By Maya Payne Smart Austin may be known for live music and technology show stoppers ACL and SXSW, but the quieter, gentler TBF stole my heart when I landed in Texas. Within weeks of moving to town, I signed up to volunteer with the Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars program, which brings authors to Title I schools and gives each child a book, sometimes the very first they’ve ever owned. And within a few months I joined the festival’s board and served for four years. This year the . . .
I marvel at book talk attendees. People trek from great distances, clutching worn copies of favorite reads. They stand in long lines for a brief word with (or autograph from) a favorite writer. The brave ones step to the podium to share stories or ask questions. Their remarks bring more voices and perspectives into conversation. Their contributions add welcome depth and texture to the occasion. At a Jacqueline Woodson BookPeople talk that I moderated in October, an educator in the audience . . .
When people ask what my favorite book is, I always respond with Jacqueline Woodson’s 2012 picture book Each Kindness. But truth be told, everything she writes, from picture book to poetry to novel, is wonderful. Each new work prompts me to consider central questions of who we are, why we are, and how we can grow for the better. And, because I adore her writing and her advocacy for reading, I interview her every chance I get. Here’s an excerpt from our October conversation about her novel Red . . .
Emphatic and unsparing, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy explores the weight of wellness in a culture obsessed with lean. His expansive intelligence and fluid prose bear up to haunting family secrets and American deceptions with deep, potent wells of beauty, humor, and empathy. Initially conceived as a weight-loss story chronicling his family’s struggles with food and violence, the writing of Heavy, which was recently named a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, got murkier . . .
Dark and absorbing, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut story collection, Heads of the Colored People, explores the unstable moorings of black identity and citizenship in blistering stories peopled with indelible characters. The title derives from a series of 19th-century literary sketches of free black laborers penned by Dr. James McCune Smith. That Smith, a black abolitionist, intellectual, and elite, chose washerwomen and gravediggers for literary representation and pondered them as “heads” . . .
Tayari Jones is unequivocal in her belief that mass incarceration, with its attendant state violence, is the “most pressing civil rights issue of our day.” Yet her latest novel, An American Marriage, makes an unjust incarceration the backdrop for a nuanced interrogation of another issue of social freedom and equality: a wife’s right to pursue her own desires and fulfill her aspirations independently of her husband. Celestial is an artist on the cusp of critical and commercial success at . . .
National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward has stared down truth and rendered it on the page with poignance and precision before. But for her third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward forged a fresh set of writing tools—historical research, multiple first-person points of view, and a touch of the supernatural—to grapple with the legacy wounds of American racism. Urgent and evocative, Sing, Unburied, Sing explores the inescapable force of history bearing down on thepresent. Dense, . . .
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s grandfather graduated from college and six of his children followed suit. But the next generation struggled to keep pace even as the specter of Jim Crow receded. “I wanted to know why,” she says, and chose fiction as her probe. The Dartmouth and UC Berkeley Law graduate’s research revealed the war on drugs and mass incarceration as modern barriers to opportunity. Her challenge became illuminating the culprits in narrative form. That is, writing a page-turner, not a . . .
Ominous and timely, No One Is Coming to Save Us explores the sense of displacement and dispossession that burrows within communities—and individuals—when work vanishes. The novel follows residents of Pinewood, a declining North Carolina factory town, as they ponder the twin perils of staying stuck in the stubborn red clay beneath them or moving earth to cut their own new roads. Author Stephanie Powell Watts’ story could take place in countless small towns around the country—she points out that . . .
It’s tempting to think of Angie Thomas’ YA novel The Hate U Give as being ripped straight from the latest headlines about an unarmed black person shot by the police. But that would miss the point that for many people, Thomas included, the news is not only news: it is lived experience—raw and achingly intimate. And the lives stolen are individual, particular to specific families, neighborhoods, and communities, not generic fodder for hashtags and sound bites. Thomas says she sometimes has to . . .