Virginia Festival of the Book (a review)

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Virginia Festival of the Book, what to know before you go

I first heard about the Virginia Festival of the Book a few years ago and knew I’d have to go someday. So, when I was invited to attend and review it by Visit Charlottesville, I was thrilled. Finally, my bookish self and my travel self got to do something together!

(I don’t have multiple personalities, just multiple interests — in case you wonder.)

Planning for the trip was a bear! As much as I tried to plan ahead, I really couldn’t figure out how to approach the festival. With more than 250 events over 70 venues in Charlottesville, there’s a lot to consider. Throw in the wide variety of genres covered at the festival, plus workshops and special guest appearances, and wow! There’s a lot to consider.

Undeterred, I took my “skeleton plan,” and headed off to Charlottesville. I’m not shy and knew I would get tips from experienced festival-goers. And… I was right!

About Charlottesville’s Festival of the Book

Lit Fair at the Omni Hotel, Photo credit: Pat Jarrett/VFH Staff. Used with permission

Virginia Festival of the Book is held in Charlottesville, Virginia every March. Authors attend to participate in panel discussions, sharing their expertise with attendees.

Admission to most events, except special luncheons, receptions and special events, is free. Book discussions cover every genre and every level of reader. Saturday is family day at the festival, offering a number of kid friendly events the whole family can enjoy.

More than 30,000 people attended the festival in 2017. Some of those make it an annual ritual!

One group of six girlfriends said they come from all over the United States to meet up at the festival every year. They spend months planning which events to attend, making restaurant reservations and planning free time. As one lady put it, “It’s my one break from kids, kitchen and chaos.”

Another couple I met said they go every year, hoping to discover a new author to follow. I joked that they must have a large library at home, to which he replied, “Our whole house is becoming a library.” Apparently, I read them right.

Authors and attendees get the chance to talk between events. I met Louis Sell, author of From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Fall of the USSR, at the information center for the festival (in the Omni Hotel).

We were both heading to a panel discussion on the Civil War and had some time before it started. Stopping for coffee, we chatted about the festival. I got to learn a bit of background about him and what inspired him to write his book. That coffee break provided an opportunity for me to learn about the Soviet Union (and its demise) from someone who was there. Our conversation lingered with me — enough that I decided to attend his talk and learn a bit more about Communism. It was a well-attended talk, and quite interesting!

Those interactions — the group of friends, the couple who discover together, and the author — all inspired me in some way.

And that is what this festival is about. Yes, books. But, so much more. It’s about the discussion of ideas — often from diverse perspectives.

The adventure isn’t one of physical extremes, but of thought, perspectives and dialogue.

Family day at the festival

Storytime Marathon, Photo Credit: Peter Hedlundt/VFH Staff. Used with permission

Saturday is family day at the festival with a number of activities planned geared toward young readers. Some to enjoy include:

  • Annual Kids’ Book Swap: Bring gently used children’s books and trade for new-to-you books. The event takes place in the children’s area at the library from 10 a.m. to noon. I was impressed by the organization, safety measures and friendliness of the staff.
  • Storytime for younger kids,
  • Wild About Reading, which takes place at the Virginia Discovery Museum on the Downtown Mall.
  • Middle Grade Fiction panel discussions. Last year, I sat in on this event not quite sure what to expect. Three first time authors, clearly passionate about their calling to write for younger readers, shared how their books came to be. They talked about their education, how the story came to be, and the process of writing. Several students attended the discussion, and the authors answered their questions first! Awesome. (If you need a book for a middle schooler, I highly recommend The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish. I loved it. Ellie loved it, exclaiming, “Dad, you HAVE to read this book” the moment she finished it. She also LOVES that it is signed by the author!
  • Story time for young kids, and
  • The annual Storytime Marathon

Throughout the festival, authors also spend a lot of time in area schools talking with students about literature. They give back to the community!

Tips for attending the Virginia Festival of the Book

Panel discussion at Virginia Festival of the Book.
Photo credit: Pat Jarrett/VFH Staff. Used with permission

The hardest part for first time attendees is figuring out how to plan your visit. These tips, from my personal experience and from people who attend every year, should help.

Use the Festival of the Book website to plan your trip. Note any special events that require purchased tickets which sell out fast. Special events might include a talk with “more famous” authors or a plated luncheon with limited seating.

At the website, use these tips to plan your trip.

  1. Search by topic: Explore the 30+ topics covered to find events you’ll enjoy. Searching by topic helps you narrow down the events to topics that really interest you — or that challenge you to think deeper (like the Communism discussion I attended).
  2. Check time and location: Once you know which types of book discussions you want to attend, look at the venues and times to map out each day.
  3. Add 15 minutes to your travel time to have time to park and get a seat. Adjust your schedule until it “fits.” You might want to attend two talks that aren’t geographically compatible. If so, look at nearby alternates to each to find a substitute that also interests you. The less time you spend driving around, the easier it is. One lady said she attends all events in the morning at one area, then moves to another later in the day, etc so she’s not “wasting time” driving around.
  4. Be flexible, though. You might meet someone who introduces you to a topic you hadn’t considered — exactly what happened to me when I met Louie. Soviet relations sounded so boring until I talked to him. But, I attended the session and learned not just about the fall of the USSR but also the history of Communism in the United States.
  5. Plan to buy books! I didn’t expect to buy many books, but I came home with 10. YEP! I enjoyed every single one, too. Stick around to get a signed copy! My kids were thrilled to get those.
  6. Ask questions. The authors who attend are passionate about their topics. They want to talk with you about the content, the writing process, their inspiration, etc.
  7. Take the kids! Kids can learn so much at the Virginia Festival of the Book! The whole festival is suitable for middle elementary and above. Family day events include younger kids. You can even arrange childcare for part of the time.
  8. Engage with others! Maybe you’ve noticed in this post — I met so many wonderful people at the festival. Talk with others. Go to dinner. Grab a cup of coffee. Keep the discussion going after an event. Share ideas!

At the Civil War panel discussion, one of the authors paused mid-sentence. Silence descended on the room as he looked across the audience. Then he asked, “Where are the young people?” His question hung there for a moment. Then he stated that if we don’t include young people in the discussions, how will we learn from our past mistakes. Profound.

Another man, who I met outside the toy store as we tried to figure out their “riddle of the day,” said he brought his grandson, a middle schooler, and was surprised not to see more kids there. We both agreed that kids could learn a lot if they attended.

Take the kids!