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USC turns the page on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Nikias, Hartenstein and Thomson at the Festival of Books
President Nikias, on stage with Los Angeles Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein and president Kathy Thomson, welcomes guests to the 17th annual Festival of Books. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

“All of you here this morning should take great pride in the fact that we are part of the largest public literary festival in America.”

With those words, USC president C. L. Max Nikias kicked off the 17th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 21. In its second year at USC, the festival attracted a record-breaking 151,000 guests to the University Park campus, an 8 percent increase over last year’s attendance according to the Times.

Joining Nikias on the USC Stage – one of eight outdoor festival venues providing continuous entertainment during the two-day festival – were Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein and president Kathy Thomson. Together, they formally named “Thesaurus,” the bookish brontosaurus that served as this year’s festival mascot – recognizing as they did so Ricardo Valenzuela, the Sheridan Street Elementary School sixth-grader who came up with the witty moniker.

The Spirit of Troy, led by band maestro Arthur C. Bartner, already had warmed up the crowd with “Tusk” and “Fight On” when Nikias, dressed in a cardinal jacket that matched Bartner’s uniform, took the stage.

The president noted a “special historical connection” between the university and the newspaper.

“USC and the L.A. Times are the two oldest surviving nonreligious institutions in the city of Los Angeles,” Nikias said. “Our university was established in 1880, while the first issue of the L.A. Times rolled off the presses in 1881. Since that time, we have worked to advance the city and to promote a love of learning.”

On the eve of the festival, as USC buildings and grounds crews completed their preparations, Bovard Auditorium had hosted the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes – a who’s who of literary talent.

Among this year’s winners, selected in 12 categories, were novelists Alex Shakar and Stephen King, poet Carl Phillips, science writer Sylvia Nasar and historian Richard White. (For more on the book awards, go to

Saturday morning, blue skies smiled down on crowds of book lovers as they navigated a sea of white-tented booths dotting the campus, representing hundreds of exhibitors. More than 400 authors gave readings and appeared on panels in 14 different auditoriums and signed their books at seven signing areas.

Among the highlights of this year’s festival was the official unveiling of a new U.S. Postal Service “stampaign” honoring major 20th century American poets. Dana Gioia, USC’s Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture and a member of the Postal Service’s stamp selection committee, served as master of ceremonies; provost and senior vice president for academic affairs Elizabeth Garrett gave an introduction.

Held on the Poetry Stage in bucolic Founders Park, the ceremony featured dramatic readings by faculty poets Carol Muske-Dukes and David St. John, as well as by undergraduate Youssef Biaz, current national champion of the National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored Poetry Out Loud competition. The program concluded with the first official sale of the 10 new “Forever” stamps.

One of Saturday’s first panels featured USC executive vice provost Michael Quick and David Agus, author of The New York Times bestseller The End of Illness. A USC professor of medicine and engineering, Agus thrilled the mostly gray-haired crowd in Hoffman Hall’s auditorium with his outside-the-box vision of a disease-free future.

Later in the day, the woman who single-handedly pioneered the young adult literature genre held court before a capacity-crowd in Bovard Auditorium. Judy Blume proved both funny and disarmingly modest, recounting her jubilation at the arrival of her first acceptance letter from a publisher.

“The mailman and I literally danced across the front lawn of my little suburban house because he had brought me so many rejections,” Blume recalled.

Read more about the Saturday panels featuring USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences faculty.

Sunday’s program brought more celebrities – including Anne Rice, Julie Andrews and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

On both days, the food trucks lining Childs Way were the hub of activity at lunchtime, with plenty of seating at the food court on Cromwell Field and continuous cooking demonstrations at the adjacent Cooking Stage.

As Courtney Peldon ordered a lobster sandwich and lemonade at the Lobsta Truck on Saturday, she reflected on past festivals.

“I attended for years, back when the festival was at UCLA,” said the San Fernando Valley resident, cradling her little dog, Boleyn. “I actually like it better here at USC. It’s wide, flatter, there’s less hills, less stairs. And the food trucks!”

Book lovers of all stripes were to be found in the crowds. Waiting for ice cream sandwiches at the Coolhaus truck were Gabe Smallson, 12, and his sister, Brooke, 15, of Canoga Park. Gabe was in a wheelchair, his left leg jutting forward, covered in a bright green cast. The siblings had just heard a Bovard Auditorium talk by their favorite author, John Green.

“He was exactly like everyone says he was,” said Gabe, happily pointing to the spot where Green had autographed his cast. Brother and sister both were looking forward to meeting another favorite author, Ransom Riggs, at an Annenberg Auditorium panel on young adult fiction.

Another new feature of this year’s festival was the USC Health Pavilion. Organized by practitioners from the Keck Medical Center of USC, the USC School of Pharmacy and USC divisions of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, and Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, the pavilion proved to be a popular attraction.

“Some of the health fairs we don’t see as many participants, but today it’s been really great,” said first-year USC pharmacy student Tamara Chinarian, who was working one of a handful of diabetes screening stations in the pavilion.

Nearby, her classmates took blood pressure readings and staffed a “brown-bagging event,” reviewing patients’ various medications for possible drug interactions. Marta Correa, who lives in the University Park neighborhood, had just gotten her blood pressure checked.

“I just want to know if I’m healthy,” Correa said, standing beside her two young daughters. “I recently changed my diet. It’s always good to know.”

Next door at the Keck Medical Center booth, children lined up for a free workbook, “Be a Germ Buster,” printed in English or Spanish. Many availed themselves of the four adjacent hand-washing stations. Appropriately, given the blazing sun, volunteers were handing out plastic visors with the medical center logo and individual-sized bottles of SPF 15 sunscreen.

Over at the USC Civic Engagement booth, 6-year-old David Galaviz got his T-shirt signed by Trojan drum major Kyle Wilson, who looked heroic decked out in full battle regalia.

The USC-sponsored booth also served as headquarters for the USC Book Drive 2012, which aimed to collect 5,000 new and gently used children’s books for distribution to the 15 members of the USC Family of Schools. Reaching that goal won’t be a problem, according to volunteer Guadalupe Garrido.

“It’s going really well,” said Garrido, who also is president of the Neighborhood Academic Initiative’s parent council. “A little while ago one lady came with three bags of books, and they were new! We have a lot of boxes in the back, and a lot more books back at the University Village.”

View additional photos from the festival on Flickr

Watch author interviews and panel highlights from C-SPAN

See the social media coverage of the Festival of Books


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