A sparse morning crowd of all ages braved unusually cold, blustery spring weather to attend the 6th annual San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, in and around the Central Library and Southwest School of Art. The brisk wind continued throughout the day, but didn’t stop thousands more from enjoying the festivities downtown.
Festival volunteers used makeshift paperweights to hold down stacks of newsprint festival maps as attendees scoured the events schedule eager to plan their day among a surfeit of author sessions, book signings, and sales tents.
A hardy audience of 150 half-filled the main tent in the shadow of the “enchilada red” library to hear Paula Poundstone crack jokes about the weather and switch roles with moderator Joyce Slocum of Texas Public Radio, interviewing her interviewer.
“I was just in Juneau [Alaska]. I did fine there, and here I’m cold,” Poundstone said as laughter pealed throughout the tent. She wore a thick brown leather jacket over her fuchsia zoot suit.
Meanwhile, audiences ranging in size from 15 to 120 filled the library’s and art school’s interior rooms, to see authors discuss topics from Timothy Leary, once called “the most dangerous man in America” for his LSD research, to jellyfish, the near-psychedelic and plentiful creatures of the sea.
In each room, eager book lovers listened intently to writers speaking on their writing processes, life experiences and stories.
“Story is really important, and powerful, and a balm. If you can find a place to read, you can be in a different world than where you live,” said Kelly Grey Carlisle, Trinity University associate professor and author of We Are All Shipwrecks, a memoir about the murder of her mother and Carlisle’s childhood.
Inside a small room at Southwest School of Art’s Santikos Building, she told a standing-room only crowd of 35 that she grew up in “a house [and boat] built on books,” with family reading to her every night. Being surrounded by books and words made her a writer, she said.
“Because you hear those words every night, and they just become how you think, and how you write, and absorb all those beautiful sentences of great literature,” she said.
Today’s kids don’t like to read, said Laurie Olive-Solanos, a literary specialist who works with struggling readers at Oak Hill Terrace Elementary School. Asked why not, she gave a few reasons: “They haven’t discovered it yet, they don’t have access at home, they’re not surrounded by books,” like author Carlisle, she said.
Olive-Solanos and fellow educator Jennifer Kerr were festival first-timers, who came to seek out ideas to help their students learn to appreciate the arts of reading and writing. “We always look for ideas and ways to help the kids we work with,” Olive-Solanos said.
The anachronistic sound of manual typewriters clacked behind them as the poets of Typewriter Rodeo typed free, spontaneous, themed poems for a crowd gathered at their tent.
Olive-Solanos recited her favorite lines from the poem she had just received from Rodeo writer Jodi Egerton, on the topic of reading and writing:
Awaiting the best of all
A reader to drink in the words
To swim in the story
To share the magic
To take the words as printed
And transfer them into memory
Kerr radiated awe as she held her own keepsake poem by Sean Petrie, on the same topic. “There are no words,” she said without a hint of irony, expressing amazement that Rodeo poets create “out of the blue.”
“Writing is hard in general,” Olive-Solanos said.
Children’s author Jason Reynolds had a similar message for a crowd of about 100 under the outdoor tent. Reynolds, a New York Times bestselling author, explained that writing a book every year or two is “taxing,” as is the constant travel to book festivals and fairs to promote his work. “It’s hard, but it’s a good hard,” he said, “it’s a labor of love.” Audience members beamed as he spoke.
Earlier, the sounds of Spanish echoed down Augusta Street. Author and Univision journalist Jorge Ramos spoke to an overflow crowd, about 700, under the tent eager to hear about his new book Stranger: The Challenge of A Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.
In the audience for both Ramos and the session with memoirist Sandra Cisneros, Shahrzad Dowlatshahi, head of the City’s International Relations Office, said “Somehow it just becomes a more real experience” seeing a writer read their work in person. “It’s about that connectivity, a reader connecting to an author,” she said.
Organizers did not have a final crowd count at the time of publication, but one estimated that more showed up this year. In 2017, an estimated 20,000 people stopped by throughout the day.
Deputy Executive Director Lilly Gonzalez said many sessions were standing room only.