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5 things to expect at the hybrid 2021 Texas Book Festival

Michael Barnes
Austin 360

It will be a Texas Book Festival like no other.

Since the first fest in 1996, the mostly free event that benefits literacy statewide has weathered thunderstorms, profound changes to its physical footprint, less obvious shifts in political and literary tastes, and, after 9/11, an aversion to air travel, which did not keep celebrated authors away from Austin.

In 2020, the festival went all virtual because of the pandemic.

This year, organizers hoped for and were planning a mostly in-person fest. A third surge in COVID-19 cases, however, transformed it instead into a mostly virtual event, with two primary in-person events at Symphony Square and the Austin Central Public Library.

More:Texas Book Festival announces full author lineup for 2021

Clemente Guzman created the art for the 2021 Texas Book Festival poster. Look carefully: It includes all sorts of contemporary and historical Texas visual and literary references.

The free fest starts Oct. 23 and runs through Oct. 31 (the Teen Book Festival is Oct. 23-24).

The always well-attended First Edition Literary Gala — a fundraiser — has been pushed back to an in-person party on Feb. 11 after 2020's virtual version.

"We hope that people will take advantage of all that the festival has to offer," fest director Lois Kim says. "The takeaway is that the Texas Book Festival continues to evolve and adapt to meet the moment, the year, the future, to reach as many people as want to participate, within and beyond Texas' borders."

Here's what to expect:

1. Literary stars online

Perhaps the biggest thrill of the annual fest is the chance to meet your favorite authors and ask them questions.

Writers tend to be good at this, because no matter how many books they sell, they don't interact with their readers often enough. In fact, they sometimes look surprised that anyone showed up, in part because, unlike performing arts, say, they don't usually see their audience as they enjoy their work.

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For the second year in a row, almost all of these interactions will take place online.

There's no paucity of talent.

In July, the fest announced a first round of guests with headliners such as Rumaan Alam, Sandra Cisneros, Mary Gaitskill, R.J. Palacio, Raj Patel, Amor Towles and Colson Whitehead.

The full author slate, revealed in September, includes Oscar Cásares, Chandler Baker, Ann Cleeves, Tamron Hall, Nathan Harris, Louis Menand and Sam Quinones.

Kim: "We encourage people to take the opportunity to engage with our festival authors during the live Q-and-A's that follow the moderated conversations."

2. Kids and a Lit Crawl at Symphony Square

This is not a big place. But it is outdoors. And it is quite charming. 

The outdoor amphitheater perches on both sides of Waller Creek. The plaza was put together in the 1970s from historic buildings saved from urban renewal. Austin Symphony uses it mostly for kids programs.

Children's writers and illustrators David Bowles, Don Tate, Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey, Bavu Blakes, Nicholas Solis, and Haven Iverson will gather for an in-person picture book party at Symphony Square on Oct. 30. The author events start at 10:45 a.m., with the last one at 4 p.m. Each one requires an RSVP to attend (crowds will be limited). See the schedule and RSVP at www.texasbookfestival.org.

That evening, the fest's popular Lit Crawl will have two events at Symphony Square: Scary Stories to Tell in a Bar with author Maurice Chammah and Austin Bat Cave (7 p.m.) and Lit Crawl Against Humanity with author Tomás Morín (8 p.m.). There's also an American Short Fiction Happy Hour at 5 p.m. at Cheer Up Charlie's. All three Lit Crawl events require an RSVP in advance, as do two virtual Lit Crawl events on Oct. 28. All on the book fest website.

The Central Public Library, with its signature grackle clock, will used for one day of in-person events during the Texas Book Festival. The fest is mostly virtual again for 2021 after the summer COVID-19 surge fueled by the delta variant.

3. Adults mingle at Central Public Library

The gathering places at the Austin Central Public Library are spacious. So literary fans who happen to be adults will have some room to mingle. (Be sure to wander outdoors into the plaza to see its new mosaics that depict Latina leaders.)

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Among the adult authors expected in person at the Central Library on Oct. 31: José Ralat, Marisol Cortez, Wes Ferguson, Simon Han, Kathy Blackwell, Maria Hinojosa, Bill Minutaglio and Mimi Swartz.

Tickets are limited and like the Symphony Square events, an RSVP in advance is required for sessions, which start at 10 a.m. and go through 4 p.m. Streaming options are available for these adult sessions.

4. No sales tents or cooking demos

Most years, the Texas Book Festival turns into an autumnal fair for bibliophiles. Yes, some key speakers and panels can be heard inside the state Capitol. Yet the crowds tend to migrate out to the streets nearby, where all sorts of wonders await them. (The plan for 2021 had been to be all outside, before that summer surge.)

BookPeople usually operates a large portable bookstore that features the works of all officially featured authors. Nearby another large tent is set up for demos from some of the country's best cookbook authors. 

A series of smaller tents house booths set up by publishers large and small. This is where I usually spend most of my time. One gets to know the publishing houses, especially the regional ones, better. And some of those publishers make their biggest sales during the fest.

Not this year again. The loss of this festive atmosphere will be as disappointing to some book lovers as missing their favorite authors in person.

5. A virtual upside: Watch events later

In the Zoom Era, many conversational exchanges worth remembering are recorded. In addition to that digital state of affairs, festival leaders promise to produce high-quality recordings of the non-virtual events.

"We are lucky to have Symphony Square and Austin Public Library as partners to help make the in-person programming possible," Kim says. "We are making it a priority to record in-person sessions so that everyone will be able to access the sessions for free, either to watch live or catch the broadcast later."

Schedule and plans are subject to change, so follow the latest news at the Texas Book Festival website and at austin360.com.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.