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Our Picks for the 2023 Bay Area Book Festival

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Three young women lean over their small stacks of books with banners and crowd behind
This year marks the ninth annual Bay Area Books Festival, a (mostly) free indoor and outdoor event taking over the downtown Berkeley neighborhood May 6–7. (Michael Hitchner)

While certain themes usually emerge during the Bay Area Book Festival, now in its ninth year, the stacked two-day program always has a bit of something for everyone — whether you’re looking for world-expanding sci-fi, anti-racist instruction, an IRL Where’s Waldo hunt or your next contemplative read.

Hosting nearly 300 authors on indoor and outdoor stages May 6 and 7 alongside literary exhibitors, food vendors and a youth expo, the Bay Area Book Festival is completely free to attend, save for ticketed events featuring Joan Baez and W. Kamau Bell. Expect enthusiastic crowds, and avoid driving if you can — parking will be hard to come by.

Below, find the KQED Arts & Culture team’s recommendations for the weekend, and be sure to check out the full weekend schedule.

Seen and Unseen: New Glimpses of Japanese Incarceration

Saturday, May 6, 11–11:45 a.m.
Berkeley Public Library, Community Meeting Room (2090 Kittredge St.)

Last year, two beautifully illustrated works about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II were released by two Bay Area authors.

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Elizabeth Partridge’s Seen and Unseen (illustrated by Lauren Tamaki) uses the documentary photos of Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake — a photographer who endured incarceration alongside 120,000 other Japanese Americans — to tell the story of this great injustice from three different angles. It demonstrates to readers how the ways Lange, Adams and Miyatake each captured scenes at the camps reflected their own perspectives on what was happening.

Meanwhile, Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s Love in the Library (illustrated by Yas Imamura) tells the story of the author’s grandparents — a couple who somehow found love while incarcerated, over the stacks of books that offered them some semblance of escape. Tokuda-Hall recently turned down a licensing deal from Scholastic after the publisher asked her to remove a reference to “the deeply American tradition of racism” from her author’s note.

Both books take an unthinkable period from recent history and make it relatable and engaging for young readers. Both honor the people who lived and died in those camps. And both question what it means to be a “good American.”

The Bay Area Book Festival’s decision to pair these two authors for a deeper conversation about Seen and Unseen, then, is a stroke of brilliance. Partridge and Tokuda-Hall will be discussing how history is shaped by those chosen to document it and how power imbalances impact the narratives we leave behind. This fascinating event is suitable for an audiences of all ages. — Rae Alexandra

Three book covers laid out side by side
Authors Tom Commita, Talia Lakshmi Kolluri and Erica Berry appear together on a panel at the Magnes Museum. (Covers courtesy of Coffee House Press, Tin House and Macmillan Publishers)

The Beauty and Urgency of Nature Writing

Saturday, May 6, 11 a.m.–12 p.m.
The Magnes Museum, Auditorium (2121 Allston Way)

Those first few months of the pandemic hit me hard. Is spring always this glorious? I wondered as I rambled along previously unknown paths in Golden Gate Park. The answer, of course, was yes. I just hadn’t been paying attention until I was forced — by the closure of all indoor spaces — to actually take stock of the blossoms, animals and shifting weather patterns around me.

Thankfully, authors Tom Comitta, Erica Berry and Talia Lakshmi Kolluri are far more observant than I am, and they’ve turned their focus to nature writing, a category as expansive in form as the subject it covers. Comitta’s The Nature Book collages together nature writing from over 300 existing English-language novels — a method they call the “literary supercut.” By subtracting all references to the human world, Comitta challenges our anthropocentric view while also archiving the many ways we have, over time, written about nature.

Kolluri likewise commits to inventively shifting her readers’ focus. In What We Fed to the Manticore, short stories are told from the points of view of different animals, including vultures dining on an antelope in Central Asia. And Berry’s book, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear uses wolves both real and metaphorical to examine what it means to be brave in a changing, damaged world. If all of the above wasn’t intriguing enough, this panel discussion will be moderated by KQED’s own community reporter Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí. — Sarah Hotchkiss

An older Black woman with short hair wears glasses, a pink sweater and a light scarf, smiling in a library
Dorothy Lazard, former head librarian of the Oakland Public Library’s History Center, pictured in 2020. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

A Life In Books

Saturday May 6, 11 a.m.–12 p.m.
The Marsh Theater (2120 Allston Way)

In her forthcoming memoir, What You Don’t Know Will Make a Whole New World, beloved retired Oakland librarian and historian Dorothy Lazard opens with the period in her adolescence when she fell in love with reading. As a young person, she found a safe haven in her local library, diving into pages of books to escape the issues she was facing at home. Those years laid the foundation for a career in literature.

On this panel Lazard is joined by essayist, playwright and author Joan Frank, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley. All three speakers have led amazing lives full of stories, and will be sharing their wisdom when it comes to accessing the power of words, the magic of writing and the wonders of reading. Hosted by author John Freeman, this conversation will center the beauty of living a life dedicated to the written word. — Pendarvis Harshaw

Noir at the Bar

Saturday, May 6, 5:30–7 p.m.
Cornerstone Berkeley (2367 Shattuck Ave.)

While there’s plenty of offerings at the festival to get young people excited about reading, there’s also a time and place for, ahem, more adult matters. Look no further than this lineup of mystery and thriller writers that lets those 21 and above journey through time and space (like with Rina Ayuyang’s Depression-era graphic novel about Filipino immigrants in rural California) in the cozy comfort of a Shattuck Avenue bar. The event, which also features readings from authors Mary Robinette Kwal, Marcie Rendon, T. Jefferson Parker, Kwei Quartey and Margot Douaihy, is emceed by Randal Brandt, curator of the California Detective Fiction Collection at the Bancroft Library. Talk about amazing jobs. One Dark ‘n’ Stormy, please! — Sarah Hotchkiss

Three adults and three teens in brightly colored clothes pose and smile at camera
The Grammy-winning Alphabet Rockers. (Nino Fernandez)

Alphabet Rockers

Saturday, May 6, 2–2:45 p.m.
BART Plaza Stage (Shattuck & Allston)

After being nominated for Grammy Awards two previous times, it was the Alphabet Rockers’ 2022 album, The Movement, that brought home the gold earlier this year. Led by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd, the stars of the show are the three teenagers of the group, Kali de Jesus, Tommy Shepherd III and Maya Fleming.

The Oakland-based collective makes fresh music that has the foundational sound of hip-hop, the energy of rock and roll, and the messages we need to hear if we’re going to have a brighter future. If you’re around midday and need a break from using big words to talk about small books with enormous ideas, then I’d suggest watching this group get down. — Pendarvis Harshaw

Tricia Hersey: Rest is Resistance

Sunday, May 7, 2–3 p.m.
Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison St.)

I love taking naps. But I never thought about them as forms of resistance or reparations until I encountered the work of Tricia Hersey, aka The Nap Bishop. You mean I’m not lazy for preferring naps over “grind culture”? And I should be daydreaming more? Her frameworks around rest, detailed in her bestselling book, Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, are as empowering as they are paradigm-shifting.

Hersey very much practices what she preaches, so her media appearances and interviews are intentionally few and far between — which means this is a prime opportunity for fans of her work and curious folk to take advantage of her visit to the Bay Area. That she’ll be in conversation with Bay Area curator Ashara Ekundayo, who leads the organization Artist as First Responder, makes the opportunity even sweeter. — Ariana Proehl

Readers browse the free books at a past Bay Area Books Festival. (Mike Hitchner)

Briefly Noted

Hidden Histories
Saturday, May 6, 4–5 p.m. at the Brower Center’s Tamalpais Room (2150 Allston Way)
KQED’s Ariana Proehl moderates a conversation on Saturday, May 6 with journalist Jori Lewis (Slaves for Peanuts) and Swiss author Dorothee Elmiger (Out of the Sugar Factory) about the hidden histories of the peanut and sugar industries.

Emil DeAndreis tabling for Tell Us When To Go
Sunday, May 7, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. at Booth #112 on Allston Way
In a world of technology, big business and gentrification, friendship is more valuable and unfortunately more volatile than ever. Through a unique lens, Emil DeAndreis brings readers into a coming-of-age tale based on the real-life changes happening to the place he calls home. Through the divergent stories of two friends, the reader gets a sense of the dichotomies that exist in the Bay Area, as well as the influence of tech companies and local hip-hop culture.

‘Parable of the Sower’ Turns 30
Sunday, May 7, 2:30–3:30 p.m. at the Brower Center’s Tamalpais Room (2150 Allston Way)
Poets Camille Dungy and Ashia Ajani and novelist Aya de Leon discuss Octavia Butler’s increasingly prescient sci-fi Parable of the Sower. Moderated by Pinole mayor and climate organizer Devin T. Murphy, the panel promises to address current efforts at movement building to address the climate crisis.

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Poetry at the End of the World
Sunday, May 7, 3:30–4:30 p.m. at Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison St.)
A panel of poets, including Saeed Jones (Alive at the End of the World) and the El Cerrito-based Tess Taylor (The Forage House), contemplate the apocalyptic and the hopeful.

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