As censors challenge more books, authors bring a new crop of Kansas literature to annual festival 

September 12, 2023 3:33 am
Books featured in past Kansas Notable Book lists are displayed in the State Library of Kansas at the Statehouse in Topeka

Books featured in past Kansas Notable Book lists are displayed in the State Library of Kansas in Topeka. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — One day, Kathleen Wilford observed a girl of about 12 walking home from the bus stop on her street.

“She was eating a bag of Doritos and simultaneously absorbed in the book she was reading,” Wilford said. “I was struck by how much she reminded me of me at that age.”

So Wilford, who teaches writing and lives in New Jersey, was inspired to write a book she hopes young readers will find just as absorbing. The book is “Cabby Potts: Duchess of Dirt,” set in 1870s western Kansas, and based on the true story of a settlement of British aristocrats near present-day Victoria.

Kathleen Wilford (Submitted)

Wilford and more than 50 authors will be featured on Saturday at the Kansas Book Festival in Topeka. She’ll talk with Lawrence storyteller Priscilla Howe and Kansas writer Sarah Henning, author of “Monster Camp,” about girl go-getters in books for young readers.

The festival, in its 12th year, puts Kansas writers and Kansas subjects front and center. Festival director Tim Bascom said that emphasizing our literary heritage is the goal.

“Many of the writers are nationally recognized and have remarkable books,” said Bascom, who also has written for Kansas Reflector. “It’s a matter of pride to see this wonderful trove of work being generated by creative people here in Kansas.”

The festival is free and will include outdoor music performances, art activities for children, food trucks, and publishers from across the state.

Reading freely and with as much engagement as the girl at the bus stop is an increasingly fraught activity as school and public libraries come under attack for the inclusion of fiction, nonfiction and poetry with themes of sexuality, gender, race or history.

Those who seek to dictate what we and our children can read are a well-organized minority who attempt to ban books from lists compiled by national groups. The American Library Association reports that in 2022, more books were targeted by would-be censors than at any time in the 20 years the association has tracked challenges.

Concurrently, in the three years since the COVID-19 pandemic, student reading scores in Kansas and many other states have dropped.

Relevant and representational books are a powerful way to engage young (and adult) readers, with subjects that include families, identities, and place. Books that depict Kansas people and themes add to the array of options available for engaging us and encouraging us to pick up a book.

The science-backed health benefits of books for adults and children include higher scores on intelligence tests, as well as increased brain function — including memory, relaxation and even a decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Reading also makes it easier to relate to others with empathy, a crucial benefit that book banners should take into consideration before they check another book off their list.

Or maybe that’s what they’re afraid of.

James Davis (Submitted)

Former Kansas poet laureate Eric McHenry put together a book festival panel of poets to highlight exactly the empathetic superpower bestowed by books.

James Davis, author of “Club Q,” will travel from Texas for the conversation. His poems track growing up gay in Colorado Springs, his isolation and struggle to create community on his own terms.

About his book, which won the 2020 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, Davis said: “I would guess most readers would guess that Q stands for queer, and among other things, queer stands for strange. At the heart of queer experience is feeling a little bit weird. In addition to sexual and gender identity, there’s a much more abstract but still shared experience of being kind of strange or alien or dubious in some ways. You can feel this regardless of place.”

Other book festival highlights include the William Allen White Children’s Book Award and Kansas Notable Books. Sessions will focus on picture books, baseball, Black leadership, New York Times bestseller “River of the Gods” by Candice Millard, cookbooks and food writing with Kansas poet laureate Traci Brimhall, among many other topics and authors.

The festival headliner is Ling Ma, author of the speculative short story collection “Bliss Montage,” selected the 2023 winner of the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction. Ma is a Washburn Rural High School alumnus.

For the first time this year, the festival goes on the road, taking authors to Fort Hays State University and the Abilene Public Library for presentations and a book fair on Sept. 17 and 18.

“The attempt is, if people can’t come to us, we go to them,” Bascom said. “Maybe it will raise the profile more and people will feel welcome to come here, too.”

Lori Brack is an author who has worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center, as a college and community writing instructor and as director of a foundation-funded artist development project in Salina. She lives in Lucas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Lori Brack
Lori Brack

Lori Brack is the author of "A Case for the Dead Letter Detective" (2021) and "Museum Made of Breath" (2018). In 2010, her poetic script for "Farmer’s Dream," a work of performance art based in Kansas agricultural history and labor by Ernesto Pujol, was published as "A Fine Place to See the Sky." The script is a collaboration with her grandfather’s 1907-1918 Kansas farming journals. Brack worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center and as a college and community writing instructor. She is a member of the 2023 Critical Writing Initiative sponsored by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.