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Utah Humanities Book Festival is a real page-turner

SALT LAKE CITY — On a fall day 20 years ago, Utah’s book lovers finally got an event all of their own.

It started small. The Great Salt Lake Book Festival, as it was called then, featured about 12 authors who gathered with fans at Westminster College for a single day of talks and book signings.

Fast forward 20 years and the Utah Humanities Book Festival — with an emphasis on "Utah" — spans some six weeks and will welcome a host of local and national authors who will participate in over 100 events that reach across the state.

The festival’s transformation, said Michael McLane, director of the book festival, is due not only to a mandate issued by Utah Humanities to take the arts throughout the state but also to the work and initiative of those communities who have welcomed the festival with open arms.

“It’s a huge undertaking," he said. "… I have somewhere between 45 to 60 partners year to year who are putting things together in their own communities and doing a lot of work on this as well, so it's not something that I can even try to take credit for alone.”

McLane has worked for the festival for six years, traveling yearly around the state to meet with bookish people from St. George to Logan who want to start or increase festival participation in their own communities. He's been especially aided by local libraries and independent bookshops, with Salt Lake City's The King's English being one of the festival's most dedicated allies from the start.

"The King’s English was in on the very first festival and they’ve been one of our most important partners for the last 20 years because nobody has the kind of rapport with publishers that (The King's English co-owner) Betsy (Burton) has," he said. "She’s an absolute key player in getting some of the names that we’ve had over the years."

Those names have included Billy Collins, Diane Ackerman, Lois Lowry, Derek Walcott and many other notable writers. This year's festival headliners are Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and Whitbread winner Zadie Smith, and both will participate in an event held at the University of Utah on Oct. 19 sponsored by the Tanner Humanities Center.

And while many of the book festival events are author lectures, readings and discussions, McLane is quick to point out that festivalgoers will find more than a smattering of the unexpected — from the Literary Death Match to children's activities to a murder mystery held at the Ogden Union Station Museum.

Speaking of Ogden, communities looking to be a part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival will find no better example.

While the city is entering only its second year as a large-scale book festival player, the idea for its involvement goes back some six years.

It started when retired schoolteacher and public school librarian Kathy Gambles was on her way home after attending a book festival event in West Jordan. She had met McLane there, and on his suggestion started to mentally put together a list of Ogden's literary leaders who might be interested in bringing the book festival to their town.

"I thought well, the library, we have to have them involved, and the Ogden School Foundation brings in remarkable authors every year … and the Treehouse Museum and (other) local people who would be good to connect," she said. "Silly me, I thought if we came up with the venue, (McLane would) do all of the work."

Instead, McLane asked Gambles and her newly created group what they wanted —and even more importantly — what would work in their community?

Those questions spurred the book lovers to create Weber County Book Links, which, Gambles said, "is just all of the people (in Ogden) who are already doing really good things regularly in literary arts but (are now) linking hands together."

Last year, the Book Links group worked with McLane to organize a number of book festival events in their city, including a daylong fantasy and sci-fi symposium with workshops, lectures, an art and writing competition and a keynote address given by Utahn and best-selling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. The nearly sold-out event encouraged Weber Book Links to host the event again this year, this time with classes about gaming and the history of comic books, writing workshops and finishing with a talk from another national best-seller and Utah resident Brandon Mull.

Gambles said of their efforts so far, "I think we are a perfect example of what the Utah Humanities does remarkably well, and that is by saying, 'We're here. We can help what you are doing in your community so that we can work together with you.'”

Further south in Cedar City, Danielle Dubrasky agreed. Dubrasky, the director of the Grace A. Tanner Center for Human Values and an associate professor of English and creative writing at Southern Utah University, had already started a creative writing and creative teaching conference for high school teachers when she and McLane connected a few years ago. Soon, she was helping to bring authors and events to Cedar City for the Utah Humanities Book Festival.

Like Ogden, she created a group of community arts leaders — called the Art of Literature — who work to bring the literary arts to Cedar City. It's a group that joins Cedar City's independent bookstore, art galleries, the Sugar House Review — a local poetry magazine — and the Cedar City Arts Council with SUU, giving residents and students alike the chance hear their favorite authors or discover new ones.

"One of the things I tried to developed when I started were community partners," Dubrasky said. "We try to do outreach in the university and in the community."

Reaching towns outside of the Wasatch Front, McLane said, is one of the main goals of the festival.

Last year, McLane drove to Vernal to attend a reading with Tyler Whitesides, author of the young adult Janitors series. When he arrived, he found the line was around the block. Vernal had recently experienced a number of layoffs and most of the people in line were dads with their kids enjoying a night out, doing something together.

It was a sight, McLane recalled, that has stayed with him.

"It's in these smaller communities that I see the biggest difference and I hear the most response from people who say, 'Please find ways to get us more of this,'" he said. "You really see the difference that this stuff can make out there."

If you go …

What: Utah Humanities Book Festival

When: Sept. 14-Oct. 27, dates and times vary

Where: Locations vary across the state. Check for the full schedule.

How much: Most of the book festival events are free, but some do require tickets.