It's a warm and muggy autumn afternoon in Washington, D.C., as James Billington steps onto the Family Storytelling Stage at the 2012 National Book Festival. He is here to do a reading from "Where the Wild Things Are," the seminal children's book by the late Maurice Sendak.
Billington wears a preppy shirt-tie-blazer ensemble. Seated in a cartoonishly oversized red chair, in front of the grinning redheaded pixie with butterfly wings that visually dominates the stage's backdrop, his formal air feels out of place.
But looks can be deceiving, and in this case reality strays far from perception. Because Billington is not just the Librarian of Congress — a job he's held for 25 years — but also a co-chair of the National Book Festival Board.
In other words, James Billington fits right in — and it's no mistake he is here, now, with "Where the Wild Things Are" in hand. The scene bespeaks Billington's determination to make the National Book Festival as kid-friendly as possible and celebrate the role of books in shaping America. And with the publishing industry facing an uncertain future while the Department of Justice aggressively pursues price-fixing claims against Apple and two of the "Big Six" book publishers, the festival's record-setting growth and grass-roots emphasis is happening at a critical juncture in the evolution of America's love affair with books.
An uncertain future
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the "Big Six" book publishers for what amounts to price-fixing of e-books. The Justice Department alleged that Apple and the publishers conspired to prevent online retailers from discounting e-books — a clear attempt to undercut Amazon's strategy of underselling competitors to secure a larger slice of the e-book marketplace.
Three of the publishers quickly settled, but two — Macmillan Publishers and Penguin Group — joined Apple in asserting they had done nothing wrong. A trial is scheduled for June in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
When the litigation first commenced in April, The Wall Street Journal summed up the high stakes: "The lawsuit upends an industry already undergoing wrenching change as printed books give way to electronic books that can be transmitted anywhere in seconds. Publishers want to keep their role as gatekeeper and ensure that e-books are profitable."
The future of book publishing may hang in the balance, but the need to cultivate young readers who can become the critical thinkers and book buyers of tomorrow remains constant. In that context, then, the kid-friendly National Book Festival occupies a unique place in the public square — different in size but similar in purpose to the thousands of school book fairs and youth-literacy outreach efforts that take place all over the country every year.
"Kids who are just getting started learning to read are very important," said Library of Congress spokeswoman and National Book Festival project manager Jennifer Gavin. "Because those are the readers of the future."
More than 200,000 attended the 2012 National Book Festival on Sept. 22-23. This year's event attracted a record 126 authors for readings and presentations, according to Gavin.
"Particularly on Saturday, we saw the pavilions fill up very early in the day and get overfilled to the point where we had standing-room-only in almost every pavilion," Gavin told the Deseret News.
Speaking recently to the Washington Post about the National Book Festival, Billington said, "With every year, this event becomes more and more kid-friendly." Gavin echoed her boss's sentiment, and illustrated the point by referencing the decision of festival sponsor Target to launch a pavilion in 2011 called the Family Storytelling Stage.
"About a third of the festival is devoted to children and things that interest children about reading and literacy," she said. "The Family Storytelling Stage is for the little kids — Target brought in authors and musical acts that are of interest to very young children who are just getting started reading."
In June the Library of Congress announced "Books That Shaped America," an 88-volume exhibition that continue through Sunday. The inclusion of "Where the Wild Things Are" among "Books That Shaped America" played a large part in Billington selecting the book for his National Book Festival reading, Gavin said.
"This year and next year we are doing a celebration of the book (and) trying to focus attention on the book as a valuable way of conveying information throughout the history of mankind," she explained. "And as part of that we decided to put up this exhibition called 'Books That Shaped America.' "
"You notice we didn't call it 'The Books That Shaped America,' because we felt we were opening a dialogue. ... What we're trying to do is get people thinking about books that they have read or that they know about, that might have actually influenced American history, events, policy, social trends and even their own lives."
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg reported, "The (Books That Shaped America) list includes poetry, novels, nonfiction, plays, a polemic, books of science and grammar, cookbooks and children's books. The list includes 26 books published since 1950, 35 published from 1900 to 1950, 15 published from 1850 to 1900, six published from 1800 to 1850 and nine published before 1800."
The Washington Post's Michael Dirda celebrated the exhibition's eclectic composition: "Happily, (it) ignores the familiar high-culture shibboleths and embraces cookbooks (Irma Rombauer's 'The Joy of Cooking') and schoolbooks (McGuffey's 'Primer'), mysteries (Dashiell Hammett's 'Red Harvest') and science fiction (Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'), political tracts as well as poetry, both Dr. Seuss and Dr. Spock."
88 'Books That Shaped America'
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain (1884)
"Alcoholics Anonymous" by anonymous (1939)
"American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons (1796)
"The American Woman's Home" by Catharine E. Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
"And the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts (1987)
"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand (1957)
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
"Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1987)
"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown (1970)
"The Call of the Wild" by Jack London (1903)
"The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss (1957)
"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller (1961)
"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger (1951)
"Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White (1952)
"Common Sense" by Thomas Paine (1776)
"The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" by Benjamin Spock (1946)
"Cosmos" by Carl Sagan (1980)
"A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible" by anonymous (1788)
"The Double Helix" by James D. Watson (1968)
"The Education of Henry Adams" by Henry Adams (1907)
"Experiments and Observations on Electricity" by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury (1953)
"Family Limitation" by Margaret Sanger (1914)
"The Federalist" by anonymous (1787)
"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan (1963)
"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin (1963)
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
"Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
"Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
"A Grammatical Institute of the English Language" by Noah Webster (1783)
"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck (1939)
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
"Harriet, the Moses of Her People" by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
"The History of Standard Oil" by Ida Tarbell (1904)
"History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark" by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
"How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis (1890)
"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie (1936)
"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
"The Iceman Cometh" by Eugene O'Neill (1946)
"Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures" by Federal Writers' Project (1937)
"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote (1966)
"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison (1952)
"Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer (1931)
"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair (1906)
"Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman (1855)
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving (1820)
"Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy" by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
"Mark, the Match Boy" by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
"McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Primer" by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
"Moby-Dick; or The Whale" by Herman Melville (1851)
"The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" by Frederick Douglass (1845)
"Native Son" by Richard Wright (1940)
"New England Primer" by anonymous (1803)
"New Hampshire" by Robert Frost (1923)
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (1957)
"Our Bodies, Ourselves" by Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1971)
"Our Town: A Play" by Thornton Wilder (1938)
"Peter Parley's Universal History" by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
"Poems" by Emily Dickinson (1890)
"Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth" by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
"Pragmatism" by William James (1907)
"The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D." by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane (1895)
"Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
"Riders of the Purple Sage" by Zane Grey (1912)
"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
"Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
"Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson (1962)
"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner (1929)
"Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams (1923)
"Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
"A Street in Bronzeville" by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams (1947)
"A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America" by Christopher Colles (1789)
"Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (1960)
"A Treasury of American Folklore" by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith (1943)
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
"Unsafe at Any Speed" by Ralph Nader (1965)
"Walden; or Life in the Woods" by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
"The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes (1925)
"Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak (1963)
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum (1900)
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