Louisville Book Festival Is About More Than Just Page-Turners

Writer / Carrie Vittitoe
Photography Provided

If you’re a book lover, you probably can’t wait to visit the library or peruse the shelves at your nearest bookstore. You may also secretly enjoy not just the stories within the pages, but also the smell they give off, or the delicate crack of the spine when you open it up. You may be in a book club and dutiful about finishing the book each month. You may have a to-be-read count that numbers into the high hundreds or even thousands. But have you attended Louisville’s book festival?

Wait. What? There is a book festival in our fair city? Indeed there is.

Before you mark down dates on your calendar, let’s get some background on this festival’s history.

Louisville Book Festival Founder Deedee Cummings is a bit of a renaissance woman. She’s an attorney, a therapist, and a children’s picture-book author. She began her career in child protective services and attended law school at night, but by the time she graduated, she realized she wanted to problem solve in a different way, outside the legal system. “I became a therapist because I could still do many things that appealed to me about being a lawyer – problem solving, helping people understand their path, advocating for others, and seeking better alternatives to chaos,” she says.

She began using books as a tool to work with kids. The books often served as a gateway to discussion, providing an entry point for Cummings or the child to discuss difficult things. Books often helped children relax and opened up their lines of communication. It was then that Cummings noticed how few of the book characters looked like the children she was trying to help. She searched high and low, and couldn’t find what she was looking for, which is when her career as a children’s picture-book author began.

Over time, it became increasingly important to Cummings that kids develop better reading skills and have greater access to books. In 2018 she founded the Louisville Book Festival, whose mission is to promote reading, writing and literacy. Of course, getting a book festival off the ground takes a lot of work, but Cummings and her team were ready to launch in the fall of 2020.

We all know what happened in 2020.

COVID-19 forced her to move the inaugural Louisville Book Festival online. Despite this setback, the turnout was larger than expected, at over 1,000 people. The festival featured both Kentucky favorites like George Ella Lyon and Hannah Drake, as well as writers from beyond the state borders, including Tomi Adeyemi, the bestselling author of “Children of Blood and Bone.” Cummings considered canceling the event, but says “it seemed it was more needed than ever. It was about community.” She was bothered by the ugliness she was seeing in people, such as arguments over masks and the unjust deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “It was important for me to move forward in some way because books build empathy,” she says. “We needed a community that came together in a positive space to talk about hopeful things. As vaccines were developed, Cummings and her team were optimistic that 2021 could be an in-person experience.

But as summer turned to fall in 2021, the delta variant of COVID-19 reared its ugly head.

“We were moving full speed ahead with an in-person conference,” Cummings says. “I was determined. This was going to be the year.”

As COVID rates started to climb higher, Cummings says she “could not in good conscience move forward with an in-person gathering, but I did not easily decide to go online again.” At that point everyone had serious Zoom fatigue from online church, school and work. Despite this, and after much consideration, Cummings determined that having the conference felt necessary. “I thought back to 2020 and how important the event was, and I decided to do it, even if we only touched a few people,” she says. “There would be someone who needed this.”

Many in her shoes might have thrown their hands in the air and given up after COVID wreaked havoc on her plans two years in a row, but when Deedee Cummings has a dream, she wants reality to match her vision. So plans were made for 2022 and, fortunately, all the stars aligned. The 2022 Louisville Book Festival was held in person at the Kentucky International Convention Center on October 28 and 29.

Many Jefferson County Public Schools students attended the Friday sessions, which gave them the opportunity to meet and discuss books and writing with adults whose works run the gamut from science fiction to memoirs to poetry. Adult attendees could also meet and greet authors, as well as purchase their books, with Carmichael’s Bookstore serving as the official bookseller of the event. There were all kinds of panels and discussions both days, covering topics from how to pitch to publishers to writing about lived experiences.

Librarians from the Louisville Free Public Library held story times for kids, and attendees were able to get their photos taken with Pete the Cat and Mo Willems’ beloved characters Elephant and Piggie. “We had over 3,000 people attend the festival and we gave away thousands of free books to kids, which was amazing,” Cummings says. “I was one of those kids who did not get a book every time the book fair came to school, and I wanted every child to be able to walk away with at least one book that they could choose.”

This year’s festival will once again be held at the Kentucky International Convention Center on Friday, November 10 and Saturday, November 11, and there is a lot to be excited about. “This year we are very hyped about having a New York Times bestselling author from right here in Louisville, Jermaine Fowler, the author of ‘The Humanity Archive,’ which appropriately underscores the exact message of the Louisville Book Festival,” Cummings says. “His work is the perfect complement to our mission to highlight diverse stories and amplify all voices, but especially marginalized ones.”

Families with children should venture downtown since firefighters, family court judges, and other members of the community will read to kids during story times. There will also be librarians who use books for art projects with children. Whether a person loves writing, is interested in publishing, wants to promote literacy in the community, or just needs to flip through cool books, they should visit the Louisville Book Festival.

Even though it is a book festival, the event is really about more than books. “Books hold the secrets to who you are as a person, who you want to be, how to prosper, how to save your marriage, and how to survive,” Cummings says. “If books weren’t powerful, there would not have been concerted campaigns throughout all of history to limit your ability to access them.”

For more info, visit louisvillebookfestival.com.

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