When it comes to annual festivals, many people know exactly what to expect. They are familiar with the schedule of their favorite events and so can plan accordingly.
That is not the case with the annual Gaithersburg Book Festival. “Every year we have a whole new crop of authors,” said City of Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman who founded the festival. “When you look at the stories and the characters and all of the programs at last year’s festival, it’s all new (this year).”
Set for Saturday, May 20, on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall, this year’s festival will feature a record number of scribes, including more than 130 award-winning and best-selling authors. Even though it rained throughout the 2016 event, around 12,000 people still showed up. Ashman is hoping for clear skies this time around. “I think 20,000 is a great mark and I’d love to see us get there again,” he said.
Authors participate in individual and panel discussions and sign copies of their work. Nationally and internationally known writers set to appear include Laura Lippman, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who has written 20 crime novels; best-selling children’s author Doreen Cronin, multiple cookbook author Joan Nathan and journalist and former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, Sidney Blumenthal.
“Whether you actively read or not, it doesn’t matter,” Ashman said. “It’s not like we all get together and pull out books and it is silent. It’s about conversations. It’s about people hearing from some of the experts on history and writing and fiction and cookbooks and whatever the case is. It is about a conversation of dialogue with them. You are going to be in a conversation with some of the most brilliant people on earth on (certain topics).”
But the festival isn’t just about reading and hearing from outstanding authors. Organizers want to encourage those with a love of writing to hone and nurture their own skills. In a partnership with the Bethesda-based Writer’s Center, free 55-minute writing workshops will pair area professionals with participants. College juniors may want to take advantage of the Write Your Way into College workshop, while others can try their hand at programs such as Writing Children’s Books, Intro to Fiction, Mystery Writing and Haiku To Go.
The Children’s Village area will feature a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ and Harry Potter scavenger hunt throughout the festival, the Story House Trolley will offer books and activities about different modes of transportation and there will be a multilingual story time tent. The Imagination Station will hold multiple events including live performances of “Curious George” and “Little Red Hen,” a show by ventriloquist Val Smalkin, and a live on-stage podcast version of “Book Club for Kids.”
The village is intended to inspire kids to read. “I believe that reading is one of the great vessels for learning empathy and I think the more empathic we are as people, the better citizens we are, the better community we have. If you think about it, there is almost no more immediate way to get into the mind of somebody else, someone who is not you and understand why they do things and how they are feeling,” Ashman said. “I think it is also the vessel for wisdom and knowledge and experience and it always has been. It’s what defines civilization versus non-civilization. …I think (reading) is really, really important. I think it is important for this generation in particular to remember that there is more than just the very quick gratification we get from SnapChat or Facebook.
“There is a deeper sense of the world you can get through reading.”
Joking that the festival committee spends 364 days planning the annual event, Ashman said they do meet shortly after each festival to evaluate how everything went and review surveys.
Authors on tour or who have a publication date near the festival date are recruited. In January, organizers see who has said yes and determine what genres may need more authors and focus their efforts on those areas. “We try to round out the offerings so we can appeal to as many different tastes as possible,” Ashman said.
Ashman spends the months before the event reading the works of the appearing authors. “I fall in love with different books and different authors each time,” he said. A few weeks before the event, he said he was busy reading Nathan Hill’s “The Nix.” During a recent reading at Washington Grove Elementary School in Gaithersburg, he read a young adult book by Meg Madina and enjoyed how the Cuban American author infuses Latin culture into her characters. “It’s hard for me to tell you what is my favorite (book and author this year),” he said. “I am excited about all of it.”
The Gaithersburg Book Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 20, on the grounds of Gaithersburg City Hall, 31 South Summit Ave., Gaithersburg. Admission and parking are free, with shuttle service available from the Lakeforest Mall Transit Center at Lost Knife Road and Odendhal Avenue, and the Shady Grove Metro Station. Visit www.gaithersburgbookfestival.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.