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National Book Festival hosts authors with tough but vulnerable characters

Jennifer Ziegler and David Bowles share the stage at the festival, which features more than 40 kids book creators.

Middle-grade authors David Bowles and Jennifer Ziegler will appear Saturday at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., to talk about their new books. (The Washington Post illustration/David Bowles/Penguin Young Readers/Margaret Ferguson Books)

On Saturday, you can see some of your favorite authors and illustrators in person at the National Book Festival, for the first time since covid-19 forced the event to go virtual two years ago.

Kwame Alexander, Mac Barnett, Sabaa Tahir and more than 40 other children’s book creators will speak at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C., with three stages for presentations and activities for tots, teens and ages in between.

“Holy smokes! I’m thrilled,” said David Bowles about joining fellow Texas author Jennifer Ziegler on a panel at the festival. They’ll be talking about their new middle-grade books and tough yet vulnerable characters.

Both authors, who are Mexican American, draw on their own awkward, sometimes funny experiences in middle school in their writing.

“The insecurities, the excitement, the terror, the mistakes — I can access that period as if it was yesterday,” Ziegler told KidsPost by phone from her home near Austin.

In her novel “Worser,” the well-ordered world of her prickly seventh-grade protagonist is upended by his professor mother’s recent stroke. One thing that helps ease Worser’s sense of loss and confusion is a passion that Ziegler shares: words and wordplay.

“As a kid, I loved word games,” she said. “Mad Libs, Scrabble, crossword puzzles. I’d even make up my own. Now, I often start the day with Wordle, or I’ll write a little poem.”

For Bowles, years in a high school rock band inform “They Call Her Fregona,” his novel in verse. His protagonist, Güero, starts a band with three friends named Bobby.

“The dynamics, the fights, how we practiced,” he said by phone from the Rio Grande Valley, where he lives. “I basically stole from life.”

Another true-life inspiration is his wife, who is the model for Güero’s brave, strong-minded girlfriend, Joanna.

“My wife is a real fregona, or tough girl,” he said, with a laugh. “That part with the bully’s arm? She actually did that when she was a kid.”

Ziegler’s husband, Chris Barton, played more of an editorial role in “Worser.” Since he, too, is a children’s book author, he’s “my best first reader,” Ziegler said. “He’d read my drafts and let me know when [the voice] sounded more Jenny than Worser.”

Bowles and Ziegler are also quick to notice and listen to the young people around them. And they try to be true to the needs and feelings they observe or learn about.

When she taught middle school, Ziegler knew students who, like Worser, were sad, lonely and overwhelmed. Though her character isn’t based on any one person and has his own “very precise, almost formal, way of talking,” he does have those same feelings, she said.

Bowles gives a big shout-out to students at Pete Gallego Elementary School for the idea for his book. His novel in verse “They Call Me Güero” had just been published several years ago, and he was talking about it at the school, which is in Eagle Pass, on the Texas-Mexico border. The kids surprised him with a dramatic reading of his poems, and then a group of girls approached. They wanted him to write a book that centered on Joanna, who had appeared only a few times in “They Call Me Güero.”

“They felt she needed her own story,” he said. “And they were right. Thanks to those girls, I got to know Joanna. I got to write about what her family is going through and how Güero tries to help. A whole new book.”

IF YOU GO

What: David Bowles and Jennifer Ziegler talk about their new books in a panel called “Tough With a Gooey Center: Kids Learn to Be Themselves.”

Where: KidLit Stage, Hall B, National Book Festival, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place in Northwest Washington.

When: 3 to 3:35 p.m., with book signing after in Hall C.

How much: Free.

Other activities: Presentations by more than 40 authors and illustrators for children and teens, story times and activities, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (doors open at 8:30 a.m.) on the Please Read Me a Story, KidLit and Young Adult stages.

For more information: For a schedule of authors and activities, visit loc.gov/events/2022-national-book-festival/schedule.

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