Everywhere Book Fest started with a cancellation.
Austin author Christina Soontornvat was commiserating with writer Ellen Oh, the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books. The two were scheduled to be on a panel together at the Tucson Festival of Books to showcase their new middle-grade books. But on March 9, as COVID-19 spread, the event was one of several literary festivals shuttered due to the virus.
"Hey twitter(sic)," Oh posted that afternoon. "(Soontornvat) and I were bummed about not going to (Tucson) and wondered what we could do to maybe have a book festival online. … Would people be interested in a virtual book festival?"
Authors, illustrators and librarians popped up immediately with replies. "I’m into this!" typed Samira Ahmed, whose third book, "Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know," was due for an April release. "OMG yes. With three March books and multiple cancelled appearances, I would love this and am happy to help out however I can," responded Kate Messner ("Chirp").
That resounding chorus of "Yes!" eventually led to Everywhere, a free virtual book festival for young people that launches May 1. More than 95 authors and illustrators are taking part, including current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds ("Stamped") and former ambassadors Jacqueline Woodson ("Harbor Me") and Gene Luen Yang ("Dragon Hoops").
The lineup also includes, by design, authors who are both marking their debuts and those who are more established, including "Dear Martin" and "Clean Getaway" writer Nic Stone, who keynotes the fest along with Yang; Newbery medalist Erin Entrada Kelly ("Hello, Universe"); and best-selling "Hearts Unbroken" author Cynthia Leitich Smith.
"It was happening pretty much in real time in front of your eyes," explained Soontornvat, whose "A Wish in the Dark" is a Thai-inspired retelling of "Les Miserables." "The outpouring of enthusiasm and support for it was so overwhelming. People were feeling out of control and wired, nervous and scared … we realized this was a real need to take action for authors and booksellers and for people to come together and celebrate books."
Soontornvat reached out to author Melanie Conklin ("Every Missing Piece"), a former product designer, and together with Oh ("The Dragon Egg Princess") organized a team of 50 volunteer authors and artists who deployed parallel skills like web design, writing press releases and arranging for streaming technology.
By mid-March, Everywhere Book Fest had a name, a logo and a website, and was taking panel submissions. Organizers received more than 200 proposals and had to winnow that down to 30. The fest will include both live sessions and pre-recorded segments.
"We were very clear that ‘You have to make it fun,’" Soontornvat says. "This cannot be a bunch of talking heads sitting there and talking about their books. The panels need to be making use of the virtual platform in an unusual way."
The result includes sessions like "Picture Book Draw Off," in which picture book illustrators Raúl the Third, Tom Lichtenheld and Chloe Bristol will take prompts from viewers and create 60- or 90-second drawings based on those ideas, or "Plot on the Spot," in which a quartet of middle-grade authors, including Stuart Gibbs of "Spy School" and "Last Kids on Earth" creator Max Brallier, use improv to create a novel’s story line.
Young-adult authors Natalia Sylvester, Ismee Williams, I.W. Gregorio and Mayra Cuevas will play a live truth or dare game and take audience questions, and middle-grade authors Mae Respicio, Jessica Kim and Debbi Michiko Florence share what’s in their characters’ lunchboxes in "Middle Grade Lunch Bunch."
The online format also offers an opportunity for candid, personal moments that feel very different from the typical festival setting, Soontornvat notes. In the "Capturing a Life: Writing and Art about Real People" session, viewers will see disability-rights activist Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins’ daily life at home in a motorized wheelchair before hearing from picture-book biographer Annette Bay Pimentel ("All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Disabilities Changed Everything") and artist Gina Klawitter.
"Jacqueline Woodson is taking a video in her backyard, and it feels like you’re sitting there with her. Meg Medina is talking to us from her (home). It’s that personal connection that we’re going for," Soontornvat says.
Fest organizers also paid heed to issues that have long been championed in children’s literature circles. The author lineup is deliberately diverse, both overall and in its creation of panels such as "Home and Belonging: Migrant Stories in Latinx Middle Grade Literature," "Out of the Box: Exploring the Boundlessness of Black Girlhood" and the feminist-themed "Write #HerStory."
All live and most pre-recorded sessions will be signed in ASL, and the fest has teamed up with more than 50 independent bookstores as its sales partners, including Austin’s BookPeople. Sponsorships from several publishers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Google Play have kept the fest free and will support book donations to kids through We Need Diverse Books.
Everywhere Book Fest’s whirlwind creation mirrors the near-immediate pivot of children’s book creators to online ways of connecting with readers. Writers and illustrators have created a plethora of online read-alouds, tutorials and at-home learning resources. And other literary festivals have gone digital as well, including YALLWEST, rechristened YALLSTAYHOME and launching Saturday at yallwest.com with a lineup that includes organizers Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz, as well as "Miss Peregrine" author Ransom Riggs and "The Hate U Give" writer Angie Thomas.
Soontornvat says she hopes the virtual connections fostered during the shutdown continue post-pandemic.
"There’s nothing that can replace an in-person connection. In other ways, we’re making this content accessible in ways we never could have achieved before," she says. "I took it for granted how many people would love to go to a book festival, but maybe because of where they live, they weren’t ever able to do that before now. So I really do hope that when everything gets back to normal, that we remember what the power of all of this is."