AJC Decatur Book Festival virtually celebrates 15 years

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown will be the keynote speaker at this year's AJC Decatur Book Festival, which is being held online. Organizers decided against holding a physical festival due to the pandemic. Courtesy of Brian Cornelius
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown will be the keynote speaker at this year's AJC Decatur Book Festival, which is being held online. Organizers decided against holding a physical festival due to the pandemic. Courtesy of Brian Cornelius

Credit: Photo: Brian Cornelius

Credit: Photo: Brian Cornelius

In lieu of a physical gathering, writers meet readers online.

During the AJC Decatur Book Festival “I never sleep,” said poet and Emory University professor Jericho Brown.

There are too many interesting people in town, too many conversations to have, too many get-togethers at night and author events in the day.

On Labor Day weekend, Decatur usually welcomes 60,000 book lovers to the downtown square, where they mingle with bestselling authors, watch parades, attend panels and simply enjoy each other’s company.

“It’s my favorite holiday,” said Brown.

This year won’t be quite the same. The COVID-19 pandemic has ruled out any sort of large-scale physical gathering.

Instead, the book festival will celebrate its 15th edition online, with 40 different virtual panels and discussions and author presentations taking place throughout the month of September.

This year, said Brown, who will present the keynote address, “It is more like a nightly TV show for a few weeks, which I think is beautiful.”

The organizers of the festival, which is presented in cooperation with Emory University, vow to bring back a “physical event” next year, with the help of “significant philanthropic support.”

Derrick Barnes, author of the children's books "Crown" and "I Am Everything Good," will appear with illustrator Gordon James as the "Kidnote" speaker at the online AJC Decatur Book Festival.
Derrick Barnes, author of the children's books "Crown" and "I Am Everything Good," will appear with illustrator Gordon James as the "Kidnote" speaker at the online AJC Decatur Book Festival.

Credit: Contributed: AJC Decatur Book Festival

Credit: Contributed: AJC Decatur Book Festival

The largest independent book festival in the country — and one of four “tentpole” festivals sought out by publishers each year — Decatur’s event is distinguished by its connection to the community.

“It’s because we have such a talent pool of interviewers and moderators that elevate the conversation,” said interim executive director Joy Pope. “We have this habit or tradition of a more conversational interaction with the authors.”

The online presentations, which will take place on the Crowdcast platform, will include an “ask a question” feature that will allow audience members to interact with authors.

The full schedule of events will be available on the AJC Decatur Book Festival website, beginning Aug. 12.

Brown will kick off the virtual presentations Sept. 4 in conversation with festival board president Mathwon Howard.

The poet has been carefully sheltering at his Decatur home during the course of the pandemic. Even after winning the Pulitzer Prize in May for his book of poems, “The Tradition,” he hasn’t ventured forth except to buy groceries, and he said the fact that online technology allows an online festival is a godsend. “I can’t imagine something like this happening in 1985.”

About 60,000 people came to last year’s AJC Decatur Book Festival. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
About 60,000 people came to last year’s AJC Decatur Book Festival. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The festival’s online programming has been underway since May when it streamed the first of 11 conversations between Atlanta novelist Joshilyn Jackson and a variety of authors.

Decatur’s event is known for its culinary track and ability to draw food journalists, celebrity chefs and cookbook authors year after year.

This year is no exception. Award-winning writer Toni Tipton-Martin will deliver the “Cooknote” address and will also appear in conversation with Atlanta chef Todd Richards.

The first Black food editor at a major newspaper, Tipton-Martin took a comprehensive look at the Black contribution to American cuisine with 2015′s “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.”

The book’s careful scholarship “gave agency to generations of chefs whose names and contributions had previously been left out of the discussion of American cuisine,” according to Bon Appétit.

Tipton-Martin followed that with 2019′s “Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking: A Cookbook,” which also won the Beard award.

Toni Tipton-Martin, author of "The Jemima Code," will be among the speakers at the online version of the AJC Decatur Book Festival.
Toni Tipton-Martin, author of "The Jemima Code," will be among the speakers at the online version of the AJC Decatur Book Festival.

Credit: Photo: Pableaux Johnson

Credit: Photo: Pableaux Johnson

The success of those books — “The Jemima Code” won the James Beard Award — and the decision by two major food corporations to retire the stereotyped images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their products, demonstrate that things are changing in the world of food.

“We are at an inflection point,” said Tipton-Martin, speaking from her Baltimore home.

Pope said the festival will add physical events “to make the month of September feel a little bit analog.”

The festival will, for example, provide copies of “Jubilee” as a premium to Atlanta restaurateurs, who agree to prepare a dish for their customers from the cookbook.

Festival organizers also plan to purchase and distribute copies of “I Am Every Good Thing” by children’s book author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon James, who together will present the “Kidnote” address.

Barnes was at the Decatur festival last year, promoting his children’s book, “King of Kindergarten,” and said he loved “the whole street festival vibe. I’m from Kansas City, which is a big jazz town, and it reminded me of that.”

Meeting his readers, even online, reminds Barnes of who he is writing for.

During a period of drought, from 2011 to 2017, when his books were going unnoticed by publishers, he realized that he had forgotten his target audience.

Instead of writing for Black children, “I was writing to the gatekeeper, and, more often than not, they are not Black editors,” he said.

He “snapped out of it” when his 10-year-old son suggested, “Dad, you should write the Blackest book ever.” What followed was “Crown: Ode to the Fresh Cut,” which celebrated the ways that a trip to the barber’s chair can turn a boy into a paragon of confidence.

Now, “every story I write I’m going to make sure the Black kid is the smartest one in the room, the most beautiful one in the room,” said Barnes.

Online presentations will continue through the beginning of October. Among the offerings:

  • A panel on crime fiction featuring Decatur author Thomas Mullen (“The Lightning Men”).
  • A discussion among YA authors, including Becky Albertalli (“Love, Simon”).
  • An assembly of romance novelists, led by Jasmine Guillory (“The Wedding Party”).
  • A gathering of graphic novelists, featuring Raina Telgemeier (“Smile”).
  • An address by former Emory University professor of poetry Kevin Young, who will discuss his book “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.”

The authors participating in this virtual get-together say they will enjoy the online camaraderie, though Brown wishes the timing had been different for his Pulitzer win, which would have made this festival the partiest ever.

“I do miss the fact that I haven’t had the requisite amount of Pulitzer Prize parties; There’s not enough hugs,” he joked.

He is asking for a raincheck. “My friends need to understand that no matter how old my Pulitzer is by time we get together, they still owe me parties.”