Iowa City Book Festival aims for 5,000 attendees


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Clifford the Big Red Dog, Curious George, and Pippi Longstocking aren’t typical visitors to Gibson Square. But this weekend is different.

The children’s book characters will be a part of the Book Character Parade, a program that will kick off Saturday’s events for the third-annual Iowa City Book Festival.

And this is just one of the many programs festival officials have added — doubling their programming from last year — in order to surpass their goal of 5,000 attendees.

“I think their mission is to make Iowa City a destination for people who are interested in being involved with literature on many levels,” said Jan Weismiller, a member of the planning committee and a co-owner of Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

The festival involves readings from authors around town in places such as Shambaugh Auditorium and other parts of the University of Iowa’s Main Library. But there will also be new events such as the parade and a competition dedicated to The Hunger Games series.

“There are so many great programs on the schedule,” said Kristi Bontrager, the public-relations coordinator for the UI Library and a co-director of the festival. “I’m having a hard time deciding what I’m most excited about.”

The first Iowa City Book Festival, created with three main goals, took place in 2009. First, Bontrager said, UI librarians wanted to thank the community for their support in helping evacuate books during the flood. Also, Iowa City had just received the UNESCO City of Literature designation — just the third city in the world to receive it after Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia — and Bontrager realized the two other cities were very well-known for their book festivals. And finally, in 2009 the UI Libraries acquired its 5 millionth volume, making the system one of the largest in the country.

“You have to have a party for that kind of milestone,” Bontrager said.

Festivals such as these are important worldwide as literacy is key for success in life, said Jennifer Gavin, the project manager for the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival, which takes place every year on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“[The festivals] remind everyone of the crucial importance of literacy and reading in our lives,” she said.

They also help bring people together. Because reading is usually a solitary activity, book festivals allow people to gather as a group and share in the experience of reading as a whole, said Jeanette Pilak, the executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.

“Reading is usually an individual activity, but in the festival we get to share our enthusiasm and enjoyment,” she said.

Festival officials use programs and events to unite those attending. Bontrager said in order to get ideas for the programs, the planning committee — made up of representatives from the UI Press, Prairie Lights, the Iowa City Public Library, and the UI Libraries — looked through published material to see what could be an interesting theme for an event or workshop.

“We use their stuff to glean what we can use,” she said.

The committee officials do not have a huge budget to work with in planning the festival, but they do receive funding from Humanities Iowa — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the humanities — and also from grants, donors, vendors who pay for their own space and tents, and the Community Foundation of Johnson County.

Bontrager said other than businesses that offer their space for readings, there aren’t many financial benefits for the participants of the festival.

Gavin also said the only people who might benefit from the festivals are authors whose books are sold at the festivals and receive publicity from the event.

National Book Festival officials have a budget around $2 million, while Iowa City Book Festival Officials have a comparably small budget of around $20,000.

But even with this smaller budget, the planning committee has managed to more than double its programming and increase the companies involved in the downtown business portion of the festival from 25 to 50. The increase allows more opportunities for authors to read in different businesses around Iowa City.

“There are going to be a lot of very, very good things about this year’s book festival,” Weismiller said.

The Prairie Lights co-owner has been on the planning committee since the festival began. She said her experience with authors — Prairie Lights is a well-known stop for readings — makes her an asset to the festival.

“We have so many contacts with writers that I can be pretty helpful with that committee,” she said.
Weismiller said the new program she is looking forward to the most is the book club with Jane Hamilton taking place at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., on July 17.

Hamilton, a Wisconsin author, said she is excited about her first appearance at the Iowa City Book Festival.

“It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of my Iowa City friends,” she said.

Hamilton will discuss her 1999 novel , The Short History of a Prince, with the book club. The novel is about a boy, Walter McCloud, who aspires to be a dancer but finds he lacks the talent. After that setback, he then has to deal with the illness of his brother.

“I have a secret soft spot in my heart for the main character,” Hamilton said.

She said she, like Walter, studied dance but soon realized she did not have the talent.

“I put the struggle that was mine into Walter McCloud’s body and enjoyed living with him in those years that I wrote the book,” she said.

These new activities are designed to increase attendance but also to include the entire city, because the festival is for people of all ages, Bontrager said. No one will be left out — activities are designed for toddlers up to retired people.

Although increasing attendance is a main goal, she said, she is also hoping to raise people’s awareness about literature.

“[We’re] really interested to provide access to books and getting people interested in reading,” she said.

Iowa City is a well-known literary spot, filled with writing and a plethora of authors. But this can be intimidating to those people who don’t consider themselves avid readers, Bontrager said.

The festival is an opportunity to bring together those who read very little with those who can’t put a book down.

“We’re really interested in bringing all kinds of people,” she said. “Whatever kind of reading they do.”

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