An expanded edition boasts Fey and 59 more

Posted: April 10, 2011

Who was first to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?

What makes David Foster Wallace an important author?

Why is Tina Fey funny?

These are just a few of the burning literary questions organizers promise will be answered this week at the fifth Philadelphia Book Festival, which will feature readings, book-signings, and chats with more than 60 authors, plus musical performances, children's workshops, a Harry Potter film festival, a teen poetry slam, and more than 90 exhibitors.

This year, the festival has been expanded from two days to six: It will run each evening from Monday through Friday and all day on Saturday in and around the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library at 1901Vine Street.

This year's big - nay, mega - draw is Fey.

The Upper Darby schoolgirl who grew up to be a Saturday Night Live comic, A-list star, and writer will speak Tuesday about her comic memoir Bossypants.

"It's one of the biggest events we've ever had at the library," says Sara Goddard, director of social enterprise at the Free Library.

All 400 seats sold out in less than 10 minutes. (Three simulcasts, which will accommodate nearly 500 more fans, also are sold out.)

Garrison Keillor, who recently announced he was retiring from his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, will chat Monday about the anthology of poetry he edited, Good Poems, American Places. (Check with the Free Library on the availability of simulcast seats.)

Another high-profile event is a discussion by local novelist Ken Kalfus about the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace's final novel, The Pale King. (Wallace committed suicide in 2008.) "It is a highly anticipated book," says Kalfus, whose books include Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies.

Wallace's novel, about an IRS employee who tries to face down the intense ennui that has frozen his life in existential limbo, is due out April 15, usually the tax-filing deadline (This year, it's April 18.).

Wallace "didn't quite finish it, but it is in good shape," Kalfus says.

Festival organizers have outdone themselves this year with their daylong children and young-adult program set for Saturday.

Tad Hills, creator of the Duck & Goose and Duck, Duck, Goose picture books, will present his latest, How Rocket Learned to Read; Jude Watson, Peter Lerangis, and Gordon Korman will be on hand to discuss their popular young-adult series The 39 Clues; and Northeast Philly native Theresa Golding will chat about her works, including Kat's Surrender and The Secret Within.

Chris Van Allsburg, the National Book Award-winning author of Jumanji and The Polar Express, will talk about Queen of the Falls.

Van Allsburg, 61, who lives in Rhode Island, says his new creation, the story of the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel (aha!), is quite a departure for him.

"In the past, the source of all my work has simply been my own imagination," he says, "but this time, I wanted to experiment . . . with a nonfiction biography."

Who was the trailblazingbarrel-blazer? "It's not what you'd expect at all. [It] wasn't some maniacal dipsomaniac," Van Allsburg says, but a "retired charm-school teacher named Annie Taylor."

No joke: She executed the amazing feat on Oct. 24, 1901, her 63d birthday.

Why write about Taylor?

"I wanted to write a story about an interesting or eccentric American as a way to write about America itself, if at least incidentally," says the author, who was shocked that very little has been written about Taylor.

Van Allsburg illustrates the book with a series of clever, restrained drawings, including a surreal image that "sticks you right inside the barrel" with this woman "as she is about to go over."

The author says he was fascinated by Taylor because she tried to use her stunt to launch a career as a celebrity. She hired a manager and booked a speaking tour.

Her tour was not a success. To add insult to injury, "twice her barrel was stolen by her unscrupulous manager."

Saturday also features a reading by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead, who won this year's Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

This is the first collaboration by the husband-and-wife team from Ann Arbor, Mich. (He wrote, she illustrated.)

"It's a light book about a zookeeper and his animal friends," says Erin, 28.

There's a shy penguin, an elephant who plays chess, a wise 200-year-old tortoise, and a very peculiar rhinoceros. "He has allergies . . . to everything," Erin says. "He's sneezing all the time and he has a runny nose."

The children's program is especially noteworthy for its lineup of exceptional African American authors and illustrators, including Bryan Collier (Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave), winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; Sonia Lynn Sadler (Seeds of Change); and Kadir Nelson (We Are the Ship).

Eminent Harlem-born novelist Walter Dean Myers (Harlem: A Poem) will read from his new young-adult novel, a genre-bending take on an old classic, Carmen. Based on Prosper Mérimée's novella and Georges Bizet's opera, Myers' Carmen transplants the story from 19th-century Spain to contemporary Spanish Harlem.

"I love the opera and I've seen . . . maybe 10 or 12 versions," Myers, 73, says from his home in Jersey City. "One day, I noticed at my local bodega, these young Spanish girls who were rapping back and forth in English and Spanish, and I thought, 'This is my setting.' "

Myers' book tells the story entirely in dialogue. The story is followed by a detailed author's note and musical notations and lyrics for a cycle of songs that Myers adapted from the opera.

Myers' experimentation with the dialogue-only form yielded spectacular results from his 1999 best-seller Monster. He says it's an especially effective way to appeal to teen readers.

"I find that young people seem to take to the form," he says. Teenagers, Myers says, are so immersed in movies and songs, they're comfortable with the dialogue form.

Teens of color also populate the world of Philly author Allison Whittenberg's Tutored.

The Drexel University English professor says her latest young-adult offering is a love story about two African American teens from Philadelphia who must cross the class divide to be with each other.

"It's about a 16-year-old girl," named Wendy, "who is from an upper-middle-class family," Whittenberg says. "She meets Hakiam, who is 17 and who has grown up in foster care."

The pair generate heat - of the argumentative, not romantic sort - when Wendy agrees to tutor Hakiam for his GED exams. Hakiam, like Whittenberg a West Philly native, doesn't trust Wendy's privileged background.

"There's a lot of verbal sparring between them," Whittenberg says. "The joke is that they keep opening the book, but they never get to it" since they're so busy flirting.

  Romantic relationships of a different sort are at the heart of the intriguing adult offering Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, which the author will discuss on Monday.

Set in the 1850s, it's about a resort near Cincinnati where "slave owners would vacation with their enslaved mistresses," says Perkins-Valdez, who lives in Washington.

Wench spent five weeks on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, making it a bona fide crossover hit.

That's a rarity among contemporary African American authors, she says ruefully.

"I think there are many very exciting [African American] authors on the scene," she says. Far too few, she says, are read by white and black readers alike.

"American readers I think, are going to have to diversify their reading," she says.

"That said, I feel really optimistic about the future of black literature."

Book Festival Highlights

Events at the Central Library, 1900 Vine St. For a complete schedule (including events at other library locations) and ticket information, go to


Garrison Keillor, "Good Poems, American Places"; 7:30 p.m. Main Stage.


Tina Fey, "Bossypants"; 7:30 p.m. Main Stage.


Carlin Romano, Asali Solomon, Duane Swierczynski, and Jim Zervanos; "Philadelphia Noir"; 6 p.m. Skyline Room.

Donald Bogle, "Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters"; 7:30 p.m. Main Stage.


Teen poets, Teen Poetry Slam; 4 p.m. Main Stage.

Kyung-sook Shin, "Please Look After Mom"; 6 p.m.; Room 108.

Kay Ryan, "An Evening of Poetry"; 7:30 p.m. Main Stage.


Ken Kalfus, "David Foster Wallace's 'The Pale King' "; 6 p.m. Skyline Room.

Mikey Burton, "New Covers for Old Books"; 6 p.m. Room 108.

First Person StorySlam Philadelphia vs. Boston: "Experiments"; 7:30 p.m., Main Stage.


Bryan Collier, "Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave," 10 a.m., Story Hour Room.

Katie Haegele, "Zine Scene Workshop"; 10 a.m., Teen Zone: Room 108.

Sonia Lynn Sadler, "Seeds of Change"; 11 a.m. Story Hour Room.

Chris Van Allsburg, "Queen of the Falls"; 11 a.m. Main Stage.

Mighty Writers Comics Workshop 11 a.m. Teen Zone: Room 108.

Jude Watson, Peter Lerangis, and Gordon Korman, "The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising"; noon, Room 108.

ArtsPower National Touring Theater, "Harry the Dirty Dog Musical"; 1 p.m., Main Stage.

Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead, "A Sick Day for Amos McGee"; 1 p.m., Story Hour Room.

Allison Whittenberg, "Tutored"; 1 p.m., Teen Zone: Room 108.

Tad Hills, "How Rocket Learned to Read"; 2 p.m., Story Hour Room.

Kadir Nelson, "The Picture Book Illustration Process"; 2 p.m., Main Stage.

Sara Shepard "The Lying Game"; 3 p.m. Main Stage

John Stephens, "The Emerald Atlas"; 3 p.m., Teen Zone: Room 108.

Paula Young Shelton, "Child of the Civil Rights Movement"; 3 p.m., Story Hour Room.

Robbin Gourley, "First Garden: The White House Garden and How It Grew"; 4 p.m., Story Hour Room.

Walter Dean Myers, "Carmen"; 4 p.m., Main Stage.

Debra Moffitt, "The Pink Locker Society: Best Kept Secret"; 4 p.m., Teen Zone: Room 108.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or

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