Story by Liza Simon
Photo by Dana Edmunds
When the idea of a book festival in Honolulu was first floated in 2004 by local literati and book biz professionals, veteran literary agent Roger Jellinek, asked to help program it, worried at the inherent challenges. Book festivals were typically founded in Mainland metropolises, backed by publishers who’d schedule promotional author appearances. But Hawai‘i was too remote to be a whistle-stop on the commercial circuit, fueling skeptics’ predictions that a bookfest could never make it in this town. “It was clear that ours would have to be unique to be successful,” recalls Jellinek.
Thus was born the not-for-profit Hawai‘i Book & Music Festival, a free two-day bash set in tents on the great grassy lawn of Honolulu Hale. Straw mats are a de rigueur accessory to enjoy lectures and panel discussions by both famed and first-time authors as well as performances by musicians and hula halau (troupes). Authors come by invitation and represent all genres; they are there to talk story with Hawai‘i’s book lovers, who, it turns out, comprise quite a throng. “The most surprising thing to me was that ten thousand people showed up,” marvels Jellinek of the inaugural festival of 2006. Last year thirty thousand people came, and organizers are prepping for similar numbers this year, planning for 150 events on ten stages over the weekend of May 18 and 19.
What accounts for the festival’s appeal? Jellinek suspects it’s that it caters to the simple Island pleasure of storytelling. Another element is its family-friendliness; one third of attendees who were asked said they were there so their kids could spend time learning more about books and reading. Jellinek notes that the festival also decided to focus on Hawaiian culture from the outset through its “ALANA,” or awakening, program. “The Hawaiian language has come back to life and is reanimating history, music, every aspect of the culture,” he says. “The rediscovery of the extraordinary cache of Hawaiian-language newspapers has opened up whole new vistas. The news,” he notes, “arrives in books, stories and songs,” all of which are celebrated on several stages each year. The ALANA program alone, he adds, puts the festival on a page all of its own.