We’re All on the Same Page: The Tucson Festival of Books


Early Spring Literary Fair Lights up Your Brain

A couple years back, morosely dragging my feet around the Tucson Festival of Books, feeling sorry for myself and more than a little jealous of some of the people around me, I noticed that Ofelia Zepeda was about to start reading in a tent directly in front of me. Zepeda, MacArthur Fellow and poet laureate emeritus of Tucson, had been a great inspiration to me in recent years. I took a seat, listened to an excellent reading, and then discovered that all of her out-of-print volumes were back in print. I purchased two and crept back into the tent. “Are you signing books?” I asked, and, when she answered in the affirmative, I shared a short anecdote that connected the two of us. She laughed, remembering the incident, and signed my books. My day had turned around.


Local author KJ Kabza peruses a selection of handmade leather journals.

The Tucson Festival of books, while new to the literary world, has become one of the most popular book fairs in the nation, in no small part, I would imagine, because Tucson is one of the few places in America where you can feasibly host an outdoor event the second week of March. For whatever reason, from its recent origins (the first festival was held in 2009), it has grown into one of the top ten book fairs in America, featuring hundreds of authors and drawing over 100,000 book sellers, book writers, and book buyers over two days.

Books and Everything Else

Typically, I try to attend both days, and even though I spend more time walking around than participating in sessions, listening to readings, or trying to get an author’s signature, it’s hard to see everything. It’s not just books: there’s a science pavilion featuring hands-on demonstrations, and a children’s section that constitutes a festival in itself. It’s a gorgeous way to introduce kids to the excitement of reading. (Check out this picture, published in a local newspaper in 2011, of my then 6-year-old stepdaughter visibly interested as we look at books.)


I meet my idol, Curious George.

You’ll also find circus performances, national park rangers, costumed characters from picture books, and a delightful variety of food, much of it prepared fresh by local restaurants. Whether you’re there to buy books, sell books, learn about writing books, hire an editor, or listen to your favorite authors, you’ll run out of time before you run out of things to do at this festival.

Two Days Is Not Enough

This year, I spent the first day at the fair with my family. As joyful as I find sharing the love of reading with love ones, I must confess my husband gets a little impatient when I stop and browse (while I get a little impatient when he stops to schmooze). The first day, I did a faster circuit, and allowed him to talk. The next day, though, I went with a friend.

Popular fantasy authors Cornelia Funke, Chuck Wendig, Janni Lee Simner, and Aprilynne Pike address a capacity crowd.

Popular fantasy authors Cornelia Funke, Chuck Wendig, Janni Lee Simner, and Aprilynne Pike address a capacity crowd.

We had arranged to meet at a panel discussion, but I was terribly late. Parking is difficult in the university area even without 100,000 extra visitors, so I parked a few miles off campus and biked to the edge of the crowd. Although my friend had texted me that the session was full and they had turned people away, I found the lecture hall and cleverly convinced the volunteers to let me in by pathetically asking if I could just look though the window. Cornelia Funke, Chuck Wendig, Janni Lee Simner, and Aprilynne Pike were sitting in front talking about world building, although the conversation ranged far and wide, encompassing publishing, translating, the origin of ideas, and the authors’ surprise and delight when readers responded positively to their work.

Need a Break?

Walking around the desert all day, even if that desert is a manicured college campus, can take a lot out of you. Tucson natives carry water bottles with them everywhere. You can refill in the library. Otherwise, you’ll pay $2 for a small bottle of water. If you need a snack, kettle corn, mini doughnuts, Hawaiian shave ice, and other small delights are available for purchase. Looking for something more sophisticated? How about gelato? Looking for something more substantial? My favorite fair food is an award-winning local restaurant called the Tucson Tamale Company, offering reasonably priced and very filling lunches for vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters. If tamales don’t offer you enough meat, my second-favorite is the tri-tip sandwich, “protein style” (a pile of meat with no bread).

Local restaurant Beyond Bread supports delicious literacy.

Local restaurant Beyond Bread supports delicious literacy.

There are canopies for shade in the food pavilions as well as the entertainments pavilions. If you’d like to sit down for a while, you’ll find storytellers and actors performing original works or interpreting favorite books. Cultural dance exhibitions abound—folklorico, of course, but also Irish, Polish, Polynesian and more. In the children’s section, you’ll also find crafts tables and plenty of places to color. As long as it’s not too crowded, no one will begrudge your adult self a piece of a paper and a few stickers, although, if you’re worried about how you look, you might want to drag a kid along for show.

Popular Author Narrowly Avoids Being Trampled by Teens

My friend and I strolled the festival, purchasing books we could not live without, along with T-shirts, notebooks, notecards, and buttons. “Hey,” I noticed. “Lois Lowry is reading in this tent in an hour.” My friend allowed that he had not actually read Lowry (author of Newbery-award winning books The Giver and Number the Stars) but that he, of course, knew of her. Fifty minutes later, we returned to find the tent full to capacity, standing room only. As it turned out, the back was a good place to be. The audience, wildly excited to see Lowry, was packed in tight. She announced that she would be reading, speaking, answering questions, and signing books, but, as she had already done a half-dozen signings that weekend, she seriously doubted there were any books in Tucson left for her to sign. Immediately, two dozen adolescent girls’ hands shot into the air, almost every one clutching a copy of The Giver. “OK,” Lowry conceded. “I didn’t sign them all.”


The Pima County Public Library bookmobile delivers books to the masses.

She proceeded to read a few pages from a book and then give a wide-ranging discussion and Q&A, talking about her inspirations, her upcoming movie, and what stories mean. The questions would have continued all day, but another author was scheduled to use that space, and the volunteers ended the chat. At that point, the two dozen adolescent girls, along with two dozen more, rushed the front of the pavilion, prompting the volunteers to form a protective cordon around the popular author, bark out instructions for a more orderly solicitation of signatures in a more appropriate venue, and probably the rethink their life decisions.

I’m Not Going to Buy Any Books I Don’t Need

Most of us, regardless of our intentions, find that there are volumes we simply cannot live without, and here they are, and look at that price! Once the seal is broken, anything is fair game, and I was soon laden with a dozen books that I definitely needed, some of which I still haven’t read. A hard-to-find fantasy collection. A history of magic. More guides to the Sonoran Desert. A feminist graphic novel. Their reassuring heft followed me as we walked up and down the festival, continually discovering booths we had missed, or unsearched corners of booths we had already hit.

Funny, we've got a lot of books here.

Funny, we’ve got a lot of books here.

It’s not a bad idea to bring cash if you’re trying to keep a lid on your spending. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Otherwise, you, like me, may be surprised a few weeks later at the number of charges on your credit card statement. Who bought all those books?


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