Editor’s note • This article is part of 150 Things To Do, a reporting project and newsletter exploring the best that Utah has to offer. Click here to sign up for the 150 Things weekly newsletter.
Christian McKay Heidicker doesn’t just read his books out loud. He performs them.
It’s a Saturday afternoon at the north branch of the Weber County Library in Ogden, and the Salt Lake City resident is speaking to a room of about 20 people, many of them moms with young kids. His voice and movements grow animated as he reads from his latest book, “Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City.” The audience sits rapt as he reads, strung along on every word. (Heidicker’s new set of tales is a companion to his Newberry Honor book, “Scary Stories for Young Foxes.” This time, the fox kits find themselves facing terrors found in the human world as the book riffs on classic horror tropes like ghosts, witches and other things that go “bump” in the night.)
Heidicker’s Sept. 25 reading was part of this year’s Utah Humanities Book Festival, which started in September and runs through October. Featuring dozens of authors who write everything from fiction to nonfiction to poetry, this years events are bringing readers together — and face to face with authors — all over the state.
Heidicker said the Book Festival is a chance to speak with people that he’d typically never connect with.
“My readers are just really generous with their attention and their questions, and it’s very enriching,” he said.
Finding community on and off the page
Now in its 24th year, the festival has evolved over time from a one-day or one-weekend event to a “two-month marathon of literary events,” said Willy Palomo, program manager for the Utah Humanities’ Center for the Book.
Upcoming events will showcase writers like:
Terry Tempest Williams, conservationist writer and activist. (Oct. 7, 6 p.m., Brigham City Museum of Art & History)
Tara Westover, New York Times bestselling author of “Educated,” a memoir about leaving her survivalist family to pursue a formal education (Oct. 9, 6 p.m., Zoom Conference call)
Chicano poet Antonio López, author of “Gentefication,” his debut poetry collection. (Oct. 15, 7 p.m., location to be announced)
The statewide festival runs through October 30. For a full schedule, visit the Utah Humanities website.
Palomo said local partners decide which books to highlight in their communities, and then he helps coordinate with the authors.
The importance of the festival is different depending on where in Utah events are taking place, he said. The context of a particular community is reflected in the book choices for each event. For instance, one neighborhood might engage with nature by focusing on environmental literature; in another, the festival might be about promoting underrepresented voices.
But whatever a particular place focuses on, “It’s a joy to be able to go across communities all over the place… and have these conversations about books that matter to these communities,” Palomo said.
He added that the best part of his job is when book festival participants are touched or enlightened or even troubled by what an author has brought to the table.
Those experiences have enhanced his own life, too, he said. “Now I’m going to move through the world differently because I know something new.”
Planning and promoting the festival isn’t without its challenges. Palomo said sometimes people who work in the humanities aren’t immune to wishing that every event will attract “football stadiums” full of people, so it can be disappointing when only a few people come to an event.
However, “I do think that there is something really valuable in sometimes having a smaller conversation,” he said. Smaller events increase “the amount of vulnerability” as well as the opportunity for “getting to know people” you might not otherwise have met.
COVID-19 has impacted the festival, too. Last year, it was entirely virtual, Palomo said; this year, there’s been a mix of virtual and in-person events.
“If [virtual options] are what folks are comfortable with in order to do programming like this, then that’s what we’re going to go with,” he said. “And then some communities… really need an in-person component to even get people out.”
Either way, Palomo said virtual options aren’t ever going away after this year. Technology has allowed the festival to connect with international authors that they otherwise couldn’t afford to feature, he said, and it’s also allowed rural communities to participate more.
Additionally, he said it’s given more options to disabled people and to those who are simply too busy to attend live events.
“If you are a busy parent who can’t go out to a little bookstore or whatever in the evening… you can still catch a glimpse of what we’re working on,” Palomo said.
The festival has been unable to livestream every in-person event this year, but that’s something they’re working towards in the future, he added.
A good book can change you
Palomo said he hopes that in any community, people walk away from Book Festival events having fallen in love with literature and new storytellers.
In particular, he hopes that teens learn how books can help them navigate the world.
“The importance [for teens] is in understanding what a great tool [books] are for helping you get through life,” he said.
Books are also a way to lead by example, Palomo said. Research shows that growing up in a family of readers increases the likelihood that kids will be readers, too.
And there’s no limit to what books can contain. The Book Festival makes a point of including all types of work, from traditional novels to cowboy poetry.
Palomo acknowledges that reading gets a bad rap “when you’re reading the wrong things frequently.”
“There are books out there that match your interests, that are told in a way that will rile [you] up,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding [them].”
Editor’s note • 150 Things To Do is a reporting project and weekly newsletter made possible by the generous support of the Utah Office of Tourism. Sign up for the 150 Things newsletter here.