Festival of Books celebrates 26th installment

Artist rendering of three books, a laptop screen, and Bovard Auditorium.
Phoebe Um | Daily Trojan

For 25 years, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has brought thousands of Los Angeles residents, press, students, celebrities and families together for entertaining events and stimulating conversations. To many, the festival has become an annual tradition where children meet their idols, adults find inspiration and book lovers explore exciting new reads — a place where Angelenos could gather as a community in one place for a weekend of festivities. 

From 75,000 attendees its first weekend ever when it was founded by Narda Zacchino and Lisa Cleri Reale during their career at the L.A. Times in 1996 — where the festival experienced so much success that the head of the Times’ PR department at the time had to call in staff to be on-site to handle media requests and sponsors called to participate for the next year — to recent years with 150,000 attendees, the L.A. Times Festival of Books has grown exponentially and become the biggest book festival in the country. 

As per tradition, the 2021 L.A. Times Festival of Books will be held from April 17-23, featuring over 30 events and multiple stages over a seven-day period.

Amid coronavirus safety directives from the city, this year’s festival will be held in a virtual format like last year. Last year’s festival was postponed to fall and held over a series of four weeks. Though the 2019 festival operated successfully and received a lot of positive feedback from audiences and panelists, Ann Binney, special projects coordinator at the L.A. Times, said the production and programming team learned a lot from the last festival and used that experience to implement more programming and better engagement.

According to Binney, the festival will be available for live streaming on the L.A. Times Festival of Books website, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook with video recordings uploaded to the website later so those unable to attend can still watch the events, in contrast to last year’s festival which was completely held over YouTube.

“We have an amazing production team that is part of the L.A. Times; we’re really lucky that way that we have an L.A. Times studio which has people who come from the world of television,” Binney said. “They know how to produce TV shows; they understand the video and audio and [they] know how to put it all together. We are super lucky to have that resource as part of the L.A. Times. They have the knowledge and resources to make this event really great.”

Feeling more comfortable with the technology, Binney said the team behind the Festival of Books decided to include more programming compared to last year, such as individual stages for poetry and children along with recordings of poets and authors reading excerpts from their recent work. 

For the most part, the festival remains free as Zacchino and Reale had intended it to be. Not wanting a lack of money to keep people away from an event meant to promote literacy, love of reading and discussions of ideas, this year there are some events such as those with Don Lemon and Richard Thompson, where tickets cost five dollars.

Going back to its traditional April timing, the festival will once again be tied to the L.A. Times Book Prize Program, where several book prize authors will be featured in the festival’s programming. The Festival was unable to coincide with the Book Prize Program last year since it was postponed until fall.

“It’s a new experience, just in terms of everything that we’re offering,” Binney said. “There’s new programming, new faces and new additions of children’s stage and poetry stage. We hope that people will come and join us and look at what we have to offer over the seven days and all the many different kinds of events and the amazing authors that we’re featuring.” 

Binney said the team hopes to be back on USC’s campus next year to bring that community together for the amazing experience that has made the festival what it is over the last years. 

“I think that we will take a lot of what we learned back into that physical world, when we get back there, and hopefully employ some of these things that we learned that allow us to bring these events to a larger audience that goes beyond Southern California, beyond Los Angeles,” Binney said. “We’ve had people join us from all around the country, we’ve had people join us out of the country for a lot of these conversations we’ve convened over the last year, so we hope to bring that to a wider audience.”

In the past, Angel Rodriguez, special projects editor for the L.A. Times, has moderated two sports panels in the Festival of Books in 2018-19. This year, Rodriguez is hosting a bilingual children’s book panel to empower young people of color and provide representation to the L.A. Latinx community.

Even though most students and workers have gotten used to Zoom, Rodriguez still finds it difficult to engage audiences during virtual events. To connect with the audience, Rodriguez felt it was important that there was enough time to answer audience questions. To keep children engaged, Rodriguez asked guided questions about the background and motivations of the characters in the panelist’s books, which would be familiar to the children. 

“As a moderator when you’re on a panel, you need to be a little bit more cognizant of the fact that you need to make sure that there’s that ability to engage with the audience. It’s really more about reinforcing that engagement,” Rodriguez said.

Other than maintaining Zoom engagement, another challenge Rodriguez faced as a moderator was picking up on body language cues from the panelists and audience, which would help him indicate their level of comfort in past events. It was impossible for Rodriguez to tell whether audience members were laughing or on their phones, and it was hard to read cues when a panelist wanted to speak up or not, when they appeared as a small boxed face on the Zoom screen.

“It’s just a different way of doing it, so you just have to be cognizant of the differences,” Rodriguez said. 

This Saturday, the L.A. Times Festival of Books will kick off its 26th installment with President Carol  Folt, L.A. Times writers and the Trojan Marching Band, and then proceed to host over 30 events with diverse authors, speakers and poets for various events. From its incredible start, the festival continues to grow and bring the community together, even virtually.

“There is no comparing it to a live event, where book lovers gather, going from booth to booth, from outdoor stage to auditorium, nourishing and developing a love of books and reading — the same goals Lisa and I had in 1995 when we set out with our small committee to put on a festival of books,” Zacchino wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “But the upside is that, being virtual, people from all over can participate, perhaps increasing the audience way beyond numbers we ever could have imagined.”

With the partnership between the L.A. Times and USC to host the Festival of Books, the event will return to campus for the next in-person experience.

“USC has served as the home of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books for the past 10 years,” executive director of USC’s Vision and Voices Daria Yudacufski said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “The festival’s purpose of bringing the community together through books, art, music and culture is more important and necessary than ever. I’m so glad that the L.A. Times and USC are continuing to make the festival available for the community.”