Nantucket Book Festival -June 2016

by: Caroline R. Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

As the NANTUCKET BOOK FESTIVAL approaches its fifth year, a good comparison might not be with other literary festivals but with the public library where a great deal of the festival takes place. Egalitarian. Free. And a place to commune with that mysterious moment that the act of reading guides us into.

“Everyone told us when we started that we have to charge (for the festival),” said Meghan Blair-Valero, one of the festival’s co-founders. “Most of the events are free. To have stayed true to that spirit five years in has been a real badge of honor for me.”

Only nine of the 38 events offered this year – the festival runs June 17-19 – require the purchase of a ticket. If reading is a kind of metaphysical conversation between authors and readers, the festival provides a chance for an actual conversation.

“The point of the festival is to get writers and readers rubbing shoulders with each other,” said Annye Camara, a member of the festival’s literary committee. The “Authors in Bars” event embodies this concept by providing readers the opportunity to have a beer or wine with the author and share with them what the book meant to you or ask that question you have always wanted to ask them.

Through such events, the festival is able to bring back the communal aspect of exchanging ideas across distance, time and culture that sits at the core of literature.

“Books really are a person-to-person activity,” Richard Burns, also on the festival’s literary committee, said. “They are one person speaking through another.”

One of those events this year will be a Father’s Day brunch at the White Elephant with former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, whose latest book of poems, “The Rain in Portugal,” will come out this fall.

Anthony Marra, New York Times best-selling author of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” will return this year to discuss his latest book “The Tsar of Love and Techno” in the Atheneum’s Great Hall on the first day of the festival.

Also on that day, journalist Michael Schulder will interview author Emma Sky. Schulder interviewed Azar Nafisi (“Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “The Republic of Imagination”) at past festivals.

“He crafts a conversation with an author that is so enjoyable to listen to,” Camara said.

One of the highly-anticipated events for younger readers is the children’s breakfast with Newbury Award-winning author Jack Gantos June 18. Gantos is a returning author who the committee is very excited to have back for the festival’s five-year milestone.

“He is really passionate about encouraging kids to write, keep a journal, keep track of their thoughts,” Camara said.

For poetry enthusiasts, four poets – Collins, Mark Doty, Richard Nickelson and Valzyhna Mort – will be at this year’s festival.

Burns is particularly excited about Mort, whom he first heard at the Galway Book Festival in 2005. He remembers the audience being “enthralled by her,” despite having to read many of her poems in Belarusian because she did not have time to translate them.

The festival’s closing event, “Book to Film:

Words Take Flight,” will feature island author Nathaniel Philbrick; Marlon James, recent recipient of the Man Booker Award; and naturalist writer Diane Ackerman.

Philbrick’s book “The Heart of the Sea” was adapted into a film directed by Ron Howard and released in theaters last winter. Ackerman’s book “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is also being made into a film, which is due to be released later this year. HBO has optioned James’ award-winning novel “History of Seven Killings” to make into a TV series.

“It’s a nice way to pass the baton from the book to the film festival,” said Maddie Hjulstrom, the book festival’s new executive director.

With festivals on Nantucket celebrating film, wine, yoga – even bright yellow, trumpetshaped flowers – it was somewhat surprising to Wendy Hudson, Mary Haft and Blair-Valero that there was not one celebrating books. The need for a book festival was the main topic of discussion among them at another island festival of sorts – the 2011 Nantucket Project.

Each of the festival’s co-founders had their own close connection to books. Hudson, as an independent bookseller, Haft as the vice president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and Blair-Valero as a book enthusiast despite her struggles with mild dyslexia.

The common thread, however, was not merely their appreciation for the written word, but the power it held to transform lives, especially those of young people.

“How we tell and shape our own narratives, that’s how we understand the world around us,” Haft said.

For Blair-Valero, the desire to expose students to authors as well as their works was deeply personal. As a student with a reading disability, meeting authors completely changed her relationship with books.

“The reason I was a reader was because of the authors that came to my school as a kid,” she said. “Understanding that writers are real people and connecting with them in some way makes a huge difference for students who do not consider themselves readers.”

On top of the young adult and children’s authors that the festival brings to the island each year, it also runs three programs within the island’s public schools and its two independent schools, the Nantucket New School and Nantucket Lighthouse School: PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools, Visiting Author, and the Young Writer Award.

The Writers in Schools program is made possible through a partnership between the festival and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

“The PEN/Faulkner model brings a work of contemporary literature into the classroom, incorporated into school curriculum,” Haft said. “The book is given as a gift to all students; then read, studied, discussed, followed by the author’s visit to the classroom. This is a powerful model, proved to be an inspirational engine, as evidenced by teachers’ and students’ responses.”

This year, “Time of the Locust” author Morowa Yejidé visited island schools in April.

“When writers of Yejidé’s caliber actually visit our classrooms and talk to students about their storytelling process it brings to life the power of writing. Students can see that putting words on paper is a personal and extremely rewarding experience,” Nantucket High School English teacher Anne Phaneuf said of the program.

Hudson, Haft and Blair-Valero attribute the festival’s success to the work of passionate volunteers, especially in its first year of the festival.

“It was a 40-hour-a-week job in that first year. It was a lot of work. If it hadn’t been a labor of love, we all would have walked away,” Blair-Valero said.

“This festival has been our heart and soul: blood, bone and marrow,” Haft said.

This year the festival has had a lot of assistance from Hjulstrom, its new executive director. With over 15 years experience at Barnes & Noble managing author visits to its stores, Hjulstrom is well-suited to the role. She first began volunteering with the festival in 2014. After reading about the 2013 festival, a week after it ended, she immediately signed up to volunteer for the following year.

Hjulstrom stepped in as the festival’s author liaison for the next two festivals, managing all travel logistics and communications with the authors as well as sending out newsletters and press releases about the festival.

“Bringing Maddie in has been most critical and necessary step as we continue into growing this festival,” Haft said. ///

Caroline Stanton is a Nantucket native and freelance writer. She is an occasional contributor to Nantucket Today.

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