Jeanne Birdsall & Susan Hill Long

Wordstock Weekend Recap

Books Comic Books People Places

Well, the Wordstock Book Festival is now over, and I had a fun (and exhausting) time. I was often bouncing back and forth between two or three panels because there were simply so many authors and cartoonists and books that I was curious about. (Though I did find a little time to sneak over to the Retro Gaming Expo as well, which you’ll hear more about later in the week.)

Here’s a whirlwind recap of some of my favorite things from the weekend.

Michael Hearst
Michael Hearst, eclectic musician and author of Unusual Creatures

Michael Hearst is a musician who plays some odd instruments like the claviola, theremin, and daxophone, and his music is pretty geeky. He started the band One Ring Zero, which has a literary album with lyrics written by authors, an album in which the band sings recipes, and one about the planets. Last year he released an album called Songs for Unusual Creatures, with tunes inspired by the likes of the blobfish, the magnapinna squid, and the honey badger. Now there’s a book as well, and if you’re into weird animals, you really should check it out. (And now it’s becoming a PBS video series!)

Hearst read some excerpts from the book and played a couple of tunes for us. I shot this video of him performing Giant Chinese Salamander on stylophone and theremin.

In between panels I did wander around the floor of the expo hall a little bit. There were many publishers, editors, and other literary organizations throughout the hall. I felt like there were fewer authors and illustrators than I remember from two years ago, but there was still plenty to look at.

Bookmaker Jake
Bookmaker Jake with many of his hand-bound books.

One of the folks I stopped to talk to was Jake Wasson, also known as Bookmaker Jake. His story is a little tricky to explain, but he has a novel called The Living City in which the characters use their own stories as a currency. Wasson is now trying to bring that to real life to some extent. He binds the copies of his novel using found objects, and each book comes with a story about its binding—where he was, who he was with, how much time he spent. You decide what a reasonable price is to pay for the book, which comes with a small booklet of “currency” showing the value of his work.

I was particularly fascinated by the various materials Wasson had included as book covers. Aside from things like cereal boxes and other forms of cardboard, he had a small beer keg, plastic water jugs, a blanket, and more. While he was at Wordstock he was making one using a juice carton and a cardboard packing tube that he’d found on site. You can find out more at his website, Storybank Exchange.

Shakespeare's Star Wars
Timothy Zahn, Han Solo, and Ian Doescher perform a scene from William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.

I caught a portion of the Star Wars Reads Day Event: Ian Doescher did a few readings from his book William Shakespeare’s Star Wars with Timothy Zahn (author of several Star Wars novels, among other things). A few Stormtroopers of Cloud City Garrison accompanied them on stage. (I didn’t catch the real name of Han Solo pictured above.) The readings were terrific—the juxtaposition of Lucas and Shakespeare is funny, but Doescher definitely knows his stuff. What I really liked was the way there were asides to the audience—things that the characters weren’t speaking to each other, but giving you a peek into their inner thoughts.

I shot this video of one scene, the conversation between Luke and Obi Wan when they first meet.

For more about William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, read Jim Kelly’s in-depth review from earlier this summer.

Mark Russell & Shannon Wheeler
Author Mark Russell gives the audience the Bible in a nutshell, while cartoonist Shannon Wheeler sketches the audience.

God Is Disappointed in You is an extremely abridged version of the Bible, written by Mark Russell and punctuated with cartoons by Shannon Wheeler. At Wordstock, Russell gave a speedy PowerPoint presentation that zipped through a good chunk of Judeo-Christian history, with a break to read a few excerpts from the book. Wheeler, meanwhile, sat on stage and drew caricatures of people in the audience. (This is what he does when he’s on stage.) I had to leave before the end of the talk but I did get to see both of them again on Sunday (see below).

Robin Sloan
Robin Sloan with a copy of his new novella, Ajax Penumbra 1969.

One of the people I really wanted to meet was Robin Sloan, the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I reviewed it a year ago and it was one of my favorite books of 2012. I missed the first part of Sloan’s talk but when I got there he was talking about printed books as technology. He remarked that when printed books first appeared, they must have seemed like some incredible new thing—and then when paperbacks came along, there was another shift. In other words, when we worry about technology coming along now and replacing books, Sloan thinks that’s somewhat silly: technology has always been there when it comes to books. Digital books are just another form that they happen to be taking at the present time. Okay, maybe that doesn’t set my paper-loving self entirely at ease, but I like the future that Sloan envisions, one in which hardcovers and paperbacks and Kindles and epaper and audiobooks all coexist (perhaps awkwardly) for the foreseeable future.

Sloan has a short novella prequel to his novel, Ajax Penumbra 1969. It’s available for the Kindle or as an audio book, with a very limited print run available at things like Wordstock. I was lucky enough to get a copy, and finished reading it last night. If you were still hungry for more about the world of Mr. Penumbra after the novel ended, this is a great chaser. I got to chat with Sloan a little after his talk and really enjoyed swapping book recommendations.

Gene Yang Craig Thompson
Gene Luen Yang and Craig Thompson talk about drawing and writing comics.

One panel for which I was not double-booked was a conversation between Gene Luen Yang and Craig Thompson, who are both comics creators. I interviewed Yang recently about his newest two-book set Boxers & Saints, and I’ve also read several of Thompson’s comics as well, including his breakout graphic memoir Blankets and the lavishly sprawling Habibi. The conversation between the two touched on topics like family expectations and autobiography, religion, growing older as a cartoonist, and the sheer volume of Thompson’s work. I really enjoyed listening to both of them talk, and it was particularly fun to introduce my family to Yang on Sunday because my oldest daughter is a fan of his comics.

I also sat in on a talk with Colleen Coover and Martin French. Coover is a cartoonist who has published a lot of her work online. Her husband Paul Tobin writes the Bandette series, which she illustrates. It won the Eisner for Best Digital Comic this year, and will soon be published in paper form by Dark Horse. Coover presented a few of her comics, including a funny semi-horror story called Rose’s Heart (available electronically in the Double Feature iPad app). French is an illustrator and designer who has an upcoming book titled Where the Spirit. It’s a wordless book featuring a scarecrow and the wind, and French talked about how the story was inspired by a long-ago incident with his son.

Bella's Pockets
Bella’s Pockets by Lisa Bauso

Years ago I saw a photography exhibit of items that a mom had collected from her daughter’s pockets when doing laundry. The photos from “Bella’s Pockets” were striking and it was fun to see all the various things this little girl would carry around with her. Well, that photographer, Lisa Bauso, now has a book of the photography. Her daughter (now eighteen) wrote some captions and explanations of some of the items when she was about thirteen, and the book is delightful. I especially love the captions, with a teenage Bella commenting on her younger self—I wish there were even more!

Kyle Bolton
My daughter tries on Smash’s goggles, with Kyle Bolton.

Brothers Chris and Kyle Bolton were there on Sunday to talk about their all-ages comic Smash: Trial by Fire, about a kid who unexpectedly acquires superpowers and then has to figure out how to be a hero. I missed their talk, but caught Kyle (the artist) in the autographs area and saw Chris (the writer) moderating a panel (below). Stay tuned for a review of Smash later on!

The Visual Narrator
Left to right: Nicole Georges, Gene Luen Yang, Colleen Coover, Mark Russell, Shannon Wheeler, Chris Bolton

The Visual Narrator was a panel about “comics and personal narrative as a lens into contemporary culture.” Chris Bolton moderated the panel, which included several people I’ve mentioned above already (Gene Luen Yang, Colleen Coover, Mark Russell, and Shannon Wheeler) with the addition of Nicole Georges, the creator of the graphic memoir Calling Dr. Laura. It was interesting to get the different perspectives on creating comics, as well as the varying levels of (dis)comfort the panelists had about including autobiographical details in their work.

Jeanne Birdsall & Susan Hill Long
Jeanne Birdsall and Susan Hill Long had a lot of fans of all ages.

Meanwhile, at the kids’ stage, Jeanne Birdsall and Susan Hill Long read excerpts from each other’s books. Birdsall is the author of the Penderwicks series about four sisters, which is one of my family’s favorites. Long’s most recent book, Whistle in the Dark, is a historical fiction about a boy who has to go work in the lead mines to help support his family. We were especially excited to meet Birdsall in person because we’ve been a fan of her books for a while now, and the conversation between Birdsall and Long was a lot of fun to listen to.

On Sunday my wife and kids came with me for the afternoon. My kids spent a lot of time in the Knowledge Universe kids’ area, listening to the authors, reading to dogs, and learning about Morse code. My wife was also really excited to see Cynthia Voigt, who (along with Katharine Paterson) is in her children’s book pantheon.

I did manage not to empty my wallet too much (I have all these books to read already, after all) but we did pick up a few things over the weekend. I’ve already mentioned Bella’s Pockets, plus I bought a copy of Songs for Unusual Creatures (the book was sold out so I’ll need to go pick up a copy elsewhere). My wife fell in love with the wearable literature from Storiarts and got herself a Tale of Two Cities scarf. She also picked up an issue of Stealing Time, a literary magazine for parents. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, but the idea was intriguing.

So, that was my weekend at Wordstock. Of course there was still a lot I didn’t see—you can see the entire list of speakers here if you want to add some more titles to your reading list. And although the book festival is Wordstock’s biggest event of the year, it’s not the only thing they do. They also have programs throughout the year for teachers, students, and parents—visit the website for more information.

Disclosure: Wordstock provided a press pass for the weekend.

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