Despite virtual format, Boston Book Festival lineup to provide powerful content

A promotional poster for the Boston Book Festival is pictured. via Boston Book Festival

Boston Book Festival (BBF) completed its rollout of its 2020 festival last week. It will take place online from Oct. 5–25, with programming that includes over 55 live and pre-recorded sessions and 143 presenters and moderators from 21 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, the United Kingdom and Kenya.

BBF is usually a weekend packed with hundreds of presenters, fairs and patrons. However, as most large festivals are doing, they moved to a virtual platform.

Though Executive Director Norah Piehl has mixed feelings about not being able to do the event in person, there are some advantages to doing it online. One benefit is that presenters and moderators that might not usually be able to travel to Boston for a physical festival are able to hop online and be a part of the festival virtually. 

“Something that is definitely special and different this year is that we’re getting to see authors and illustrators and poets and people from all over the place [where it would] ordinarily be a barrier to have them come to Boston,” Piehl said. 

The festival will also be spread out over three weeks rather than all in one weekend, a change from past years. “This gives people a little more breathing room to sort of dip into what they are interested in, and hopefully people can take advantage of as much or as little of the programming that is meaningful and helpful to them,” Piehl said

However, the online platform does pose difficulties in connecting to the community. Community is a central part of BBF, so it has employed different strategies to keep the community connection strong during a virtual festival. 

On the technology front, BBF is using a platform called Crowdcast that Piehl believes will promote more interaction between attendees. There is a chat function, a polling function and a Q&A function where attendees can upvote other people’s questions. 

BBF has also come up with a few physical elements to go along with their virtual programming to keep a community feel to the event. One is a continuation of their At Home Boston community-wide writing project that was launched early in the summer. The project invited people around Boston to write about their quarantine experiences in 200-word mini-essays. During the run of the festival, BBF will be printing a selection of these mini-essays to put in store windows in the Downtown Crossing area as a type of art installation. 

“It will combine words and images and people can walk through this area … and consider these stories, and hopefully it will start conversation,” Piehl said

BBF will also have two story walks aimed at young children and families. Each story walk will feature a picture book that will have its pages blown up and put in store windows in a similar fashion to the At Home Boston mini-essays. It will then provide maps so families can walk through the pages of the book, like a scavenger hunt reading experience.

The third physical element is a continuation of a program called the BBF Book Hunt that has been held in the past. The Book Hunt is where community members can sign up, get a book package with a presenter’s book, hide it in their neighborhood and then post a photo clue on Twitter that BBF will repost. Then other people can then go find the book and keep it for free

“We wanted to bridge that distance between these virtual programs on the computer that can seem sort of isolating … [to] that real-world community experience that we know the book festival means to people in an ordinary year,” Piehl said

The festival itself is timed right before the 2020 presidential election, so it has a lot of political or politically adjacent sessions. Some of these include a session on election reform, activism and what it means to be politically active. Piehl believes these sessions will be especially interesting and relevant for attendees this year.

Within this heightened moment for social justice, BBF has further emphasized its priority of having diverse authors and voices.

“[This is] a priority especially for the selection of presenters for young people, really making sure we’re offering a diversity of perspectives, that we’re bringing in authors who look like the audiences that they’re speaking to,” Piehl said. “We’re trying to give our attendees the tools that they need to help diversify their own bookshelves.”

Boston’s two poet laureates — Porsha Olayiwola and Alondra Bobadilla — will also be brought together in a session at the festival. Bobadilla was elected Boston’s first youth poet laureate in 2020.  

Other topics covered will include love and technology, pathogens and pills and women of color in the tech industry.

Piehl commented that for some, there is already a lot of heavy stuff in the world, so some of BBF’s programming offers an opportunity to step away from that. These include fiction sessions, a session about fairy tale and folk tale retellings and a non-fiction session about how to make good choices and embrace kindness.

“Our aspiration for putting together the program that we did is that we have really tried to … provide a wide range of experiences with books and reading,” Piehl said. “We have really tried to be thoughtful about that and reflect on what we’re hearing from people about what they need right now.” 

Some headliner speakers include Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. poet laureate and author of her recent memoir “Memorial Drive: A Driver’s Memoir” (2020), Jerry Craft, cartoonist and illustrator who is best known for his syndicated newspaper comic strip “Mama’s Boyz,” Michael Murphy of Mass Design group who will hold a session about architecture and its role in calling attention to social justice issues and Michael Sandel, author of “The Tyranny of Merit” (2020).


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