New Heartland Book Festival Adds to Kansas City’s Literary Cachet

Glenn North

There’s more to affirming a city’s literary chops than turning out big-time writers, though it is a measure. And on that, Kansas City has nicely held its own over the past century or so.

Maryfrances Wagner

A fresh-out-of-high-school Ernest Hemingway cut his teeth as a cub reporter at The Kansas City Star. Evan S. Connell and Calvin Trillin were born here, as were Vincent O. Carter and William Least Heat-Moon. Today, among others, we tout Candice Millard, Christopher Leonard and Gillian Flynn.

They front a flourishing ecosystem.

The Writers Place has served as a valuable “literary community center” since 1992, and the Latino Writers Collective offers another avenue of support. The Kansas City Public Library and University of Missouri-Kansas City are two of the principals involved in the two-year-old, nationally focused Maya Angelou Book Award. Three local library systems — KCPL, along with the Johnson County Library and Mid-Continent Public Library — have earned the coveted National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

Adding to that cachet is an ambitious new book festival — the Heartland Book Festival — set for Oct. 6 and 7 in downtown Kansas City. The Kansas City Public Library is front and center, joining the St. Louis-based Missouri Humanities and the Missouri Center for the Book in delivering an eclectic lineup of appearances and discussions by local and nationally known authors, workshops, exhibitions, musical performances and other presentations. All are open to the public and free.

The festival isn’t solely a Kansas City affair but rather a recurring regional event in partnership with Missouri Humanities. While locations beyond this year are yet to be determined, the Kansas City Public Library sees itself as a continuing collaborator.

Unbound Book Festival

Missouri is home to a smattering of yearly book festivals, most notably the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia each April. Outside of a few one-off events, there’ve been few to no equivalent celebrations of the written word in the Kansas City area.

“It would be nice if that void was filled and this festival … helps more and more people recognize Kansas City for the literary presence that it has,” says Glenn North, the director of inclusive learning and creative impact for the Kansas City Museum and the first poet laureate of the city’s Historic 18th & Vine Entertainment District.

The stakes, and benefits, extend statewide, says St. Louis author Vivian Gibson.

“Missouri, the Midwest, we’re kind of flyover country, and I think we’re maybe sometimes forgotten,” she says. “To draw attention to us through literature and everything else we have to offer is crucial — to both Kansas City and St. Louis, just a few hundred miles down the highway.

C.J. Janovy

“To bring people in to see what we have, to see that there’s art and literature here, I think can only be good for us.”

Gibson won the Missouri Library Association’s Missouri Literary Award for nonfiction in 2022-23 for her debut memoir The Last Children of Mill Creek, about the everyday life of a working-class Black family in in a segregated St. Louis neighborhood that was demolished during urban renewal. The book was one of two from Missouri — with Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit — selected for this year’s National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., as representative of the state’s literary heritage.

Both Gibson and Jackson are part of the Heartland Book Festival’s second-day programming, Gibson joining a panel of authors to talk about writing history through the lens of memoir and Jackson discussing her children’s short story about a sensitive girl who makes a rhino-tough suit for protection from the world’s hurts.

Steve Paul

North will join other area writers across a variety of genres in another discussion, Where You Are is What You Read: Using Kansas City As Place and Character.

The festival — themed Find Your Story — opens Friday, Oct. 6, with a keynote address by storyteller and self-professed intellectual adventurer Jermaine Fowler, host of the history podcast The Humanity Archive and author of the bestselling The Humanity Archive: Recovering the Soul of Black History from a Whitewashed American Myth. He speaks at the Folly Theater. Saturday’s full day of activities are held at the Central Library, just a few blocks away.

Columbus, Ohio, illustrator and storyteller Andy J. Pizza, host of the Creative Pep Talk podcast, offers a presentation on creativity. But the second day of programming largely revolves around a who’s who of local writers, from Whitney Terrell and Missouri Poet Laureate Maryfrances Wagner to Desideria Mesa, Grace Suh, C.J. Janovy, Phong Nguyen and Steve Paul.

Desideria Mesa

Kansas City illustrator Charlie Mylie and local graphic designer and creative director Jordan Morris offer a presentation on children’s picture-book making. Photographer and Guggenheim Fellow Philip Heying discusses his exhibition Survey of Elemental Gratitude, featuring photos of the Flint Hill grasslands surrounding his home in Matfield Green, Kansas. There are workshops on creative fiction, nonfiction and poetry writing; printmaking; graphic recording; and even tarot reading.

Carrie Coogan, the Library’s deputy director for public affairs and community engagement, calls the festival “both exciting and critical” for the city and the surrounding region.

“We started working on this five years ago with an aim to strengthen and highlight the importance of storytelling to this community and make sure it continues,” she says, looking back on the annual Writers for Readers celebration on which the Library partners with UMKC and the creation of the Maya Angelou Book Award, among other initiatives. “The best way to learn and understand what another person is going through is to hear their story.

“At the Library,” Coogan says, “we look to promote a community of readers who are enlightened, empowered, and empathetic. … We are proud to support and elevate a project like this that further promotes that cause.”

For more information on the Heartland Book Festival, go to www.heartlandbookfest.org.

–Steve Wieberg

CategoriesArts Consortium

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