It’s no exaggeration to say that the twelfth annual Boston Book Festival was unlike any other in our organization’s history. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, BBF 2020 was anything but business as usual. Like most other presenters of live events, the BBF adapted to the new environment, developing a rich schedule of programs in a variety of virtual formats, and expanding the book festival schedule over almost a full month, from October 4–25.
Before things kicked off in October, we were pleased to again present One City One Story, a citywide read focused on a single work of short fiction—2020 marked the tenth year of this initiative. This year’s story was “The Book of Life and Death” by Boston-area author Grace Talusan. Thanks to robust partnerships with the Boston Public Library, area booksellers, and other organizations and intrepid volunteers, we were able to distribute thousands of copies of Grace’s story in both English and Spanish throughout Greater Boston, and to offer an audio version, electronic version, and several additional translations (including for the first time Tagalog) online. Grace also joined Harvard’s Alicia Anstead for a lively online discussion of her story during BBF 2020.
In addition to online programs, the BBF dreamed up ways to engage book lovers outside. To get things rolling, we hosted our annual #BBFBookHunt featuring photo clues for BBF 2020 authors’ books, shared on Twitter and Instagram during the lead-up to the festival on October 1 and 2. This year, in the spirit of greater geographical access to our online programs, we partnered with several authors’ home museums throughout New England, from the Walden Woods Project to The Mount, who hid books on their properties.
Throughout the month of October, residents and visitors to Greater Boston were able to view a powerful outdoor exhibition in Downtown Crossing, combining words and pictures submitted by community members as part of At Home Boston, a community-wide writing project the BBF co-sponsored with the Boston Globe in response to the pandemic and racial justice movements taking place in 2020.
Families were also able to participate in two Story Walks, discovering the pages of award-winning picture books in storefront windows. Visitors to Downtown Crossing were able to read Oge Mora’s Saturday, and in Nubian Square, families could discover The Undefeated, with words by Kwame Alexander and artwork by Kadir Nelson.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, BBF 2020 was able to bring together authors, illustrators, and attendees from all over the world, engaging in timely dialogues about the topics and issues most on people’s minds this year. Headlining presenters included former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, journalists Nick Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn, novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar, former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Harvard professor Michael Sandel, architect Michael Murphy, and radio and podcast host Guy Raz.
With the presidential election only weeks away, politics were on many people’s minds in 2020, including those of BBF authors and attendees. Sessions included American Elections: Is This the Best We Can Do? and Black Voices, Black Voters. Nonfiction programming also included sessions on activism, food and memory, goodness, technology, love and sex, and pathogens and pills.
For memoir, we utilized a podcast format to produce four series of audio interviews around the themes of race and identity, secrets and lies, extraordinary beginnings, and intellectual histories.
Fiction sessions offered fresh takes on genre fiction like horror and fairy tales, as well as sessions on fiction addressing the climate emergency and a roundup of books with “bad heroines.” Hosts Dawn Tripp and Michelle Hoover worked to adapt the beloved “Reading Like a Writer” craft sessions for the virtual space, with two sessions taking deep looks at protest fiction and at perspective. We kept another beloved tradition in poetry—our annual Poems & Pints event—and also featured a conversation with Boston’s poet laureate and youth poet laureate about the role of public poetry in this moment.
Programs for children and youth were just as relevant as those for adults. A series of picture book sessions focused on social justice themes, while another series focused on celebrations of identity. In conjunction with World Space Week, we explored the reaches of outer space in a series of sessions for kids (and adults) of all ages. A wacky (and surprisingly gory) Halloween-themed Illustrator Draw-Off showed off the capabilities of the virtual format. Two sessions for teen readers focused on identity and truth-telling and on friendship and its end. Kids’ headliners Juana Medina and Jerry Craft introduced readers to their work—they will also be participating in virtual author visits to the Rafael Hernandez School and to Boston English High School as part of our Shelf Help partnership during the 2020-21 school year.
Although we all learned a great deal this year and enjoyed the opportunity to present an extraordinarily diverse lineup and to reach a broader geographical range of attendees than ever before, we look forward to returning to in-person programming (perhaps with some ongoing virtual components) just as soon as it’s safe to do so. We would like to thank our attendees, presenters, staff, and volunteers for their willingness to learn new ways of doing things and to work with us on a festival like no other!
The following sessions took place as part of BBF 2020. Sessions that are archived online will include links to watch videos (on Crowdcast, Vimeo, or YouTube) or to listen to audio (on Soundcloud or the WGBH website).
Activism, Radicalism, and Resistance in the Black Community: Vincent Brown, Jelani M. Favors, Garrett Felber, Kerri K. Greenidge, Host: Kellie Carter Jackson
American Elections: Is This the Best We Can Do?: David Daley, Katherine M. Gehl, Alexander Keyssar, Host: Anthony Brooks
Architecture Keynote: Michael Murphy, Host: Jared Bowen
Black Voices: Black Voters: Tiffany D. Cross, Chryl N. Laird, Leah Wright Rigueur, Host: Callie Crossley
Can Business Save the World?: Rebecca Henderson, Myriam Sidibe, Host: Mark Kramer
Class Act: Jerry Craft, Host: Kim Parker
The Color of Innovation: Women of Color in Tech: Ainissa Ramirez, Susanne Tedrick, Bridgette Wallace, Host: Carissa Romain
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely: Andrew S. Curran, Host: Jim Windolf
Fiction at the End of the World: Lydia Millet, Jenny Offill, Host: Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne
Fiction: Don’t Look Behind You: Joe Hill, Paul Tremblay, Jen Waite, Host: Marcella Haddad
Fiction: Timeless Tales: Andrea Hairston, SL Huang, Gregory Maguire, Host: Lauren Rizzuto
Fiction: Witches and Other Bad Heroines: Quan Barry, Emily M. Danforth, Layne Fargo, Alix E. Harrow, Host: Bridget Marshall
The Fierce Urgency of Now: Eitan Hersh, DeRay Mckesson, Catherine A. Sanderson, Host: Tonya Mosley
The Gastronomy of Memory: John Birdsall, Fanny Singer, Host: Amy Traverso
Homeland Elegies: Ayad Akhtar, Host: Suzanne Nossel
How I Built This: Guy Raz, Host: Linda Pizzuti Henry
How to Be a Better Human: Brad Aronson, Max Bazerman, Molly Howes, Host: Meghan Irons
Illustrator Draw-Off: Jeffrey Brown, Sophie Escabasse, Liz Pichon, Shannon Wright, Host: Cagen Luse
The Internet of Stings: Dipayan Ghosh, Ben Tarnoff, Moira Weigel, Host: Meghna Chakrabarti
Irresistible Revolution: A Conversation on Poetry and Community: Alondra Bobadilla, Porsha Olayiwola, Host: Janae Johnson
Lit Crawl Global: Feel It, Speak It: Tim Hall, Seoul Music, D. Ruff
Love and Technology: Merle J. Berger, Debra L. Spar, Host: Carey Goldberg
Memoir: Extraordinary Beginnings: Mikel Jollett, Megan Margulies, Honor Moore, Host: Richard Hoffman
Memoir: Intellectual Histories: Howard Gardner, Rana el Kaliouby, Claire Messud, Host: Darrin M. McMahon
Memoir: Race and Identity: Issac J. Bailey, E. Dolores Johnson, Sejal Shah, Host: Paris Alston
Memoir: Secrets, Lies, and the Mysteries of Youth: Betsy Bonner, Nick Flynn, Helen Fremont, Host: Heidi Legg
One City One Story: Grace Talusan, Host: Alicia Anstead
Opening Keynote: Michael Sandel, Host: Robin Young
Out of This World Story Time: Dr. Dee Dee Dynamo’s Saturn Surprise: Oneeka Williams
Out of This World Story Time: How We Got to the Moon: John Rocco, Host: Cathryn Mercier
Out of This World Story Time: Starcrossed: Julia Denos
Out of This World Story Time: Your Place in the Universe: Jason Chin
Pathogens and Pills: Peter Kolchinsky, Muhammad H. Zaman, Host: Deborah Becker
Picture Book Creator Q&A: Everything Naomi Loved: Katie Yamasaki, Host: Francie Latour
Picture Book Creator Q&A: Oh, the Things We’re For!: Innosanto Nagara, Host: Tanya Nixon-Silberg
Picture Book Creator Q&A: Okapi Tale: Jacob Kramer, K-Fai Steele, Host: Francie Latour
Picture Book Creator Q&A: A Place Inside of Me: Noa Denmon, Zetta Elliott, Host: Francie Latour
Poems & Pints: George Abraham, Diannely Antigua, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Franny Choi, Host: Krysten Hill
Public Affairs Keynote: Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, Host: Arun Rath
Reading Like a Writer: Perspective: Margot Livesey, Rishi Reddi, Host: Dawn Tripp
Reading Like a Writer: Protest: Asha Lemmie, Anna Solomon David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Host: Michelle Hoover
Story Time: All Because You Matter: Tami Charles, Bryan Collier, Host: Akunna Eneh
Story Time: A Place Inside of Me: Zetta Elliott
Story Time: Everything Naomi Loved: Katie Yamasaki
Story Time: I Am Brown: Sandhya Prabhat
Story Time: I Am Every Good Thing: Derrick Barnes, Gordon C. James, Host: Philecia Harris
Story Time: Juana and Lucas: Juana Medina
Story Time: My Hair Is Magic: Tonya Engel, ML Marroquin
Story Time: Oh, the Things We’re For!: Innosanto Nagara
Story Time: Okapi Tale: Jacob Kramer, K-Fai Steele
Trust: Pete Buttigieg, Host: Bina Venkataraman
Under the Radar Book Club: Natasha Trethewey, Host: Callie Crossley
Weave Me a Wreath of White Roses: 30 Years of Publishing Anna Akhmatova in English: Susan Gubernat, J. Kates, Leora Zeitlin
YA: Friendship and Its End: Justin A. Reynolds, Amy Spalding, Ashley Woodfolk, Host: Cathryn Mercier
YA: Speak Your Truths: Arvin Ahmadi, Jennifer De Leon, Daven McQueen, Host: Rupa Shenoy