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Exploring Kentucky: The Kentucky Book Festival

Annual event has built a national reputation for celebrating the written word

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Readers and writers rejoice! It’s time once again for that book-lovers’—and book-givers’—favorite event, the 41st Annual Kentucky Book Festival (KBF). On Oct. 29, Lexington literary treasure Joseph-Beth Booksellers (JBB) will achieve the vision of KBF’s founder “to honor writers and enable readers to meet them,” as the bookstore transforms into a magical meeting place where all ages can revel in the written word, in those who write it, and in publishing.

“More than half the participating authors–60% or more–are from Kentucky or writing about Kentucky,” says KBF Director Sara Woods. “Of all the authors attending this year, most have written books that relate to the commonwealth in some way–basketball, bourbon, horses, tourism, history or architecture. All of our top 10 festival sellers in 2021 were about Kentucky. People are attending to buy books about the state they live in and want to learn more about.”

In addition to celebrating the works of Kentuckians, this stellar event attracts national literary stars, politicians, scholars, journalists, celebrities and athletes. A full Saturday of programs includes an author signing gallery, a children’s authors’ tent and more author book signings across two stages at Joseph-Beth. Activities include photo ops, readings, discussions and an illustration workshop for kids. And for the first time, KBF will be giving away books for children 12 and under to encourage reading.

The best news…admission to the festival is free!

Leading the lineup of 150 participating authors are Kentucky-connected writers Barbara Kingsolver, Jon Meacham, Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson and Geraldine Brooks. Here’s the skinny on these literary superstars:

• Barbara Kingsolver: A National Humanities Medal winner, Kingsolver takes inspiration from Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” in her powerful new book “Demon Copperhead,” a 21st-century coming-of-age novel set in the Appalachian mountains that follows a young hero’s unforgettable journey to maturity.
• Jon Meacham: This Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer’s new book, “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle,” charts how and why Lincoln confronted secession, threats to democracy and the tragedy of slavery to expand the possibilities of America.
• Wendell Berry: The National Humanities Medal winner and highly respected Kentucky novelist, environmental activist, cultural critic, poet and farmer continues his exploration of the premise that the wealth of the mighty few governing this nation has been built on the unpaid labor of others in “The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the Nature of Prejudice.”
• Crystal Wilkinson: The Kentucky Poet Laureate 2021-2022, Wilkinson’s most recent book, “Perfect Black,” is a memoir in verse that elegantly explores rural black girlhood, religion, sexual abuse and growing up in Southern Appalachia. Named as “one of four books to read this week” by the New York Times Book Review.
• Geraldine Brooks: The Pulitzer prize-winning, Australian-American novelist and journalist’s new novel, “Horse,” is based on the true story of the American racehorse Lexington. The plot brilliantly weaves together seemingly disparate chunks of history to create a novel of art and science, spirit and obsession, and our unfinished reckoning with racism.
Though all of the featured author events are free, you’ll need to register ahead online for those with Barbara Kingsolver and Jon Meacham, as seating space will be limited.

This year, an early KBF event takes place on Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. as part of Simon & Schuster’s annual AuthorFest, featuring New York Times best-selling authors John Irving and Jason Reynolds in conversation. The book publishing company’s CEO, Jonathan Karp, will moderate. Both of these legendary authors are known for crafting thought-provoking stories about the expression of self-identity through explorations of race, class and sexuality. The evening should be lively.

Find out more about the KBF and related events at kybookfestival.org, an interactive with book descriptions and author bios. A few of the scheduled KBF-related events include:
• A Commerce Lexington Spotlight Breakfast featuring 21c Museum Hotel founders Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown presenting their gorgeous new coffee-table book, “Hermitage Farm,” about their remarkable renovation of the historic Thoroughbred farm. The visionary couple will also be signing at JBB.
• A book-related trivia event at Goodwood Brewery in Lexington Green near JBB.
• A scavenger hunt for info found in JBB’s horse-related books.

Keep checking the site for additions and updates.
From the festival’s inception in 1981, a team of dedicated volunteers ran the event until 2016, when the Kentucky Humanities Council assumed leadership, which continues today.
After going virtual for 2020, KBF hooked up with it current partner, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. It is a coupling that seems a match made in heaven.