Bay Area Book Festival returns with #UNBOUND, a virtual author conversation series

The annual festival, that usually takes place in Berkeley, debuts its virtual version this weekend and continues into summer; topics include voting, parenting, wellness, literature and children’s programs.

Berkeley’s annual spring literary event — the Bay Area Book Festival — originally scheduled for May 2-3, has been resurrected in virtual form after organizers were forced to cancel the in-person event seven weeks ago to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Bay Area Book Festival #UNBOUND kicks off on Friday night, May 1 with a timely program on Vote at Home, part of a six-part weekly series on voting rights that several other book festivals nationwide also will distribute.

That’s followed Saturday night by a keynote literary conversation and fundraiser, “Coming Together When Things Fall Apart: Giving Voice to Emotional Truth in our Times,” on coping emotionally with the transitions spawned by the pandemic. It features luminaries such as Pulitzer Prize winning novelists Anthony Doerr and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Cherilyn Parsons, founder and director of the Festival, noted that “novelists have thought a lot about what happens when things fall apart. In most fiction, the lead character faces a loss or transition. This conversation will be a bracing shift from the analysis and medical and logistical information in the news, vital as that is. It’ll be raw and personal.”

These programs will be followed by nearly 40 other literary conversations running through June, possibly longer.


#UNBOUND’s series of live and recorded virtual author programs, most drawn from the canceled Festival’s line-up, will appear on the Festival’s YouTube channel. The events are free, excepting ticketed fundraisers; for the free events, attendees can make an optional donation to help cover productions costs. Registration is requested for the premieres of the free programs for adults, which include audience chat.

The programs focus on topics selected for their relevance to current times. In addition to voting rights, #UNBOUND presents health and wellness, parenting, and literary discussions focused on insight into social issues, high-quality escapism (which the organizers point out is much needed, too), and ways in which art and literature shape our personal and social lives during crisis.
The line-up also includes a robust slate of sessions for kids, teens, and families. Young people often are the interviewers (and occasionally, tough interrogators) of the authors, and many of the programs take advantage of the virtual environment to include special features unavailable in in-person settings. 

Parsons described the program team’s strategy. “Much as we would have loved to, we couldn’t possibly do virtual productions for all 130 programs planned for the original fest. We lost so much revenue with the cancellation. But we decided to take a calculated risk and use remaining funds to ‘pivot’ online, selecting programs with special meaning for this difficult time. We trust that new support will come as we provide something valuable.”

She pointed to the Sunday night, May 3 program, “Shedding Light, Vanquishing Fear,” featuring palliative care physician-authors who are working on the front lines with COVID patients. They share advice for embarking upon difficult but necessary conversations on end-of-life planning. Parsons noted, “No one wants to talk about death, but COVID-19 makes us see we really should. The Festival wanted to help people do that from the comfort of their homes, and potentially with their loved ones also watching. That could be an ideal way to start the conversation.”


Programs on wellness include two for parents. “Parenting in a Time of Crisis” presents four bestselling experts, including Madeline Levine and Christine Carter. Another focuses on youth literacy, featuring New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, who co-wrote How to Raise a Reader. Berkeley developmental psychologist Diana Divecha will interview Paul about how parents, many of whom are struggling to school their children at home, can use this time to instill the joy of reading. 

A series of four programs on wellness, including those on parenting, is sponsored by local employer Bayer. Parsons noted, “While some funders canceled their promised grants, we’re gratified that a couple of sponsors immediately converted to the virtual series. They’re seeing that the virtual environment actually offers a lot more visibility than a one-time event in an auditorium. We hope others will follow their lead. Sponsorship can help sustain this virtual work and help us survive to return one day to our in-person event.”

#UNBOUND’s children’s programs aim to help young readers find pleasure and comfort in this uncertain time. Mina Witteman, program coordinator for children’s and young adult literature, brought a spin to the Saturday morning middle-grade program, debuting on May 2, featuring author Annie Barrows and illustrator Sophie Blackall with the eleventh installment, One Big Happy Family, of the wildly popular “Ivy and Bean” series. The program is titled “Ivy and Bean Shelter at Home,” and the description promises kids this discussion: “How do you keep your big family happy when you are cooped up inside?” as well as “how to be friends while social distancing” and “the fun you can have with grown-ups.” The virtual setting allows some extras: an exciting “reveal” of the much-anticipated twelfth installment with a time-lapse video of a drawing, the cover image, and a reading of the first sentence.

Kisky Holwerda, the festival’s program director, described one of the programs she’s most excited about, “a continuation of our Writer to Writer series, where we’ll have two literary greats, Garth Greenwell and Lidia Yuknavitch, talking about sex and power. This will also be our first program to carry a content warning because of a particularly scintillating passage of Lidia’s that Garth reads aloud, so maybe watch this one after the kids are in bed.”

One of Parsons’ favorites presents “journalist and historian Adam Hochschild, whose programs always sell out at the Festival. Adam tells a real-life Cinderella story of an immigrant activist and wealthy scion from a hundred years ago, with a twist and uncanny resonance to today.”

One of the hallmarks of the Bay Area Book Festival has been its many international authors, and that continues with #UNBOUND. Lisa Heyse, the Festival’s director of international programs, pointed out, “Books offer great escapes, literally. We’ll take you to Sweden with top Scandinavian crime novelist Lars Kepler (pseudonym for a husband-and-wife duo), to be interviewed by Berkeley’s own Jesse Kellerman. That’s for June.”


The Festival also will continue its year-round Women Lit series, with virtual live “lunch hour” programs for Women Lit members, recorded to appear later on the Festival’s YouTube page. Scheduled authors range from debut novelist Chelsea Bieker (“Godshot”) to cult favorite Eimear McBride, joining from Ireland.

Other May highlights in the voting rights series include Carol Anderson (One Person, No Vote and White Rage) to be interviewed by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Unrigging the Rules for the Rising American Electorate with David Daley and Steve Phillips, moderated by Rebecca Nagle; and Courts, COVID-19, and Voter Suppression, featuring Legal Scholar Richard Hasen, Alan Hirsch, and Abdi Soltani, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California, moderated by Lala Wu, co-founder of Sister District Project.

While the May schedule appears on #UNBOUND’s program page, June will be announced on May 15. A Sneak Peek gives highlights. Festival staff encourage people to sign up for their newsletter, now thrice monthly, to get updates along with literary news and a poem.

Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.