Let’s Read!

By Laura Latzko

Books often have a big impact on the lives of those who love to read, getting them to think deeper about certain topics or causing them to fall in love with characters with whom they identify.

The Tucson Festival of Books lets readers learn more about and meet authors from around the country.

In its 12th year, the event will take place on the University of Arizona campus from Saturday, March 14, to Sunday, March 15. Each year, the event attracts around 140,000 people, making it one of the biggest book festivals in the country. 

The festival’s executive director, Melanie Morgan, says the event’s popularity speaks to how people are still interested in books. The festival engages people of different age groups, with a range of literacy as well as science- and music-themed activities.

“We really have a spectrum of activities, from birth to seniors. I think that really makes it special for the entire community,” Morgan says.

Andy Shatken, co-chairwoman of the book festival’s steering committee, says it was designed to increase literacy in Arizona. Around 2,000 volunteers help run the festival, and 200 are involved in the planning process throughout the year. 

Andy says that she and other volunteers are committed to the event because of their shared love of books and the festival’s mission. She and Stuart Shatken, her husband and fellow co-chair, have been involved for the last eight years.

“I would say it’s a labor of love for everybody who’s involved,” Andy says. 

This year, more than 300 authors will participate. Some authors sell their work through individual or publishing company booths while others present and sign books. The authors talk about their books during one-on-one discussions or panels with moderators.

“They have an opportunity to ask questions of the author. It is a unique opportunity, if someone has been following a particular author, to meet that author at the festival,” Stuart says. “The authors are very forthcoming. They are very approachable.”

Stuart says the discussions and panels offer a chance for community members to increase their knowledge on different subjects. 

“These are authors who have put thousands of hours into researching those subjects. So, they deliver a lot of expertise,” Stuart says.

The participating writers, who are chosen by a committee, have all recently released books. Authors write about a range of topics, such as sports, entertainment, medicine, science, women’s rights or border issues. 

In the last few years, political books have become very popular. Fiction has always been one of the biggest categories. Although most of the authors hail from the United States, the event attracts writers from other countries, such as South Africa and Mexico. 

The festival was designed for authors of different levels, including those who are just starting out or use alternative platforms to publish. Independent writers have a place, too.

Writing competitions and workshops are also part of the festival. Children can take part in writing and illustrating competitions. 

Exhibitors don’t have to have a literacy focus to have booths at the festival if they are nonprofit organizations. Local religious organizations, libraries, summer camps, community centers and private schools often use the event as a way to reach large groups of people. 

For families, the festival offers a Science City area with hands-on activities, a literary circus, a character parade and children’s book authors. 

Andy says the festival has offerings for people of different backgrounds and interests. 

“There are a lot of ways that (the festival) encourages participation and love of literature and literacy on all levels,” Andy says.

Performance stages will have local entertainers such as mariachi groups. In a culinary area, cookbook authors will demonstrate recipes.

Many UA departments are involved in the festival. The College of Science, for example, runs the Science City area, and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences brings in specialized authors. 

Sponsoring organizations also offer interactive activities for the public. TMC Healthcare will have large-scale models of hearts and lungs, and Tucson Electric Power will host a solar truck and electric car. 

A portion of proceeds from the event benefits Reading Seed, Literacy Connects and the UA’s literacy outreach programs. 

Since its inception, the festival has raised over $2 million for local literacy organizations. 

The money raised during the festival helps beneficiaries train and coach at schools, improve children’s test scores, give books to young people, send children to camps and turn student stories into live plays. 

Attendees can give to the festival by becoming Friends of the Festival. These memberships come with perks such as chances to attend an exclusive book launch event during the festival. 

Although the festival is free to attend, there are costs for some of the larger venues. Certain Friends of the Festival memberships come with free tickets to these spaces.