,” but it’s obvious that the Bay Area Book Festival #Unbound owes its lightning conception to her own resilient innovation. This same optimistic creativity led her to resign from her leadership role at the Center for Investigative Reporting and found the Bay Area Book Festival in 2015. Although this would have only been its sixth year, the Festival had already ballooned to 25,000 attendees, 250 authors, and 200 exhibitors as of 2019. This year’s guest list included literary stars such as Saeed Jones, Rebecca Solnit, Pico Iyer, Garth Greenwell, Lidia Yuknavitch, Percival Everett, and Terry Tempest Williams, several of whom will still appear in #Unbound’s online panels. If we can learn anything from Parsons and her resilient attitude, it’s that sheltering at home doesn’t have to be restrictive. We can reimagine ourselves and rediscover literature from inside our increasingly-too-familiar living spaces. And logging into the Bay Area Book Festival #Unbound is a fabulous place to start.
Bay Area Book Festival. “About.” Retrieved from: https://www.baybookfest.org/about/
Drake, Julia. Email Correspondence. 15 April 2020.
Parsons, Cherilyn. Personal Interview. 6 April 2020.