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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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Q&A: Book Fest founder on power of literacy, open conversations

Former New Orleans First Lady Cheryl Landrieu and activist Ruby Bridges founded the New Orleans Children’s Book Festival in 2010. (Tulane University)

From an unassuming office in University Square down Broadway Street, former New Orleans First Lady Cheryl Landrieu and a small team are coordinating the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University. What started as the New Orleans Children’s Book Festival for families at Milton H. Latter Memorial Library in 2010 has become one of Tulane University’s most anticipated literary and cultural events. 

This year, the New Orleans Book Festival will feature over 150 authors and thought-leaders across more than 90 panels. Among the notable speakers are Stacey Abrams, Kurt Andersen and Tulane’s own Walter Issacson and Jesmyn Ward. The event will open Thursday with a discussion curated by The Atlantic Magazine on great novels of the past 100 years. 

Cheryl Landrieu sat down with The Hullabaloo to share her insight into the history and importance of Book Fest. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Along with civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, you founded Book Fest in 2010. What inspired you to found the festival and how has it evolved over the years?

A: I’ve often believed, particularly in New Orleans, that literacy is important for the children of our city. Ruby and I both believed that bringing children together around the city to get to know one another, they may be in different schools and different neighborhoods, was important. For them to get to know each other and to do something that was fun like reading [would] help both the literacy prospects and also help them get to know other children.

So we founded the New Orleans Book Festival. It began in 2010 and it was just for children. We held it for five years at the Latter Library and we had children’s authors and children’s activities. It was a fun day for kids to be able to come together and experience the joy of reading outside of their school. We grew to have adult authors and we moved out to City Park until 2017. Then we started partnering with Walter Isaacson and Tulane in 2019.

Q: Bizneworleans.com reported that attendance to the festival doubled from its first to second year. Why do you think this event garners the attention it does? Why do you think so many people want to get together to talk about books? 

A: People say that people don’t read anymore, that they’re busy and they’re too much on their phones but we were pleasantly surprised to find the opposite. The first year we did [the festival] at Tulane, it was after the pandemic and we had two postponements. By the time the attendees got here in 2022, there was so much excitement around meeting authors and communicating with other readers. They kept calling it a renaissance.

The attendance really blossomed and grew. This year, we’re hoping we’re going to keep growing and we’re using some bigger venues this year on a more regular basis. We’re excited to see what the attendance is going to be this year. 

Q: Do you have a projection of how many people are going to be attending? 

A: We do not because we’re free and open to the public, which is very important to our mission. It’d be obviously much easier to sell tickets, we would know exactly who was coming. But we want this to be accessible to everybody in the city. We don’t have a great projection, we’re thinking that we’re going to exceed 2023’s numbers.

Q: In the past 30 years, the number of college students who read for pleasure has decreased. In a digital age where we are surrounded by social media, podcasts and streaming, why do you think it’s important for college-aged people to be able to connect with books? 

A: There’s such a difference between reading as requirements [in] school and reading for fun and learning what you like and what inspires you. Authors describe so many things that young people have never seen before. When [students] read a book, they have the opportunity to get in that author’s world and learn so much. For young people in particular, it’s important for them to be able to find what they love to read and then it makes them a good learner for the rest of their life, once they have the skills of reading for pleasure.

Q: Book Fest is about more than books. Topics covered in the panels include mental health, climate change, performing arts, food and even A.I. in education. In your opinion, why is it important for college students to have access to these conversations?

A: Those are such real life things that [college students] need to know, and they might not be as traditional learning things as they would learn in their regular classes, but they’re able to expand their horizons by learning about all these different things and get it in a different setting and something that might be fun and entertaining or interesting to them…It’s just like a supplemental way to enrich themselves beyond what’s presented in their in their classrooms. 

Q: Book Fest also includes speakers and panels about history, racial justice and complex political debates. Recently at Tulane, we have seen some of these tensions manifest in protests and even violence. What value do you think conversations like those hold today, despite potential discomfort and tension? 

A: There was a time that people could talk about differences in a positive, nonviolent way and be able to explain what they were thinking and have both sides being discussed. That’s what we want to do with Book Festival.

We let people express themselves and then have an intelligent discussion around that concept or ideas. I’m hoping that will [show] young people if you want to protest something, or if you have a disagreement with somebody, that you can do it in a calm, intelligent, reasonable way where you can come to a consensus because we’re never expected to all agree with each other. 

Q: There are over 150 authors and thought-leaders coming for the festival with over 90 panels, among many other notable names are Stacey Abrams, Kurt Andersen, Ken Burns, Liz Cheney and Jesmyn Ward. Who are you personally most excited to hear from? 

A: She’s a historian and her name is Heather Cox Richardson. She wrote a book called “Democracy Awakening.” I’m very interested in the state of our democracy, maybe it’s because of the election, but not so much in the political sense, but what makes us a successful democracy?

One of my favorite parts of the festival [is the] the Family Day programming that we do in Devlin Fieldhouse. It’s a beautiful day for children. It’s one of my most exciting times to see the kids come in. Scholastic has been coming since 2010 when we started this festival and they give out several thousand books and bring national authors.

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