Monday, June 08, 2015

Scenes from the Bay Area Book Festival

On Saturday and Sunday, June 7-8th, in Bekeley, CA Sahtu Press and I had an opportunity to attend the first Bay Area Book Festival. It was a massive gathering, drawing participants from across the country, including Seattle, Washington and other states. Our particular focus this time was an observational one, but soon shifted to the work being presented for the children's section of the festival. We were particularly impressed by the number of Asian American children's book authors presenting.

Among those we were able to meet included Thai American author Dan Santat, whose 2014 book, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, won this year's Caldecott Award. He also wrote The Guild of Geniuses and created the Disney Channel animated series The Replacements.

Dan Santat was great and personable, engaging the children and their families positively while also providing a great demonstration for the kid about how to draw, using everyday shapes and lines, making everything from swiss cheese, to a house, and even a self-portrait of himself. There was a lot to learn from his example.

One of the elements of the Bay Area Book Festival that stood out was the Lacuna, or the Temple of Books, an interactive art installation created by the Bay Area-based Flux Foundation, which has also produced works at the Burning Man festival and the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. It was a giant circular temple of books 50 feet in diameter and built from 50,000 books. The idea was to encourage a certain type of happenstance we don't get in the digital world. They wanted people to "embrace the happy accident, either of content or community." You can learn more about the project at

I also had the opportunity to stop by the famous Eastwind Books of Berkely. This was the first time I'd gotten a chance to do so, and it was wonderful to see this legendary bookstore still going strong, and to see so many selections of interesting Asian Pacific American writing available. Nothing by Lao writers, although the Hmong American Writers Circle anthology, How Do I Begin? was on hand.

I was impressed by the joyous energy and presentation of LeUyen Pham, a Vietnamese American writer and illustrator who was presenting at the festival. Formally speaking, she is the illustrator of over fifty children’s books, who has worked on titles from  Julianne Moore, Desmond Tutu, and others. She has also written several of her own books such as the recently released Little, as well as Big Sister, Little Sister and A Piece of Cake. She's exceptionally talented.

We also had a chance to get in a visit with Mike Wu, who just released his first book, Ellie, about an elephant who is trying to help her friends save their zoo. He is an animator at Pixar and has worked on films such as the Oscar-winning The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and Toy Story 3 among other films. He is also illustrating a debut middle-grade series titled Oona finds an Egg. In addition to his animation and book work he is the proud owner/designer of a children's clothing line called Tiny Teru.

Overall, there was a lot to take in and process. There are still many concerns I have as a writer and publisher about the state of our literature ecosystem and the difficulties we have getting an effective reach.

We have 9,850 Lao in the Bay Area, and I'm pretty sure we didn't see anywhere close to those numbers or even a fraction of those numbers at this event. And it makes me wonder: Where are we? What are the barriers, and how do we reduce those? What will it take to build and create a vibrant Lao literary culture that meets our needs and builds lifelong success? This, of course, is the perpetual question not only in our community but many others.

The Bay Area Book Festival, like the Oakland Book Festival, was energizing and exciting.  We'll be happily attending this one again in the future, but I also know that in the next 12 months we have to do much more to help Lao writers and readers get traction and to fully be a part of the arts and society.

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