The Wisconsin Book Festival has come to resemble a Wisconsin Ideas Festival. Scheduled for Oct. 18-22, this year's festival is more loaded with literary concept than ever. It encompasses the justice-oriented "A More Perfect Union" and a robust sequence of sessions focusing on zines. And the presenters in 2006 include more marquee names than in years past.
What's the big idea?
"That was a concerted effort," says festival director Alison Jones Chaim. "We're very proud that this is our fifth year." The caliber of presenters is an expression of this pride.
Headliners include the Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon; PEN/Hemingway award-winner Jane Hamilton, in her first appearance at the festival since its inaugural year; Ted Kooser, the nation's former poet laureate; Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, the renowned neuroscientist; and Marjane Satrapi and Chris Ware, both masters of graphic narrative.
If you don polarized sunglasses and squint through the glare of marquee names written in 500-watt bulbs, you'll see an embarrassment of riches. The novelist Neil Gaiman, perhaps best known for his Sandman series of graphic novels. National Book Critics Award-winner Jonathan Harr, author of the best-selling A Civil Action. The novelist, poet, essayist and memoirist Marge Piercy. The prolific horror writer Peter Straub. The eminent novelist Alice McDermott.
And substantial clusters of fiction and nonfiction authors, poets, spoken-word artists and other literary figures are poised to sneak up on this year's audience. Bombingham novelist Anthony Grooms. Benjamin Percy, author of the spare, taut short-story collection The Language of Elk. Kenyan novelist and nonfiction author Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
Marilyn Nelson may be the most likely presenter to emerge as a revelation for the most festival-goers. "She's a poet of great stature," Chaim explains. A recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and numerous other honors, Nelson is the author of A Wreath for Emmett Till, a heroic crown of sonnets, written for young adults, that tells the story of the Chicago teenager's 1955 murder. A heroic sonnet, for those who missed English class that day, is an elaborate sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets, the last one composed of the first lines from the previous 14.
Chaim cites reggae poet and spoken-word artist Linton Kwesi Johnson as another likely revelation. She notes that he was the first African American poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. "He's sometimes called the alternative poet laureate," she says.
Johnson is the headlining guest for this year's Youth Speaks spoken-word showcase (Saturday, Oct. 21, Wisconsin Union Theater, 9 p.m.). It features the Midwest Teen All-Stars with Johnson and the galvanizing spoken-word artists Kevin Coval, Mayda del Valle and Dasha Kelly.
"You can't hear it and help but be moved by Youth Speaks," Chaim contends.
With expanded programming in Milwaukee, Edgerton and Eau Claire, the 2006 festival is more Wisconsin than ever. But the festival's spine remains stitched and bound to Madison, which many of this year's presenters call home and to which many more have connections. Among those with Madison ties: emeritus UW-Madison Prof. Jerry Apps, the prolific chronicler of rural life; kite aerial photographer Craig Wilson; Pulitzer-winning science writer Deborah Blum; Pulitzer-winning Madison native David Maraniss; best-selling novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard; New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist and UW alum Chris Rose; and so many more current and former residents that to recite them all would be akin to, ahem, name-dropping.
This year's programming for youths and families is likewise "bigger and better than ever before," Chaim says. "We've really gone all out this year." Children's presenters include Caldecott Medal recipient Kevin Henkes of Madison, Beloit author Ann Bausum, Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry, Madison microbiologist and novelist Kashmira Sheth and Golden Kite Award-winning novelist Amy Timberlake.
"We lined up a really world-class slate of authors," Chaim says.
To accomplish this feat, organizers started planning earlier than ever before. In the summer of 2005, Masarah Van Eyck - director of development and communications for the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the festival's umbrella organization - drafted an application for a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant. That grant was the festival's first-ever NEA windfall. It accounts for about 15% of the festival's budget after salaries, Chaim notes.
"We want to put on a free festival," she explains. The NEA grant is an enormous contribution toward that goal.
So is the festival's fortuitous partnership with the acclaimed literary journal Virginia Quarterly Review, which helped to secure four headliners: Chabon, Sapolsky, Satrapi and Ware are all contributors to VQR, which copped six National Magazine Award nominations this year. That put VQR second only to The Atlantic, and ahead of The New Yorker, Harper's, New York and National Geographic - a feat the online journal Slate appraised as akin to "a scrappy farm team" demolishing the Yankees.
VQR is a presenting sponsor of this year's festival. Its fall issue includes a new story by Chabon and a fiction-supplent cover illustrated by Ware. You can't buy that kind of symbiosis at retail prices.
Program partnerships with the Cooperative Children's Book Center, Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries, the Madison and Monona public libraries, The Progressive, the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities, the UW-Madison Libraries, the University of Wisconsin Press, the Wisconsin Academy, the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Library Association likewise yield benefits for both parties.
At this point, the Wisconsin Book Festival carries sufficient critical mass to be an attractive destination for almost anyone who crafts phrases from words. After four years' worth of contacts with publishers and agents, Chaim points out, the festival now enjoys the luxury of not having to wait for the big publishing trade shows to start soliciting author appearances.
All of this year's headliners were secured by February, she notes. That's unprecedented.
Whether any of this has an impact on attendance remains to be seen. Chaim says attendance has reached a plateau in the last couple of years, with about 10,000 people in the audience for both 2004 and 2005.
To build on these numbers and complement library-oriented outreach efforts of previous years, the festival is reaching out to bookstores statewide to lure new festival-goers to Madison.
The extensive festival programming in Milwaukee from Oct. 10-17 may drive readers toward Madison for five more days of literary indulgence. So might a concurrent book festival scheduled for Oct. 21-22 in Edgerton.
Even if they don't, they're both good ideas.