The Tucson Festival of Books is back! Here's what to expect

The 2019 Tucson Festival of Books

The 2019 Tucson Festival of Books. The festival will return to its pre-pandemic bustle March 12-13 after it was cancelled in 2020 and held virtually in 2021.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

The Tucson Festival of Books is making a comeback – again.

After the 2020 festival was canceled at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, it returned last year in an all-virtual format. But this year marks the festival's return to an in-person format for the first time in three years. The event will take over the University of Arizona Mall and surrounding buildings March 12-13.

"The word 'excited' would be an understatement when talking about being back on campus," said festival executive director Melanie Morgan. "It's just not the same unless you're physically there; the energy on campus is amazing and the university support is amazing."

This year's festival will feature nearly 300 authors, more than 200 exhibitors and about 30 venues with talks, exhibits, interactive events and other activities, bringing it back to its pre-pandemic bustle, Morgan said. The 2019 festival welcomed about 140,000 visitors, Morgan said, but organizers do not know what to expect for attendance this year.

The uncertainty of COVID-19, Morgan added, means the final author schedule could change. The Tucson Festival of Books app, available for free for iPhone and Android devices, and the festival website are the best places to get the most updated schedule, Morgan said.

"We do anticipate changes (to the schedule) this year," she said, noting that festival organizers expect presenters to cancel if they test positive for COVID-19 after traveling to Tucson. "We do not want people risking anyone's health – their own or anyone else's – to do our festival, so I do want to make sure that people keep an eye on the app."

The festival will adhere to the university's COVID-19 safety protocols, which include a requirement to wear a surgical or higher-grade mask in all indoor spaces where it is not possible to adequately and continuously maintain social distance, in accordance with posted signage. The most up-to-date information on UArizona COVID-19 protocols is available on the university's COVID-19 website.

As another precaution, the event will not include, as it has in years past, small sessions that often involved packing attendees into small rooms, Morgan said.

Event planners are exploring whether some sessions can also include a virtual component, but those details have not been finalized, Morgan said, adding that doing the entire festival in both in-person and virtual formats wasn't possible. C-SPAN will stream many of the festival's sessions on Book TV.

Among this year's presenting authors are those who were on the schedule in 2020 before the festival's cancellation, as well as those who are returning in person after a virtual appearance last year, Morgan said. Other authors are returning to the festival as they have most years, thanks to their local ties or simply because they enjoy the event and Tucson.

"The great thing about a lot of these authors is once an author has come to the festival once, if they love us and they have a new book every year, they tend to come back," Morgan said.

Author Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian and the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University, whose awards include a Pulitzer Prize in History and a National Book Award, will be presented with the Tucson Festival of Books Founders Award.

Notable authors presenting at the festival include:

  • Joanna Ho, the New York Times bestselling author of "Eyes That Kiss the Corners"
  • J.A. Jance, a bestselling author of more than 60 mystery novels and a former Bisbee resident
  • Bob Odenkirk, an actor known for his TV roles as Saul Goodman in "Breaking Bad" and Jimmy McGill in the "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul," and author of a forthcoming memoir, "Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama"
  • Scott Simon, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition" and a New York Times bestselling author of several memoirs and fiction books
  • Philip Rucker, deputy national editor for The Washington Post and political analyst for MSNBC, and the author of two books about Donald Trump's presidency
  • Luis Alberto Urrea, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, American Book Award winner and author of 17 fiction and nonfiction books
  • Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Russia on the White House's National Security Council

Several UArizona authors will also present at this year's festival.

  • Mary-Frances O'Connor, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and author of "The Grieving Brain," will discuss what happens to our brains when we grieve.
  • Susan Briante, professor of English and the author of four books of poetry, will participate in several panels, one of which includes a reading of her work.
  • Celeste González de Bustamante, director of the Center for Border and Global Journalism in the School of Journalism and the co-author of "Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience Among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century," will participate in several talks about the U.S.-Mexico border and another about journalists reporting in dangerous situations.
  • Jeannine Relly, professor of journalism and co-author of "Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience Among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century," will moderate a talk about the U.S.-Mexico border and, in another talk, discuss dangers journalists face while reporting.
  • David Yetman, a research social scientist at the Southwest Center whose research focuses on plants and people of the Sonoran Desert, will share his perspectives on the region today.

Science City, an annual festival draw for families with kids, will also return this year with its science-themed "neighborhoods" on the east end of the University of Arizona Mall near North Cherry Avenue. The interactive exhibits, coordinated by the College of Science and BIO5 Institute, will showcase university research and immerse visitors in activities that show how science and technology connect with daily lives.

Science City will be slightly smaller this year than in years past, Morgan said. As a COVID-19 safety measure, organizers had to forgo some activities that require frequent physical contact between children.

Worlds of Words, a center housed in the College of Education that's dedicated to global children's literacy and literature, will also hold its first in-person programming in three years. Its exhibit, "Children Draw Themselves: Self-Portraits from All Over the World in Times of COVID," features self-portraits by children from around the world and will be on display at the center through May 13. Visitors can view the exhibit as part of "COVID Books for Youth: Uncertainty and Hope," an event that will allow visitors to browse new children's books about COVID-19 and other pandemics. Worlds of Words will present the event on both days of the festival; the Saturday event begins at 2:30 p.m. and the Sunday event begins at 4 p.m. Worlds of Words will also run an exhibitor table with activities.