The Second
National Book Festival:
Impressions and Memories

What I remember most about getting the phone call was how terrible my HarperCollins editor, Rosemary Brosnan, sounded. She had an awful head cold, and when I picked up the phone to her “hello, Cyn?” all I could think was that she should be in bed with hot soup.

But her news was too exciting to wait.

Rosemary informed me that I’d been invited to the Second National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., courtesy of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and first lady Laura Bush.

“I can’t believe one of my authors is going to the White House!” she said.

I couldn’t believe it either.

Cynthia Leitich SmithRather astonished, I checked my calendar to assure her that, yes, the weekend of October 12 (between my two talks at September 28th’s West Texas Book and Author Festival in Abilene and my keynote at October 19th’s Texas Library Association’s District VIII conference) was still open.

We chatted a while and then I half-ran, half-slipped down my newly refinished stairs to find my husband, children’s author Greg Leitich Smith (first novel, fall 03) sitting in one of the two chairs we own (new house, no furniture). He was reading with Sebastian, the smaller and more playful of our two gray tabby cats.

“So,” I began with smug wifely aplomb, “how about going to D.C.?”

My beloved, supportive, literary husband gave me a look that mentally translated into: I love you, but our fall speaking schedule is out of control; forget it.

I replied, arms crossed, eyebrow arched, “Okay, but if you come with me, I’ll take you as my guest to the breakfast at the White House.”

After eight years of marriage, it’s a treat to shock a handsome man.

I’m certain that many authors and illustrators among my fellow invitees took the news with the calm dignity befitting their art and station.

I danced around to Cher songs.

When you get an invitation to the White House, that’s all the return address reads: THE WHITE HOUSE. Capital letters. Gold. Nothing else. No street or zip code.

Just FYI.

Greg and I don’t get up to the Northeast very often, and so we took advantage of the trip’s geography to pop up to New York City. We visited my gracious and brilliant editor (who’d recovered from her cold), her gorgeous husband, and their two adorable sons. We spent a day on Avenue of the Americas in New York City, touring HarperCollins and joining Rosemary and our perfect agent for a long and gregarious lunch. The next day, we visited Greg’s publisher (Little, Brown) and had lunch with his friendly, whip-smart editor Amy Hsu. Trip highlights included the hamachi, being offered two $80K statues for a bargain $30K (um, we passed), and the aerial destruction of tomatoes with a baseball bat.

After leaving NYC, we went on to the Hotel George in Washington, D.C. Imagine an ultra-modern, swanky hotel crafted as a tribute to the nation’s first president. Have you ever slept in a bed beneath a neon-colored-in giant dollar bill? It’s an experience.

Greg and I arrived earlier than most of the NBF people on the program because we’d been invited to an additional event, a reception for participating Native authors at the Cultural Resource Center of the National Museum of the American Indian in Suitland, Maryland. This fun and low-key gathering gave me an opportunity to meet with the thoughtful staff, including Marty Kreipe de Montano (author of COYOTE IN LOVE WITH A STAR, illustrated by Tom Coffin).

As the main museum is still under construction, we were escorted to a warehouse-type room filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves of artifacts gathered for cataloging. Those in attendance were offered rubber gloves and a guide for close inspection of the holdings. It’s an incredible collection, though the Muscogee artifacts still hadn’t been shipped down from their temporary home in New York.

Over the course of the afternoon, I began to know Chum McIntyre, a storyteller, and fellow children’s author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, who was in attendance with her husband, daughter, and teen-cool granddaughter. Luci Tapahonso, though participating in the festival, unfortunately had to miss the reception due to illness. Author/activist Vine Deloria, who’d also worked with the museum (on the board and with repatriation issues, I think) arrived late, and I basically chickened out of introducing myself to him. I mean, really! Vine Deloria. I was a little star struck.

Authors and guests were transported out to and back from the Maryland suburbs in a white van, meriting a glance or two as we passed police cars at virtually every intersection. For this past weekend in the D.C. area, tragically, was not only one of celebrating America’s books. It also was one of mourning and terror as a sniper or snipers almost daily gunned down innocent citizens. Schools were on lockdown, SAT testing and games cancelled, gas stations turned into danger zones. Yet everyone I met was warm, friendly, gracious, enthusiastic, and welcoming. It was an honor to be in their company.

On Friday night, a gala was held at the Library of Congress. By the way, very nice library. Big. Gorgeous. Awe-inspiring actually.

The program began with a wine and appetizer reception, which included speeches by various sponsors (AT&T, The Washington Post, and WorkPlace USA). The entire crowd of featured authors (who were not invited to bring guests) and those who’d paid a whole lot of money to attend was then guided to an auditorium for a short, entertaining program. As Linda Sue Park said, “James Billington introduced Laura Bush who introduced Cokie Roberts, who introduced Sebastian Junger.” Junger read from FIRE, followed by David Levering Lewis, who read from AFTERTHOUGHTS ABOUT A BIOGRAPHICAL ODESSY: W.E.B. DUBOIS, followed by children’s author Carmen Deedy, who brought down the house with applause for her inspirational talk on “The Solace of a Good Book.”

Dinner followed. For my aunt Linda, who will no doubt print this page to read to my mother and grandmother, I sat with, among other people, a general (who had founded Americorps) and the wife of the senator from Alaska (who practices law in Chicago, is distraught by folks who don’t eat salmon, and spoke proudly of her daughter at Stanford). The menu featured:

I liked the risotto.

And I wore my lightly brushed, black velvet opera dress with silk patches and black, lace-up boots (like the ones I wore for my wedding; only black rather than antique white). In attendance were the President and Mrs. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and some of the largest pieces of jewelry I have ever seen.

I met a number of folks I hadn’t previously from the children’s author world… Brian Selznic and Ed Young among them. In the crowd, I looked for Rosemary Wells to no avail. Afterward, I met informally with my husband, old and new children’s author/illustrator pals, and their significant others at the hotel to dish glowingly about the event and the famous/notorious broadcast journalist sitting at the booth behind us.

Breakfast at the White House kicked off at 7 a.m., following shuttle transport and an extensive security process. Imagine hundreds of the nation’s top authors, NBA and WNBA basketball stars, the first lady, and me at the White House for a buffet breakfast, highlighted by the salmon (the senator’s wife would’ve been pleased). Lots of picture-taking. Lots of small talk. Lots of gazing at giant presidential portraits. Friendly faces included Pat Mora. Each room was brilliantly a different color, which I’m assuming is how they tell them apart. W. (which is what we all call him here in Austin) was in the lawn, tossing the ball to his dog, but he didn’t come in to say hello. A number of people spoke about the first lady, and it was overwhelmingly agreed—regardless of partisan ties or perspectives—that she was a national treasure and a gift to the literary community.

Yes, we were all a little gushy. But hey…!

A kick-off ceremony was held under the watchful eye of the most news cameras I’ve ever seen in one place (and I did used to be a journalist). Luci Tapahonso gave a touching and dignified greeting. Mrs. Putin’s presence was a surprise. Both she and Mrs. Bush teased the NBA/WNBA players, who presented Mrs. Bush with a signed basketball. Allen Say’s comment to Greg and me, holding hands: “What are you guys, newlyweds?”

Then it was on to the main event. We saw a number of speakers, Mr. Say among them as he was scheduled just before me. Note to self: generally avoid following living legends. A crowd that thinned quickly to chase after his signing built up again midway through my talk. I had a moment…okay, more than one…of panic when I discovered that the thirty-minute presentation I’d prepared upon request for INDIAN SHOES would not do when the booksellers had stocked RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME instead. In a pinch, I read from both titles, made a few comments, and then took thoughtful questions, both about my own work and Native American children’s books in general. The talk lasted about thirty minutes and drew rousing applause.

RAIN sold out, and I enjoyed a number of inspiring one-on-one conversations with young readers, mostly girls, between ages 8-18. It also was a handy thing that my publisher had picked this event to deliver to me a one-page author bio. Copies went like hot cakes. Best of all, fellow authors Tracie Vaughn Zimmer and Annette Curtis Klause (resplendent in bats, fur, and bones—no kidding!) attended in a much-appreciated show of support.

What else?

Threatening rain held back all day. Carpets covered a soggy West Lawn of the Capitol Building. The event grounds stretched three blocks. I rejoiced at running into pals from the Texas Book Festival and Oklahoma Center for the Book. C-Span (and most news outlets) ignored children’s authors in favor of adult ones, though The Post did a nice article about the oh-so vivacious Kate DiCamillo. The metal detectors were packed up as soon as Mrs. Bush left the grounds, early that morning. A city in lockdown poured onto festival grounds anyway. At 45,000 in attendance, the second national festival topped even the first year’s draw of 30,000.

National Book Festival
Learn more about the
National Book Festival

My volunteer guide for the day—charming in his official blue T-shirt—was a gentleman named Von E. Smith, a printing specialist/publications manager from the Library of Congress Cataloging Distribution Service. I can’t imagine anyone being more kind or hospitable. Mr. Smith is one of the world’s truly lovely men, and I wish him and his fiancée (we met briefly) the very best in their life together.

I’m grateful to Mrs. Bush, Mr. Billington, Mr. Bass of the Smithsonian, the kind folks at HarperCollins, and all of my friends for making the weekend of the 12th so memorable.

Oh, yeah. Nice of my husband to take me, too. I really like him.

Looking back, what I remember most is a remark made by Mrs. Putin that she would like to bring a book festival to Russia. I hope she goes for it.