Shortly after her husband took office, first lady Mary Brownback was reading about the Texas Book Festival in Laura Bush’s memoir. Suddenly, she thought, “Why can’t Kansas do this?” A few months later, she was hard at work on preparations for the inaugural Kansas Book Festival, which was held on Sept. 24, 2011. The festival has taken place every year since, growing from 900 attendees in the first year to more than 2,000 on Saturday.
The Kansas Book Festival is a celebration of our state’s vibrant literary culture, an opportunity to highlight the importance of literacy and a funding platform for libraries in need.
Over the past five years, the Kansas Book Festival Library Grants have grown steadily — since $15,000 was distributed in March 2012, the festival has provided more than $67,000 to libraries across the state. The festival’s website explains how critical these grants are to some of our smaller libraries: “We’ve received applications that detail how a particular library doesn’t have a single computer for patrons to use, libraries that have average copyright dates that go back to the 1960s.” This is also why programs like the State Library’s interlibrary loan system (which provides underfunded rural libraries with books, ebooks, databases and other research materials) are essential in Kansas.
The Kansas Book Festival hosted nearly 30 authors this year — many of whom have connections to the state. For example, David A. Nichols (who lives in Winfield) spoke about his book “Ike and McCarthy” — an account of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s efforts to undermine Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid and malicious anti-Communist campaign in the mid-20th century. Mark Eberle discussed his book “Kansas Baseball: 1858-1941,” Cote Smith talked about his debut novel, “Hurt People” (which is set in northeast Kansas) and Julianne Couch presented her book, “The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century.”
Brownback says she’s always “impressed” by the lineup of authors — particularly Kansans — who share their work at the festival each year: “I’d love for it to continue and people to continue to come out and see what a wealth of talent we have in the state.”
The festival also emphasizes reading at a young age by inviting well-known authors of children’s books and young adult fiction.
This year’s keynote speaker was Andrea Davis Pinkey — the New York Times bestselling author of “A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day.” Brownback explains how events like the festival get kids interested in books: “If we can make it fun, then it slides in there and they don’t realize what they’re learning and how important it is.” Perhaps this is why Clifford the Big Red Dog and Curious George also made an appearance.
According to ACT’s most recent Condition of College &Career Readiness assessment, only 69 percent of Kansas students are prepared for college-level English — a proportion that has fallen from 72 percent in 2014.
And although reading scores have improved over the same period of time, only 54 percent met ACT’s college readiness benchmark in 2017. While these numbers are higher than the corresponding national averages, they still demonstrate substantial room for improvement — something Brownback has been working toward since 2011.
The Kansas Book Festival promotes literacy in our state, helps our libraries and showcases local authors. As The Topeka Capital-Journal prepares to begin hosting the festival in 2018, we’re grateful to our first lady for her dedicated efforts to keep Kansans reading.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.