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Literary Festival promises busy weekend

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BLACK HISTORIAN: John Hope Franklin to appear.
  • BLACK HISTORIAN: John Hope Franklin to appear.

The third annual Arkansas Literary Festival begins April 20 in Little Rock’s River Market District and will feature a diverse group of authors that includes historian John Hope Franklin and political journalist Joe Klein.

“The strength of this year’s lineup is that we managed to combine very smart authors who are also very accessible,” said Marc Smirnoff, editor of The Oxford American magazine, who recruited the festival participants. “I keep trying to figure out who are the headliners for this year’s festival and I keep changing my short list. It’s hard to figure out who I want to personally go see.”

Klein, the Time magazine columnist who wrote the novel “Primary Colors,” will introduce his new book at the festival, “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid.” Franklin, the 91-year-old chronicler of black history in America, will discuss his new autobiography.

The festival lineup also includes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, with a new book called “What Jesus Meant”; Arkansas native Melissa King presenting her book “She’s Got Next,” about women playing basketball; Charles Fishman, the author of “The Wal-Mart Effect,” and Michael Kauffman, whose new book about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, “American Brutus,” is already considered a definitive work.

National Public Radio’s “The Book Guys,” Allen Stypeck and Mike Cuthbert, will return for the second year in a row to tape two live programs on the evening of April 20. The Arkansas Times is sponsoring the popular “Pub or Perish” literary pub crawl on April 22. And familiar Arkansas names like novelists Kevin Brockmeier and Donald Harington and journalist Deborah Mathis also are scheduled to appear. (The full festival schedule is available at, and the Times will print it in its April 20 issue.)

The festival, organized by the Arkansas Literacy Councils, is free and open to the public, although there are some ticketed special events, including a barbecue lunch in the River Marker pavilion on April 21 with food author “Dr. BBQ” Ray Lampe, a children’s breakfast at the Clinton Presidential Center on April 22, and evening author receptions on April 21 and 22. All proceeds benefit the Literacy Councils, which provide adult literacy programs throughout Arkansas. The festival is unique in this respect, and for that reason it is among the few events of its kind that does not pay authors to appear.

“Arkansas has never had a cultural event like this, and as far as we know, it’s the only event of its kind in the country where proceeds go solely to volunteer adult literacy efforts,” said Marie Bruno, executive director of the Literacy Councils. “It also helps us tremendously in keeping the adult literacy problem in the public eye. So many people don’t believe how serious this is. Illiteracy is at the root of so many problems facing our families and our economy.”

As with the previous two festivals, this year’s activities will use venues within several blocks of the River Market pavilion, including the Central Arkansas Main Library, the Cox Creative Center and Historic Arkansas Museum. The central outdoor gathering place will be the parking lot at the corner of President Clinton Avenue and Commerce Street, and will include exhibitors, a music stage and food vendors. Around 8,000 people attended last year’s festival, according to the Literacy Councils.

More for kids

The 2006 festival is notable for its expanded schedule for children and young adults, which rivals the adult sessions in breadth and depth. It features storytellers Walter Mayes and Lynn Rubright, children’s book authors Darcy Pattison and Melissa Stewart, as well as teen writing workshops, craft activities and sing-alongs.

There also will be more events held by other organizations in conjunction with the festival. Movies in the Park will offer a free screening of “About a Boy” on April 19 in the Riverfront Amphitheatre. Local politicians and media personalities will participate in “The Great Gatsby Celebrity Read-Through” that the Arkansas State Library has assembled for April 21.

The Central Arkansas Reading Association will present its Young Writer Awards at the Clinton Center on April 22, and that afternoon the Arkansas Center for the Book will hold a “Literary Tapas” event to highlight Latino authors. Also that day, the semi-final and final rounds of the national “Poetry Out Loud” recitation contest will be held at the William F. Laman library in North Little Rock on Apil. 22, followed by an awards ceremony at the Clinton Presidential Center. And the Porter and Worthen Literary Prizes will be bestowed to this year’s winners at the Main Library’s Darragh Center that night.

That’s a lot of literary activity packed into one weekend, but Smirnoff says that’s the point.

“We are trying to put on a festival that’s not only fun and accessible but also has meaningful content in it,” Smirnoff said. “We’re not just trying to do something glitzy here, we’re trying to connect people with the power of reading and literature, and trying to show people how important and liberating reading can be.”

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