For book lovers of all ages, the New Orleans Book Festival is poised to be a premiere national literary event. The festival welcomes everyone to campus in March to meet and greet famous authors and celebrate the joy of literature.
Staging a book festival to expose children to the joy of reading was one of Cheryl Landrieu’s most rewarding achievements as first lady of the City of New Orleans. Partnering with civil rights activist and educator Ruby Bridges in observance of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of public schools, Landrieu envisioned a celebration of learning replete with author readings, book giveaways and literacy resources for parents.
And that is exactly what she got, with families of all backgrounds, from all parts of the city, gathering on the lawn of Milton H. Latter Memorial Library in 2010 for the inaugural New Orleans Children’s Book Festival.
Nearly a decade later, the festival is about to take a major leap into the literary world with a three-day extravaganza that organizers predict will become one of the premiere book events in the country. The New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University, scheduled for March 19–21, 2020, will continue the tradition of children’s programming but will go well beyond cartoon characters, juice boxes and storytelling.
“Events like this make our campus and the Tulane experience available to everyone, especially the young minds and aspiring writers of New Orleans.”
President of Tulane
“It is Tulane’s great honor to host a festival that brings together the world’s leading authors, book lovers of all genres and the children of our community,” President Mike Fitts said. “Events like this make our campus and the Tulane experience available to everyone, especially the young minds and aspiring writers of New Orleans.”
Landrieu is partnering with Tulane’s own Walter Isaacson, a history professor who knows a thing or two about the literary world, to co-chair the festival. Author of such best-selling biographies as Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, and most recently Leonardo DaVinci, Isaacson has appeared at countless book festivals across the country and couldn’t help but think that his hometown was missing out on something special.
“As an author, I noticed that so many cities around the country have major book festivals,” Isaacson said. “I love all the festivals in New Orleans, but it seemed to me that somewhere in the cultural calendar between food and wine and jazz it would be fun to do a major literary and ideas festival.”
To have Tulane as a partner convinced Landrieu that the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane, even in its inaugural year, would be one for the ages. “It’s a natural literary thing to have a university as partner, and with Walter’s connections, we felt we could really put on something special,” she said.
The list of authors who have committed to the festival reads like a who’s who of the literary and media worlds, beginning with an opening night keynote discussion and reception with John Grisham, whose legal thrillers from A Time to Kill to The Reckoning have sold upwards of 275 million copies and been translated into 42 languages.
The festival will continue throughout the weekend with panel discussions, keynote lectures, books fairs and workshops. It will be divided into seven tracks — American Society, Health & Science, Food, Sports, New Orleans Culture, Fiction and Children. At least one major plenary session featuring a leading author will be held each day, and a variety of social events and sponsorship opportunities will take place across the city, including a patron dine-around at neighboring Audubon Place.
The lineup as of Tulanian press time includes David Brooks (The Road to Character), Donna L. Brazile (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics), Sarah M. Broom (The Yellow House), Jill Conner Browne (The Sweet Potato Queens), Malcolm Gladwell (Talking to Strangers), Eddie Glaude (Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul), Annette Gordon-Reed (Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination), Mitch Landrieu (In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History), Michael Lewis (The Undoing Project), Samantha Power (The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir), Sister Helen Prejean (River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey), Susan Rice (Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For), and Sean Tuohy, whose story about adopting football player Michael Oher was the basis for Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.
Dozens of local authors, including Tulane professors Richard Campanella (Lost New Orleans) and Mark VanLandingham (Weathering Katrina), will also be participating in the festival.
Mika Brzezinski (Know Your Value) and Joe Scarborough (The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics — and Can Again) of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” will broadcast from Tulane on Friday, March 20. (Isaacson makes regular appearances on “Morning Joe.”)
The family portion of the festival will be especially engaging, with author readings, parent workshops, a reading corner and costume characters all part of the experience. In partnership with Scholastic Corporation, a multinational publishing and education company, and the City of New Orleans’ Department of Youth and Families, the festival will reach out to teachers and school organizations in advance of the festival to encourage attendance.
New Orleans Book Festival At Tulane, March 19–21, 2020. Book Fest team members (left to right) Allison Hjortsberg, Lindsey Billips, Walter Isaacson and Cheryl Landrieu join Tulane President Mike Fitts at the announcement of the Book Festival lineup in October. (Photo by Jackson Hill)
“We want kids to come and meet authors and learn what authors do,” Landrieu said. “We want them to see a college campus and meet professors. We want it to be a very energetic, dynamic, diverse experience. And most important, we want kids to see that reading is fun.”
As part of the planning process, she and Isaacson met with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who couldn’t have been more thrilled with the idea but emphasized the importance of family programming.
“She was enthusiastically supportive,” Isaacson said. “But she was the one who suggested that we emphasize family literacy and make it a celebration of community literacy. We want it to be a fun day but also a valuable educational opportunity.”
The Book Fest committee, which also includes Allison Hjortsberg and Lindsey Billips, is working with local public school and library systems to make sure that families are not only aware of Family Day but know that it is free.
Among the organizations that the festival is partnering with is 826 New Orleans, a nonprofit group that cultivates and publishes the writing of New Orleans children and teens. The group is a chapter of 826 National, which was co-founded by Dave Eggers, author of such award-winning books as Zeitoun and What Is the What.
“We provide a safe space for young writers to develop their craft,” 826 New Orleans Executive Director Brooke Picket said. “We believe strong writing skills lead to self advocacy and self empowerment.”
She said the New Orleans Book Festival presented an ideal opportunity to showcase the organization’s mission with the wider New Orleans community.
“We’ll have a tent and we’ll be providing activities for young kids centered around writing.” Eggers is expected to be in attendance to highlight the work of New Orleans participants.
Family Day will take place on the Berger Family Lawn in the center of campus, while the other parts of the festival will be spread among the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, The Commons, Freeman and McAlister auditoriums and the Myra Clare Rogers Memorial Chapel.
Except for a few ticketed events — such as the John Grisham keynote and patron dinners and receptions — admission to the festival is free.
“This is not an invitation-only event,” Isaacson said. “We want this to be accessible to anyone who wants to come. We want to involve everyone, from all walks of life and all ages.”