Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Festival of the Book, has been thinking about this week for two years.
Two years after canceling the festival at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers this week kicked off five days of author talks and discussions — about half of which will be in-person as part of the first-ever hybrid Festival of the Book, now in its 27th year.
The festival is a program of Virginia Humanities.
“Just thinking about the opportunity for us all to gather again in the same room with an author or with a group of authors, it’s always been something that’s been very emotional to think about,” Kulow said.
Kulow added that she’ll be interested in how many people choose to attend in-person versus those who stick with the online offerings from afar.
“I am just grateful that we have the opportunity to present a festival that people can choose their own adventure for,” she said, adding that she couldn’t wait to get out and see festival attendees.
The festival’s first in-person event in three years was held at the University of Virginia Bookstore. Dozens of people — all in masks — were on hand to hear from three authors who have researched the Civil War era.
The three speakers and moderator were seated behind a Plexiglas barrier. Before starting, the moderator said the panelists were fully vaccinated and tested negative before the event. Travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer were available to attendees for free.
While the festival is back in-person, it hasn’t left its virtual presence behind. Nearly four-fifths of the events will be live-streamed, making the festival more accessible to more audiences.
“That is far beyond what I thought we’d be able to do,” Kulow said. “So I just encourage people to find something and tune in however they’d like to and join the festivities.”
The festival’s programming picks up on Friday and Saturday is typically the busiest day, Kulow said. The festival wraps up Sunday afternoon with poetry readings from Rita Dove and Victoria Chang.
On Friday, local author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson will discuss her debut book, “My Monticello,” at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. That event will begin at 4 p.m.
Sarah Lawson, associate director for the Virginia Center for the Book, said they had initially planned for the festival to be all-virtual but changed course as COVID conditions improved. Plus, authors said they wanted to be in-person.
Overall, 75 events are planned. The roughly 39 in-person talks will take place in 14 venues throughout the area from on the Downtown Mall to James Monroe’s Highland. In previous years, the festival usually had 80 different venues, Lawson said.
The smaller footprint was aimed at ensuring that organizers could take as many precautions as possible related to COVID safety. That includes requiring masks or checking vaccination statuses, though specific requirements vary by venues.
Lawson said that in planning a hybrid event, festival organizers wanted to build on lessons learned during the last two years of virtual programs and improve overall accessibility including having more adaptable spaces for people with different abilities or providing American Sign Language interpretation as needed.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can use the rupture of COVID as kind of a turning point to really be able to offer improved accessibility for people anywhere,” she said. “We’re really looking to try to use the momentum that we have in rebooting the festival to make it even better.”
Most of the panel discussions are free and open to the public, but capacity at the venues is limited. Event organizers recommend arriving early to ensure you have a seat.
For more information and updates on the different events, go to vabook.org.
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