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The National Book Festival Celebrates Reading for Everyone


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.

Today we tell about the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. which was held on September twenty-sixth. For nine years this outdoor event organized by the Library of Congress has brought readers, writers and illustrators to the nation's capital. Its aim is to celebrate a love of learning through books.

This year, more than one hundred thirty thousand people gathered on the National Mall to hear top writers and poets talk about their work.

This year's National Book Festival included more than seventy novelists, historians, poets and mystery writers. But some of the most excited visitors of all were the children who came to see their favorite writers.

One favorite writer who attended the festival was Judy Blume. She has sold more than eighty million copies of her popular books for young people. These include "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret", "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" and "Blubber." Her books deal with difficult subjects such as religion, divorce, death, love and sex in a way that young readers can understand. Mizz Blume has also written books for adults.

At the festival, Judy Blume read to a group of children from her own favorite book as a child, "Madeline" by Ludwig Bemelmans. She explained why she chose this book.

JUDY BLUME: "I was afraid of everything. My mother said I was afraid of my own shadow. But I really wanted to be strong and brave like Madeline. So she was my hero, so here is my favorite book from when I was growing up."

Judy Blume is one of the most popular children's book writers. But she is also one of the most banned writers. Since the nineteen eighties, several libraries and parents' groups have tried to ban her books. She has since become a fierce supporter of literary freedom and is part of several organizations that fight censorship.

Her most recent children's book is called "Friend or Fiend? with the Pain and the Great One." It tells about the adventures of a brother and sister, Jake and Abigail.

Rick Riordan was another popular writer who spoke at the festival.

RICK RIORDAN: "My name is Rick Riordan, I write for children and young adults. I write a series about a character named Percy Jackson who is a modern day kid living in New York City, but finds out that like the old Greek heroes Hercules, Perseus, Theseus, all of those guys, Percy's dad is actually a Greek god. And, the Greek gods are still alive and well and living in New York."

We asked Mr. Riordan what influenced him to write this series. He said reading to his two sons about ancient Greece was one reason. But his professional background was another influence.

RICK RIORDAN: "My background is a teacher. I taught young adults from, say, age eleven through thirteen for about fifteen years. And I taught them history, I taught them literature. And, mythology was always one of my favorite subjects and one of my students' favorite subjects as well."

Mr. Riordan says there was only one subject that amazed his students more than ancient Greece--- and that was ancient Egypt. This gave him an idea for his next book.

RICK RIORDAN: "Next spring, I'm going to release a book set in the modern day world -- but a fantasy based on Egyptian mythology, bringing all those old Egyptian gods back to life."

Nikki Grimes is a children's writer and poet whose works include "Jazmin's Notebook" and "The Road to Paris." Here she talks about her deep love of poetry.

NIKKI GRIMES: "I'm all about words. And when it comes to words, poetry is at the top of my list. Whenever I have a smidgen of time to indulge myself, which is rare these days, I love to curl up with a volume of poetry. Poetry feeds my soul. Poetry is comforting and soothing, and it's awe-inspiring as a glimpse of rainbow, which should come as no surprise since poems and rainbows have something in common. They both offer a kaleidoscope of color."

Other children's book writers at the festival included Kate DiCamillo. She is best known for her novel "The Tale of Despereaux" about a little mouse who has some big adventures.

Jeff Kinney was another popular writer who attended this event. His series, called "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," is about a young boy named Greg Heffley. The book takes the form of a personal journal and includes funny drawings of Greg's school adventures.

JAMES PATTERSON: "Outline, outline, outline, outline."

That was the adult and children's book writer James Patterson answering a question about how he writes books. He says this advice is for professional writers as well as school children writing papers. He says creating a plan for the structure of the book listing the main ideas makes writing much easier.

JAMES PATTERSON: "It will go faster, you will write a better piece, you will get a better grade. Outline. So the first step in terms of my writing is outline."

James Patterson's "Maximum Ride" and "Daniel X" series have become best sellers in the United States.

We asked festival visitor Tonya from Beltsville, Maryland what brought her to the event. She said her son Aiden is five, and she wants him to be interested in books. She said she decided the festival would be a good place to start.

The National Book Festival was also filled with writers of books for adults. Jodi Picoult writes books about families and individuals facing very difficult situations. Her latest book, "Handle With Care," is about a family struggling to survive with a severely sick child. The parents find a way to pay for their endless medical expenses that requires them to make a very difficult moral decision. Mizz Picoult talked to visitors at the festival about studying creative writing in college. She said she knew there was not much to write about from her personal experiences. So she looked around her to find subjects for her books.

JODI PICOULT: "I realized that if I was going to write, what I was going to have to do instead was to write what I was willing to learn instead of what I knew. And that sort of geared me up for a whole series of novels where I do tons of research, even though I write fiction, which is supposed to be made up, right?"

Many writers at the festival specialize in historical and political events. American presidents were a popular subject. For example, Douglas Brinkley is a history professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His latest book is called "The Wilderness Warrior" about President Theodore Roosevelt. It tells about his efforts to protect America's wilderness by securing huge amounts of land for national parks in the early nineteen hundreds.

James L. Swanson has written a book about the hunt to find the killer of President Abraham Lincoln. His book is called "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer." He also wrote a version of his story for children. It is called "Chasing Lincoln's Killer."

Mr. Swanson says his interest in Abraham Lincoln began the day he was born, February twelfth. This was also President Lincoln's birthday. But the writer says it was his grandmother who really got him interested in this subject.

JAMES L. SWANSON: "When I was ten, my grandmother gave me as a gift, not a bicycle, not a baseball mitt or a bat, she gave me a framed engraving of the derringer pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate the president. And you might find that to be an odd gift for a child, but I didn't."

And, reporter Gwen Ifill has written about a more recent president. Her latest book is called "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." She examines race, racism and identity during last year's presidential campaign.

The Library of Congress used this year's National Book Festival to launch its new Web site aimed at supporting reading for all age groups. There are many different reading activities on this site, Read.gov. For example, one program is called "Letters for Literature." School children are urged to write letters to writers whose books have changed their lives. Winners who write the best letters receive an award. The writers that the students choose do not have to be alive.

For example, one student wrote to the American writer Jack London to thank him for writing the book "White Fang." The student wrote this about the book: "Before I read your book, I was alive and breathing. But after I read your book, I felt it was important to be living and have fun."

Read.gov also includes a children's book that is in the process of being written. It is called "The Exquisite Corpse Adventure" and so far only has two chapters. Every two weeks, a new writer and illustrator will build onto the story that earlier writers and illustrators have created.

The title of the book may seem a bit unusual for a children's story. But the term "exquisite corpse" comes from a game in which a group of people collectively write a story.

Readers will have to wait a year to know the ending of the story. And by then, it will be time for another National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can see pictures of some of these writers on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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