Virginia Festival of the Book: Celebrating Twenty Years

Virginia Festival of the Book: Celebrating Twenty Years

How many books do you read each year? How many do you first hear about at the Virginia Festival of the Book? A five-day celebration designed to honor book culture and promote reading and literacy, the festival has enchanted readers, encouraged writers, and made Charlottesville a book lover’s paradise every March since 1994.

This year’s 20th annual festival, March 19-23, largely on and around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and the University of Virginia grounds, will feature 134 events for adults and oodles more – 71, to be exact – for kids. Most are free.

Thanks for Twenty

As an anniversary gift, the festival is presenting free evening programs with poets Gregory Orr and Patricia Smith and novelist Alice Hoffman. Free tickets may be reserved at or at the UVA Arts Box Office. “These are our gifts back to the community, thanking them for the twentieth anniversary,” says Susan Coleman of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which produces the festival.

Orr and Smith will read from their work during the Cities of Poetry program, Wednesday, March 19 at 8:00 p.m. at the Culbreth Theatre. Orr founded the MFA Program in Writing at UVA , where he has taught since 1975. He has published eleven collections of poetry, and his memoir, The Blessing, was one of Publisher’s Weekly‘s fifty best non-fiction books of 2003. Smith’s six volumes of poetry include Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Blood Dazzler. She was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and recently won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

Alice Hoffman has written young-adult and children’s fiction, but she’s best known for blending fairy tales, romance, and magical realism in adult works like Practical Magic (1995) and The Story Sisters (2009). Toni Morrison called her novel The Dovekeepers “a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.” Hoffman’s newest novel, Museum of Extraordinary Things, is a love story set in early 20th-century Brooklyn. An Evening with Alice Hoffman: A Twentieth Anniversary Event, will take place on Thursday, March 20 at 8 pm in the Culbreth Theatre.


Five acclaimed writers who have delighted audiences at previous festivals will return for Homecoming: A Conversation with Some Favorite Authors, Saturday, March 22 at 8:00 p.m. at the Paramount Theater. Sonia Manzano is author of The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, a young adult novel set in New York City’s Spanish Harlem in 1969, plus the picture books No Dogs Allowed! and A Box Full of Kittens. She’s also a star and Emmy Award-winning writer on a certain beloved television show. “We always have lots of young men who want to come see her,” Coleman says, “because they fell in love with her when they were little boys watching Sesame Street.”

Festival favorite Lee Smith’s eleven honors include the 2002 Southern Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2010 Lifetime Literary Achievement Award from the State of Virginia. Our annual literary blowout “ is my favorite event in the world,” Smith says. “It is like a family reunion. It is so exciting to meet new writers and see old friends. Also, writing is a two way transaction, you know, requiring both writer and reader . . . but we seldom get to meet our readers face to face. I love this opportunity to hear from them for a change.” Smith’s 17th and most recent novel, Guests on Earth, proposes a solution to the unsolved mystery of the fire that killed Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other patients in an Asheville, North Carolina mental hospital in 1948. 

Poet, children’s book writer and playwright Kwame Alexander has created more than 1000 student authors through his Book-in-a-Day program. His debut young adult novel, He Said She Said, is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Joanne V. Gabbin edited The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry and directs the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. Gabbin is author of Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition.

Poet and “literary activist” E. Ethelbert Miller has written two memoirs, The 5th Inning and  Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer. He directs the African-American Resource Center at Howard University. Homecoming program tickets are $20.


For Garden Lovers from Henry Thoreau to Today is for everyone dreaming of spring. Young adult fiction author Ruth Kasinger blogs on the intersection of gardening, history, and science. Her new book for grownups is A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants. Michael Sims has written on everything from E.B. White to Victorian vampire stories. Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan calls his latest work, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Road to Walden Pond), “a rich, entertaining testament to the triumph of a young man who never comfortably fit in, but who made a place for himself, nonetheless.” The program takes place at New Dominion Bookshop, Thursday, March 20 at 6:00 p.m.

Little Stories

The ability to pick up a book and read it at will is something most adults take for granted – but not the proud adults on the Voices of Adult Learners program, Thursday, March 20 at Buford Middle School. The event will feature 16 stories chosen from more than 100 submissions by new local readers, many of them recent immigrants, in GED, ESL, or volunteer literacy programs. The reception takes place at 5:30 p.m.; readings begin at 6:00 p.m. Audience members will receive a small book with the winning stories. This annual reading “always turns out to be a breathtaking cross section of life,” says Susan Erno, of Charlottesville’s Adult Learning Center. “It’s a wonderful snapshot of our community in little stories.” 


Kathleen Curtis Wilson was such a popular guest in her last festival appearance that her books sold completely out. Wilson will join Mary Lyons this year for Two Stories of the Irish in America, Friday, March 21 at 2:00 p.m. at City Space. Wilson’s Textile Art from Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women features 43 bed coverlets and 2 quilts and demonstrates that the region’s renowned textiles were created to satisfy aesthetic – not financial – need. Lyons’s The Blue Ridge Tunnel: A Remarkable Engineering Feat in Antebellum Virginia tells the story of the Irish miners and African-American slaves who hand-drilled and blasted the Nelson-to-Augusta- County railroad tunnel. Heartwood Books owner and festival co-founder Paul Collinge of the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation, which hopes to restore the tunnel for trail hikers, walkers and bicyclists, will speak as well.

Publishing Day

“In Charlottesville,” says the VHF’s Jane Kulow, “If you don’t know a writer, you must know ten people who want to be a published writer.” That’s for sure, and that’s why each Publishing Day, Saturday at the Omni Hotel, is packed.

This year writers and scribblers of all sorts will want to hear one of the country’s premier publishing experts, Jane Friedman, in the Digital Publishing Landscape program, Saturday, March 22 at 10:00 a.m. Formerly publisher of Writer’s Digest, Friedman is web editor of Virginia Quarterly Review and teaches digital publishing an online writing at UVA. She will speak on what it takes to succeed in today’s rapidly changing publishing world. Seven more “Pub Day” events are scheduled, including programs on building author’s platforms, hooking editors on the first page, and publishing literary work.


While published and aspiring writers trade tips and secrets at the Omni, kids will enjoy

their own day-long literary treat, StoryFest. For the first time, the festival has worked with local schools and community creative writing teachers to develop programs for teen authors. In First Page Panel for Aspiring Teen Writers, Saturday at 10:00 a.m. at Village School, teens 13 to 18 can receive anonymous feedback from authors Tommy Hays, Andrew Auseon, Carrie Brown, and Susann Cokal. Interested teens should submit one page of their writing to

In Q & A for Teen Writers, Saturday noon at Village School, writers, creative writing teachers, and editors will answer questions about improving writing, studying writing, and writing for a living.

Wild About Reading, Saturday, March 22 at 10:30 a.m. at the Virginia Discovery Museum, will facilitate face-to-face encounters between Virginia wildlife species, animal and human. The first 100 young humans will receive a free wildlife-themed book. 

In the 19th annual Kids Book Swap, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Oakley’s Gently Used Books, kids can trade their own gently used books for others they haven’t read.

Chip Kidd has been designing book covers for Alfred. A. Knopf since 1986. Publisher’s Weekly calls them “creepy, striking, sly, smart, unpredictable covers that make readers appreciate books as objects of art as well as literature.” USA Today calls Kidd “the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design today.” He will talk about his career and his new book, Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, at 4:00 p.m. in the Monroe Room of the Omni Hotel.

StoryFest spills over into Sunday this year, with appearances by two-time Newbery Medal Recipient Lois Lowry and National Book Award recipient Kathryn Erskine. Lowry’s latest book, Son, completes her celebrated Quartet series, set in a seemingly perfect future world. “I have always been impressed by Lois Lowry’s books,” Erskine says. “She is able to say so much and convey so much emotion in strong, stark prose. Number the Stars [about the Danish Resistance during World War II] is one of my favorite books, and I’m excited that The Giver [the first in the Quartet series] is going to be a movie, since so many kids have read that book.”

Born in the Netherlands, Erskine settled in Virginia after living in South Africa, Israel, Canada, and Scotland. In her award-winning 2010 novel, Mockingbird, an 11-year old girl with Asperger’s finds healing from grief as she learns that life isn’t always black and white. In her latest book, Seeing Red, 12-year old Frederick “Red” Porter discovers dark family secrets when his father dies and his mother wants to sell the family’s car repair shop. 

“Growing up, I spent more time overseas than in the U.S.,” Erskine says. “Seeing Red is inspired by the racism I saw as a child, both in the south and in South Africa. I didn’t want today’s youth to forget the people and events of the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights era.  I also want them, and all of us, to think about what still needs to be done.”

An Afternoon with Lois Lowry and Kathryn Erskine takes place Sunday, March 23 at 2:00 p.m. in the Culbreth Theatre. Tickets are $10 for adults and $3 for children in grades K-12.

Authors love readers. And readers love authors. “I have been coming to the festival from California for years, and wouldn’t miss it,” Kathleen Curtis Wilson says. “The way it’s organized makes it easy to attend numerous presentations each day and still have time to visit with friends, enjoy a stroll on the Mall, and peruse the huge number of books that I want to buy.”

Kathryn Erskine lauds Charlottesville’s “rich writing community of poets, novelists, and historians,” and the festival’s “southern hospitality yet worldly outlook. We’re a city of readers and book lovers. Sure, people come from all over but I still like to claim it as our hometown literary event.”

– Ken Wilson