Soggy National Book Festival Draws Thousands

The National Mall was a sea of ponchos and umbrellas as thousands of book lovers attended the ninth annual National Book Festival on Saturday despite the late summer showers.

More than 130,000 literature enthusiasts found more than just some place to duck out of the rain and a couple of free tote bags at this year’s festival, which featured at least 70 authors, illustrators and poets including John Grisham, David Baldacci, Judy Blume, celebrity chef Paula Deen, James Patterson, Gwen Ifill and Nicholas Sparks.

Authors and poets held 30 to 45-minute sessions in mostly standing-room-only pavilions arranged by genre: Children, Teens & Children, Fiction & Fantasy, History & Biography, Mysteries & Thrillers and Poetry & Prose.

These large tents gave attendees a chance to see their favorite authors up close, hear about newly released or upcoming projects, and ask questions about the author’s inspirations and future plans.Authors like Sue Monk Kidd, writer of the best-seller “The Secret Life of Bees,” and Carmen Agra Deedy, author of the award- winning children’s book “The Yellow Star,” kept the pavilions so packed that some attendees stood in the muddy grass just beyond the shelter of the tent.

The festival attracted a variety of people from high school students to grandparents enjoying the day with their grandchildren. Most people had at least one child in tow, with larger groups herding more than four children in and out of nearby tents.

Arguably, the most consistently packed pavilion was the PBS Kids Raising Readers tent. Though not the largest exhibition area, this space was filled to the brim with coloring tables, giant posters for children to autograph, [to get autographs or to autograph themselves?]a stage for performances, interactive reading activities and about 150 kids at any given time.

One highlight in the PBS tent was a live performance by Elmo and Chris from “Sesame Street.” A giggling toddler sat on almost every shoulder as Elmo and Chris danced and sang songs like the “Sesame Street” theme. Elmo even treated the kids to a dance routine to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” making even the parents do a little dance.

New to the festival was the Digital Bookmobile. This exhibit, powered by OverDrive, enabled visitors to browse a public library’s Web site, sample popular eBooks and learn how to download and test supported mobile devices.

Another busy pavilion was the book sales tent. Lines on either side of the entrance hosted at least 40 people throughout the day with rainy wait times averaging 10 to 15 minutes; though no one waiting seemed to mind.

Crowd control wasn’t even necessary until about 11 a.m. when the crowd got a little too big too fast, according to volunteers.Hundreds of visitors picked through genre-separated folding tables lined with books. The children’s table saw a steady flow of traffic, as well as the fiction & fantasy table. Other tables, like the Obama and local interest sections, saw fewer patrons.

About 15 cashiers processed the line of buyers snaking through ropes and recycling bins in the middle of the pavilion, with wait times averaging about 15 minutes. Almost everyone in line had more than one book with some balancing a stack of five or more.

“Even with this crowd, it doesn’t seem as busy as last year,” said Greg Weinman of Annapolis, Md. Weinman and his family have attended the festival every year and plan to attend again next year, though he’s holding out for clearer skies.

Hundreds of fans waited up to two hours in the on again, off again showers for autographs from their favorite authors.

Polly Gibbs of Woodbridge, Va., stood in line from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. waiting for autographs from Baldacci and Grisham. “It’s definitely worth it,” said Gibbs as she presented her book to Baldacci for her long-awaited signature.

Another fan favorite was celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose line stretched from the signing area back to the sales tent. A cluster of fans crowded the front of the line just to snap a picture of the Food Network queen of southern cuisine. Scores of fans waited in line and were still unable to receive their autograph by the time Deen’s session ended at 2 p.m.

But no afternoon book signing line could touch that of Jeff Kinney, best-selling author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. Fans stood in line nearly an hour before Kinney’s 1 p.m. session. By 2, Kinney had two separate lines, one of which reached the sales tent before doubling back toward the front of the line.

Dozens of elementary school boys waited anxiously for their chance to have their “Wimpy Kid” book signed.James Matthews of Alexandria, Va., and his 10-year-old son, Gabriel, went to the festival specifically to see Kinney. “I’m going crazy,” said Gabriel as he fidgeted and repeatedly opened and closed his book. “I just want to get my book signed and go home.”

The Stocktin and Lavoi families also attended to see Kinney. “We came to see Kinney and Rick Riordan,” said William Stocktin, 12. Nine-year-old Nate Lavoi was equally excited to see the famous author. “Even with the rain, I’d still wait!”

“The National Book Festival has again been a marvelous celebration of reading, and was enormous fun for everyone,” said Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, in a statement on Saturday. “The Library of Congress has embarked on many new and exciting opportunities this year to engage book lovers of all ages, leading education into the digital age and beyond.”

The Library of Congress took technology into account this year with the launch of a mobile text campaign. Festival-goers could simply text BOOK to 61399 to receive the latest festival announcements, as well as author presentation and signing schedules. Visitors could also follow the event on Twitter or become a fan of the library on Facebook.