Blog: Jeff Kass

Faltering English grades don't bode well for a state trying to foster a permanent class of young professionals. Author and teacher extraordinaire Jeff Kass delivers up Knuckleheads for the young men who'd rather work a backhoe than read a book. Jeff, writing program director for the Neutral Zone, also explains how the Ann Arbor Book Festival was revived by partnering with other non-profits.

Post 2: Reinventing the Ann Arbor Book Festival

For about three years now, the Ann Arbor Book Festival has been struggling. The downtrodden economy has caused the festival to lose several sponsors and a few of the grants we'd hoped to garner have fallen through due to decreased federal and state funding. Contributions from individuals to support the festival have also dropped, largely because people have chosen to direct their personal dwindling charitable donations toward essential services like food banks, homeless shelters, health clinics and children's hospitals.

I can't quarrel with that kind of choice.

Still, I believe the mission of the Ann Arbor Book Festival is vital. Reading and writing are crucial elements of our lives and if we can help to enhance our community's culture of literacy, then I believe we are doing a great deal to improve the quality of life in our area and to enrich all kinds of peoples’ day-to-day lives.

A little history – The Ann Arbor Book Festival began in 2004 and its mission is to promote reading, heighten awareness of literacy challenges, and showcase the rich culture of the written word in Michigan and beyond. Originally envisioned and kick-started by the Shaman Drum Bookshop, we held vibrant street festivals from 2004-2008 that included author readings, panel discussions, spelling bees, poetry slams and exhibitors. As we evolved over the years, we added unique events like an Author's Breakfast, a Writer's Conference, year-round Author's Forums, and the presentation of our annual Leaders in Literary Arts Awards, or LILAs.

We began to encounter funding difficulties in 2009 after the financial crash and downscaled the street festival that spring, condensing our slate from about three dozen events to six and shifting most of our exhibitors off the street and inside the Michigan League. In 2010, we downsized even more, essentially eliminating our exhibitors and the whole idea of a street festival, and holding only a LILA Awards presentation event and reading, an Author's Breakfast, a Writer's Conference and several Author's Forum events scattered throughout the year.

When the board of directors met this past fall, we wondered whether we should shut down the Ann Arbor Book Festival altogether. Had we reached the point in time where we'd outlived our usefulness to the community? Do people even care enough about books anymore to merit an annual festival?

We decided we'd give it one more shot, but could no longer go it alone. In hopes of creating mutually beneficial partnerships, we reached out to both The Neutral Zone and The Ann Arbor Summer Festival and have put together a series of events that we're offering this year, focusing on the ten-day period from Wednesday, June 22nd through Friday, July 1st. By partnering with The Neutral Zone and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, we are able to save on financial outlay by sharing some resources and expenses. While we are still in a somewhat scaled-down mode from our more ambitious festivals of years past, we hope that fomenting these partnerships will allow us to grow in the future in a sustainable fashion.
Here's what we're offering this year:

June 22 and 23, All Day
VOLUME Summer Institute for Teachers
Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington
Registration required

This two-day institute will feature a quartet of terrific creative writing educators working with local teachers to help them develop strategies for teaching writing in their own classrooms.

June 24, 7:30 PM
Louder Than a Bomb
Helmut Stern Auditorium, U-M Museum of Art, 525 S. State Street
Youth Poetry Slam Film Screening

This award-winning documentary film brings to the public the passions and creative imaginations of high-school aged writers in Chicago as they battle to earn coveted spots on the Chicago Youth Poetry Slam Team.  The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Kevin Coval, co-founder of Chicago's Youth Poetry Slam.

June 25, 8:30 AM
Breakfast with the Authors
Image Café, 2435 North Quad, 105 S. State Street
Registration required
With Roger Bonair-Agard, Kevin Coval, francine j. harris, Jim C. Hines, Jeff Kass, Adam Mansbach, Jamaal May, Angel Nafis, Karen Simpson, Lori Tucker-Sullivan, Karrie Waarala, Margaret Yang, Lara Zielin

This unique event allows members of the public to sit down with authors and talk informally about writing and the writing life. This year's breakfast includes Adam Mansbach, author of the viral sensation mock children's book, Go the F*** to Sleep.

June 25, 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Writer's Conference
Media Gallery, North Quad, 105 S. State Street
Registration required
Workshops for writers of fiction, poetry, memoir, young adult fiction, and science fiction.

This day-long conference allows interested members of the general public to attend writing workshops taught by the featured authors at the AABF Author's Breakfast.  

June 25, 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Show Me A Story: A Creative Children's Play Space
Image Café, 2435 North Quad, 105 S. State Street
For children of all ages who love stories and the images and visions they inspire.

June 25, 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Street Festival
Ingalls Mall, E. Washington St.
(between S. Thayer and Fletcher St.)
Poetry and prose samplers; Leader in the Literary Arts Awards; Community Conversation about Education; Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad vs. Android vs. Books!

This limited version of a street festival will feature readings by the authors from the Author's Breakfast and Writer's Conference as well as a panel discussion about education reform and another panel where attendees can compare the virtues of the market's most popular electronic readers. We will end the afternoon with our presentation of this year's LILA Awards.

June 25, 5:00 PM
Author's Forum: Act of Grace
A Conversation with Karen Simpson + Robbie Ransom
Image Café, 2435 North Quad, 105 S. State Street
Karen Simpson's first novel explores the story of Grace Johnson, a bright, perceptive African American high school senior who saves the life of a Klansman named Jonathan Gilmore. Everyone in her hometown of Vigilant, Michigan wants to know why.

June 26 to July 1, All Day
VOLUME Summer Institute for Students
Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington
Registration required

This five-day intensive creative writing camp for high school students is one of the finest such programs in the country.

June 30, 7:30 PM
VOLUME Summer Institute Faculty Readings
Helmut Stern Auditorium, U-M Museum of Art, 525 S. State Street

This reading, free and open to the public, features dynamic performances from the instructors in the VOLUME Summer Institute, including Adam Mansbach, Roger Bonair-Agard, Kevin Coval, Jeff Kass, Angel Nafis, Scott Beal, Karen Smyte, Mike Hyter and Danny Brown.

Hopefully, by bringing these three organizations together we can continue to create vibrant literary arts events in the Ann Arbor community for years to come.  Perhaps, in these troubled times, forging these kinds of partnerships is a way non-profit organizations can not only survive but thrive and move forward with dynamic visions for the future.