Exploring Kentucky: The Kentucky Book Festival

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By Katherine Tandy Brown

Readers and writers rejoice! It’s time again for that favorite event of book lovers and bibliophiles, the 41st Annual Kentucky Book Festival (KBF). On October 29, Lexington’s literary hoard Joseph-Beth Booksellers (JBB) will fulfill KBF founder’s vision “to honor writers and connect readers” as the bookstore transforms into a meeting place magic where all ages can revel in writing, among those who write it and in publishing.

“More than half of participating authors — 60 percent or more — are from Kentucky or write about Kentucky,” says KBF Director Sara Woods. “Of all the authors present this year, most have written books that relate to the Commonwealth in some way – basketball, bourbon, horses, tourism, history or architecture. All of our top 10 festival sellers in 2021 were about Kentucky. People come to buy books about the state they live in and want to learn more.

In addition to celebrating the works of Kentuckians, this exceptional event attracts national literary stars, politicians, scholars, journalists, celebrities and athletes. A full Saturday of programming includes an author signing gallery, children’s author tent and more author book signings on two stages at Joseph-Beth. Activities include photo ops, readings, discussions and an illustration workshop for children. And for the first time, KBF will be giving away books to children aged 12 and under to encourage reading.

The best news… entrance to the festival is free!

Leading the list of 150 participating authors are Kentucky-connected writers Barbara Kingsolver, Jon Meacham, Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson and Geraldine Brooks. Here’s the skinny on these literary superstars:

• Barbara Kingsolver: Winner of the National Humanities Medal, Kingsolver is inspired by Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” in her powerful new book “Demon Copperhead,” a 21st-century coming-of-age novel set in Appalachia and follows an unforgettable young hero’s journey to maturity.
• Jon Meacham: The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer’s new book, “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle,” explains how and why Lincoln faced secession, threats to democracy and the tragedy of slavery to expand America’s possibilities.
• Wendell Berry: The National Humanities Medal winner and highly respected Kentucky novelist, environmental activist, cultural critic, poet and farmer continues his exploration of the premise that the wealth of the powerful few who rule this nation was built on other people’s unpaid labor in “The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the Nature of Prejudice.”
• Crystal Wilkinson: The Kentucky Poet Laureate 2021-2022, Wilkinson’s most recent book, “Perfect Black,” is a verse memoir that elegantly explores rural black youth, religion, sexual abuse, and growing up in the southern Appalachians. Named “one of four books to read this week” by the New York Times Book Review.
• Geraldine Brooks: The Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian-American novelist and journalist’s new novel ‘Horse’ is based on the true story of American racehorse Lexington. The plot brilliantly weaves together seemingly disparate pieces of history to create a novel of art and science, wit and obsession, and our unfinished take on racism.
While all featured author events are free, you’ll need to register online for those featuring Barbara Kingsolver and Jon Meacham, as seating will be limited.

This year, a first KBF event takes place on October 13 at 7 p.m. as part of Simon & Schuster’s Annual AuthorFest, featuring New York Times bestselling authors John Irving and Jason Reynolds in conversation. The book publishing company’s CEO, Jonathan Karp, will moderate. These two legendary authors are known for crafting thought-provoking stories about expressing self-identity through explorations of race, class, and sexuality. The evening should be lively.

To learn more about KBF and related events, visit kybookfestival.org, an interactive site with book descriptions and author biographies. Here are some of the scheduled KBF-related events:
• A Commerce Lexington Spotlight Breakfast featuring 21c Museum Hotel founders, Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, presenting their stunning new book, “Hermitage Farm,” about their remarkable renovation of the historic Thoroughbred Farm. The visionary couple will also sign with JBB.
• A book related quiz at Goodwood Brewery in Lexington Green near JBB.
• A treasure hunt to find information in JBB’s books on horses.

Keep checking the site for additions and updates.
From the festival’s inception in 1981, a team of dedicated volunteers ran the event until 2016 when the Kentucky Humanities Council assumed leadership, which continues today.
After going virtual for 2020, KBF has teamed up with its current partner, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. It’s a pairing that seems like a match made in heaven.

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