Gaithersburg book festival brings big names to small-town setting

Children's author Mac Barnett and former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Jon Scieszka at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in 2013. (Courtesy of Jud Ashman)
Children’s author Mac Barnett and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jon Scieszka at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in 2013. (Courtesy of Jud Ashman)

UPDATE: If you’re at today’s fair, please tag your photos and tweets #GBF14

The National Book Festival may be the ultimate literary metropolis, but there are charms to be found in smaller venues, too. Consider the delightful Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 17, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s more “Mayberry R.F.D.”

On the grounds of the Gaithersburg City Hall, readers of all ages mingle amiably with authors while balancing hot dogs and tearing off sticky pieces of cotton candy. It’s easy to imagine most of these fairgoers are making plans for a neighborhood barbeque later in the day.

Not that there isn’t considerable star power at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, which drew 18,000 people last year. More than 100 best-selling and award-winning authors will participate in panel discussions, readings and book signings. (I’ll be in conversation with National Book Award winner Alice McDermott at 2:15 p.m. and with National Book Critics Circle winner Anthony Marra at 3:15 p.m.)

Since it began in 2010, the driving force behind the book festival has been Gaithersburg council member Jud Ashman.

“The idea struck me with a resounding jolt one afternoon while I was sitting in the audience at the 2008 National Book Festival,” Ashman says. “It occurred to me that there was an opportunity, not only to share my passion for books and reading, but to build a large-scale literary event that would add to Gaithersburg’s cultural identity and give people from all over the Mid-Atlantic a reason to come pay us a visit. We’re building Gaithersburg’s brand as a regional leader in the arts and humanities.”

But those large-scale ambitions have never overwhelmed the festival’s small-town atmosphere. And what really keeps Ashman working on this labor of love are the stories of individual lives touched by books.

YA writer Jon Skovron, who will be at the festival this year (2:15 p.m. in the Ogden Nash Pavilion), describes on the GBF blog how one of his sons was inspired last year by hearing Tom Angleberger, author of the “Origami Yoda” series. “My son is autistic, and the hero of the ‘Origami Yoda’ books, though not explicitly autistic, has many of the same challenges. This was, I believe, the first time he recognized himself in a book,” Skovron writes. “And if the piles of homemade paper finger puppet versions of Origami Yoda [are] any indication, it had a profound impact on him.”

“How great is that?” Ashman asks. “Over the last five years, I’ve heard dozens of such stories.”

Almost 20 volunteers work on the festival all year to make sure the writers and attendants have a good time.

“Our relationship with our authors is very much like that of a family — a happy family,” Ashman says. “Tolstoy would disapprove.”

When/Where: Saturday, May 17, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Gaithersburg City Hall, 31 S. Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, Md. Admission, parking and handicap-accessible shuttle buses from Shady Grove Metro and Lakeforest Mall are free.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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