Two book festivals in Maryland have kick-started the summer off in a year when literary diversity is under attack in the form of book bans.

Books in Bloom and Gaithersburg Book Festival held family-friendly community events that featured a number of authors who either identify on the diversity spectrum or are passionate about freedom of speech in literature. Over the last year, more parents nationwide are asking school libraries to take books off shelves they deem inappropriate for their children to read while some libraries are reactively subtracting books to avoid controversy.

This movement of banning books is sparking opposition as authors and readers alike are going out of their way to support not only freedom of speech but support the variety of books meant to be read by children. The political divide was felt at these book festivals and may become a theme for other similar events in the U.S. throughout the year.

Banned books gain spotlight

Books in Bloom calls itself a progressive book festival in the master-planned city of Columbia, Maryland. To show support for banned books, the festival dedicated one of its soundstages to authors who discussed freedom of speech.

A vibrant setting in Merriweather District’s Color Burst Park, the book festival had a giant book-shaped display describing some of the top banned books in history from Toni Morrison‘s Beloved and Song of Solomon to Alice Walker‘s The Color Purple. With Busboys and Poets as the independent bookstore for the event and a location in the park, most books for sale were books by authors who are Black and/or LGBTQIA+.

Queer memoirs All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe had notable stacks on the tables with other titles that have become the face of many bans though they were created for the middle grade and young adult audiences. The bans are usually due to racial and cultural content, sexually explicit content, and offensive language.

Headliners included a panel with PEN America, the nonprofit organization advocating in the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland’s 8th congressional district and author of Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy. Raskin also attended Gaithersburg Book Festival to sell and sign his latest book.

The book festival’s keynote speaker was Carl Bernstein, the well-known The Washington Post reporter who co-headed the news coverage on the Watergate scandal in 1972. On the festival’s main stage, he marveled at his time growing up around Columbia and how he first became a cub reporter as a high school dropout in his new memoir, Chasing History: A Kid In The Newsroom.

The last Books in Bloom was held less than a year ago in-person in October with The New York Times reporter and The 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones serving as the keynote speaker.

Diverse works lead way

Reminiscent of a large outdoor book festival such as Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Gaithersburg Book Festival in Gaithersburg, Maryland marked its 12th year as an event supporting the greater community with inviting traditionally published authors and offering seminars on book publishing and creative writing for children and adults.

Authors such Dhonielle Clayton, who has a new middle grade release with The Marvellers, and Kimberly Jones, who is promoting her social justice young adult novel Why We Fly with co-author Gilly Segal, discussed their works at the annual event. Dhonielle, a Gaithersburg native, and Kimberly are some of the top YA Black authors who have been outspoken about diversity in literature and social justice matters.

Asked about some of her summer read recommendations, Dhonielle mentioned Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter by Zoraida Córdova; the Track series by Jason Reynolds; and The Devouring Wolf by Natalie C. Parker, in which Dhonielle says there’s a wolf character named after her.

Another author at the event was Jeanine Cummins, who gained notoriety with her immigration novel American Dirt, interviewing Reyna Grande about her book A Ballad of Love and Glory. American Dirt follows a Mexican woman trying to escape to the U.S. with her young son after her family is murdered.

Some high-profile Hispanic and Latine authors spoke out about the White Latina author’s seven-figure advance because they said the publishing industry would never offer them such a sum for centering stories on Hispanic and Latine characters. They also claimed the book had inaccuracies in the culture and language that wasn’t native to the author. On the other hand, there were Hispanic and Latine authors and celebrities who supported the Oprah’s Book Club selection.

Since American Dirt came out in 2020, Jeanine, like many authors who had released their works at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, now have the chance to work the promotion circuit in-person.

Social justice and historical nonfiction were the focus of many authors’ works at the book festival. Gayle Jessup White talked about her lineage connected to former slave-holding president Thomas Jefferson in her book Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Lasting Legacy. Kristin Henning shared her experience representing Black youth in the D.C. court system and how she conceived the idea for her book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth.

Along with Raskin, Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff for California’s 28th congressional district visited the event to chat about his book Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could.

D.C. area indie bookstore chain Politics and Prose served as the event bookseller.

The pre-summer book festivals helped usher in the first literary events for authors and readers to enjoy as society emerges out of the pandemic and the world of book publishing remains volatile in the wake of book bans.