- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Downtown Bethesda is known as a great place to dine, but this weekend you can feast on more than food as the town embarks on the three-day Bethesda Literary Festival.

The recipe for the seventh annual event keeps improving:

Invite local and national authors. Put in poetry readings and poetry slams. Combine with essay contests. Line up literature for little ones. Blend in book making for children. Include publishers from small presses. Add artwork celebrating the written word. Bring in a book appraiser. Top it off with comedians.

Do it all for free.

Then spread the events over three days at the Writer’s Center, Barnes & Noble, the public library, art galleries, hotels and other spots.

The Bethesda Literary Festival was envisioned in the late 1990s by a small group of literature lovers, including museum consultant and Bethesda resident Robyn des Roches.

The first year 500 persons came. This year more than 5,000 are expected — including Ms. des Roches and her 4-year-old son.

“It’s like a big party,” she says — and compared to other festivals, “more homespun.” Although you can buy books, you don’t have to pay for tickets and there’s not a commercial driving force to sell books, she explains.

Making the magic happen is the work of the Bethesda Urban Partnership Inc. (BUP), host of the festival. “We aim to have something for everyone,” says the organization’s Stephanie Coppula.

Whether you come on your own, with friends or with children, grab a map and a schedule at www.bethesda.org. Chart your course.

Here are some highlights:

Meet the authors

Hear headliners David Frum, author of “The Right Man” and “An End to Evil”; CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer, author of “Face the Nation: My Favorite Stories from the First 50 Years of the Award-Winning News Broadcast”; and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, author of “Talking Back: … to Presidents, Dictators and Assorted Scoundrels.”

Why are well-known authors volunteering to participate in the Bethesda Literary Festival? It turns out they want to do more than promote their books.

Mr. Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush and a New York Times best-selling author, says it’s “easy” to figure out why he participates: “These are my neighbors,” the District resident says.

Mr. Frum will field questions and comments from supporters and critics of the administration. He’ll also give a preview of what his next book is about.

Mr. Schieffer says he enjoys the exchange with his readers.

“I tell people these are my focus groups,” he says. “I find it instructive and I get a good feel for where the country is.”

Another news veteran, Ms. Mitchell, says, “When we broadcast into people’s homes, there’s an obvious separation” — one bridged by the person-to-person contact at the festival.

“Writing is a solitary process,” she says. “I love talking about my book.”

Coming to a screen near you?

If you haven’t heard of Barbara Kline (“White House Nannies”) or Marisa de los Santos (“Love Walked In”), you may soon. Both of their books have been optioned by Hollywood — and even if they don’t make it to the silver screen, the authors agree that it’s a thrill to have their stories considered.

Ms. Kline, who for 20 years has run a nanny-placement service called White House Nannies out of offices in Bethesda, says that over the years she collected enough anecdotes to fill a book. The next step was writing courses at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, and the book itself.

“I had no excuse. The Writer’s Center is literally across the street from my office,” she says.

Ms. Kline is happy to dish on politicians’ families (she’ll even reveal a name a two), give tips for hiring a nanny, or talk about the trifecta: career, family and sanity.

Ms. de los Santos, an accomplished poet born in Baltimore, raised in Northern Virginia and now a resident of Wilmington, Del., has a career that’s taking off. In addition to being optioned in Hollywood, her novel of unexpected love — which takes its title from a Gershwin song — is being translated into 11 languages.

Like many authors at the festival, Ms. de los Santos will read excerpts from her book and take questions from the audience.

Writers aplenty

Some authors — including Fred Barnes (“Rebel in Chief: How George W. Bush is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America”), Barbara Holland (“When All the World Was Young: A Memoir”) and David Vise (“The Google Story”) — will speak alone at events. Most others will appear in groups.

To meet many local scribes at once, stroll through Barnes & Noble on Sunday night. There you’ll meet writers whose books cover eclectic topics, such as how to stop a stroke, solar energy, corporate farms and more. Neville Williams wrote “Chasing the Sun: Solar Adventures Around the World,” a first-person narrative of his adventures bringing solar power to developing countries.

“We helped 50,000 people get enough power for black-and-white TV, lighting and small appliances,” Mr. Williams says. “I wrote the book to entertain, inspire and inform.”

Sally Pessin, co-author with Janice Haas of a humorous look at stay-at-home mothering called “You Know You’ve Been a Stay-at-Home Mom Too Long When …,” says, “Our book represents a lighter side of literature.”

Nancy Arbuthnot and Cathy Abramson collaborated on “Wild Washington: Animal Sculptures A to Z,” a guidebook to the city’s animal sculptures, from anteater to zebra, for children and parents. They’ll share their adventures as they tried to find sculptures to represent all the letters of the alphabet.

Praise for the poets

Let’s not forget the poets. Festival visitors can hear everything from formal sonnets to poems about the natural world, jazz, music and even Elvis. The poetry at the festival will provide a good introduction to the genre, says Sunil Freeman of the Writer’s Center, where many festival events will take place.

“We’ll have a good mix of voices at the poetry readings,” Mr. Freeman says. “People are surprised at how accessible poetry is.”

For a nontraditional look at poetry, attend a poetry slam. Poetry slams merge what’s on the page with performance.

What makes a great performance of poetry? You can be the judge. At the festival’s poetry slam, five persons will be randomly selected from the audience, explains “slam master” Delrica Andrews.

“The judging is like the Olympics,” Ms. Andrews says. “You judge performances on a scale of 0.0 to 10. The highest and lowest scores get thrown out so the maximum score is 30.”

For the adult competition, anything goes. “Serious, gay, political — it just has to be original,” Ms. Andrews says.

If you have poems to share, be one of the first 15 persons to sign up on Saturday night at the Washington School of Photography on Rugby Avenue. For the Youth Poetry Slam on Sunday afternoon, children should be registered in advance.

“Poetry slams are phenomenal,” says Ms. Andrews. “They’re more than worth being jazzed up over.”

Winning writers

Of course the festival features writing contests. Teenagers and adults will compete for a cash prize — first place takes $500 — and a membership in the Writers’ Center as well as a chance to read their essays aloud at a special event. Children 5 to 8 and 9 to 13 have their own contest.

Theresa Dowell Blackinton of North Bethesda, who took third place last year writing on the subject “home,” says she kept her entry a secret until she learned she was a finalist.

“I was so impressed that there were so many ways to reflect on a topic,” says Ms. Blankinton. This year she and other essay-contest entrants must incorporate Bethesda into their essays.

The children are competing on the timeless topic: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” According to the festival’s sponsors, youngsters this year have picked the unexpected, such as waiter, cashier and flight attendant, and the predictable, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and sports heroes.

And, of course, there’s always “writer.”

Pigs, puns, and potions

The children’s literature ranges from the silly to the serious.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s story “Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig,” chronicles the tale of a pig trying to walk a tightrope. When she keeps falling off, she e-mails her mother for moral support.

“Some dreams take lots of trying,” her mother replies — and that’s the lesson.

Ms. Bardhan-Quallen asks children to name the animal they’d like to see walking tightropes.

“It’s amazing what they come up with: tigers, fish, alligators, wolves,” says Ms. Bardhan-Quallen. After her talk, Ms. Bardhan-Quallen passes out goodies like bookmarks, stickers, circus peanuts and coloring sheets. She also signs her books.

Chevy Chase author Susan Stockdale wrote and illustrated “Carry Me! Animal Babies on the Move.” She explains to children how she researched every plant in her book to make sure the animals are in realistic habitats. She also shells out advice to aspiring writers: “Don’t write something once. Write a zillion times!” she says.

One quick way for children to create their own books is at Sally Canzoneri’s workshop at the Writer’s Center, “Children Fast Publishing.” Without a computer, children will create their own books by folding a large piece of paper into a book with a cover, a back and three double-page spreads. Some call these “flutter” or “origami” books.

“I encourage children to write and draw simultaneously,” Ms. Canzoneri says. Youngsters without ideas can reach into Ms. Canzoneri’s bin of suggestions — bestiaries filled with real or imagined creatures, travel guides to fictitious places. Or they can write about Bethesda.

Small presses, big impressions

This weekend also marks the 13th Annual Mid-Atlantic Small Press Book Fair, celebrated as part of the literary festival. On Saturday, festival goers can attend a panel discussion of what’s new in literary publishing and browse through displays of publications covering poetry, fiction and essays.

“You can find the most exciting things because small presses can take chances that large presses can’t,” says local poet Rose Solari, a teacher at the Writer’s Center.

For those looking for quality and quantity, the center holds its annual 50-cents-a-pound book sale. “We literally have tons of books,” says Mr. Freeman.

Books from the attic

Once you’ve bought books for 50 cents a pound, you’ll have to offload a few. Dust off the books in your basement for expert appraisals by Andy Moursund, owner of Georgetown Book Shop, at the Writer’s Center on Saturday afternoon.

But don’t get your hopes up. While a nice first edition of, say, Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” might fetch $100 or more, who has the foresight to hold on to something of that value?

“I tell people what they need to know, not necessarily what they want to hear,” Mr. Moursund says. “Most books are barely worth enough to send their children home on the Metro.”

Stretching the narrative form

Stories aren’t always told in print. At the Barking Dog on Saturday night, you’ll find “Sidesplitting Standup!” — that is, four high-energy stand-up comedians in improv.

Expect the unexpected. George Peacock, emcee of the event, will update common cliches and do riffs on the Bible, on poetry as a genre, and on men’s and women’s magazines.

And at Bethesda’s art galleries and at the Round House Theatre, you’ll find other ways to tell a tale.

“We have artists who tell narration in glass,” says Fraser Gallery owner Lenny Campello.

Work by local glass artists Tim Tate and Syl Mathis will be on display in the gallery through June. Mr. Tate’s glass hearts reflect his love for his mother; he puts a pinch of her ashes in each one. Mr. Mathis, a kayak instructor, uses glass as a narrative form to show his passion for the Potomac River.

At Gallery Neptune, owner Elyse Harrison is putting on a show featuring the work of David Wallace. “His work is interesting, affordable and well-produced,” says Ms. Harrison. It’s also a good fit for the festival. Mr. Wallace incorporates words — from an old party invitation, a letter, or the page of a book — in his collages, says Ms. Harrison, an avid supporter of the festival and the arts in Bethesda.

At the festival, artistic director Blake Robison of the Round House Theatre Bethesda will discuss four upcoming shows adapted from novels: “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” “The Little Prince,” “Crime and Punishment” and “Summer of ‘42.”

In sum, whether you’re looking to laugh, cry, learn or relax, you’ll find plenty at the Bethesda Literary Festival. And in between the books, you’ll find plenty of restaurants.

WHAT: The seventh annual Bethesda Literary Festival

WHERE: Downtown Bethesda’s bookstores, community centers and art galleries

WHEN: Friday to Sunday

ADMISSION: All events free

INFORMATION: bethesda.org

Getting in on the action

Bethesda has been a diner’s paradise for some years now, but its literary festival is a reminder that it’s a hotbed of scribblers as well. Here’s how to find the weekend’s events. For complete information, see the schedule on the Web site at bethesda.org.

1. The Barking Dog: 4723 Elm St.

2. Barnes & Noble: 4801 Bethesda Ave.

3. Bethesda Elementary School: 7600 Arlington Road

4. Bethesda Regional Library: 7400 Arlington Road

5. Fraser Gallery: 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E

6. Gallery Neptune: 4808 Auburn Ave.

7. Hyatt Regency Bethesda: 1 Bethesda Metro Center

8. Residence Inn by Marriott: 7335 Wisconsin Ave.

9. Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Highway

10. Washington School of Photography: 4850 Rugby Ave.

11. The Writer’s Center: 4508 Walsh St.

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