Festival of Books returns in-person, remains Absolutely Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s been two years since the Tucson Festival of Books was held in person. Events got canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, and held virtually last year for the same reason.

Now, one of Tucson’s largest fundraisers is back in-person, and still Absolutely Arizona.

“From day one we all had the same vision and said ‘let’s do this,'” said Brenda Viner, co-founder of the Festival of Books. She and her husband de ella started the event years ago as a way to help literacy non-profits in Tucson.

“We want to teach children to read,” Brenda said. “It’s proven, if we don’t teach children to read by third grade they have a big chance of failing.”

So, the Viner’s went to work. They drew inspiration from a visit to the LA Times Festival of Books.

The couple planned their first festival for a year and a half, but ended up pushing the event back by an additional year. The Viner’s launched the Festival of Books in March 2009.

“And that extra year made the difference,” Brenda said. “So, when the first festival opened the community was astounded that we brought all of these authors. We had 200 authors that year coming to Tucson.”

One of those 200 authors is well-known mystery writer JA Jance.

Pat: “What made you go to the very first one?”

Jance: “They invited me,” she laughed.

Jance herself is from Southern Arizona. She grew up in Bisbee and graduated from the University of Arizona.

“I expected it to be sort of a rinky-dink kind of thing,” Jance said. “I arrived and it was this amazing gathering of close to 100,000 people in two days.”

After that, Jance was hooked. She’s one of just three authors who have attended every Tucson Festival of Books. This year will mark her 14th appearance.

Jance has written 63 contemporary mysteries in four different series, but her biggest thrill is helping with literacy in Tucson. That includes a woman named Marcia, who learned to read using Jance’s novels and not by listening to audio books like someone suggested.

“No, I want to read every word,” Jance said. “That’s what the Tucson Festival of Books means to me.”

J.A. Jance

Most other book festivals around the country are “for-profit.” The Tucson Festival of Books is a non-profit that relies entirely on volunteers.

“The volunteers are what makes this,” Brenda Viner said. “When we went to Los Angeles to talk to them on how to do the festival, they said you can never do this with volunteers. We said, ‘but you don’t know Tucson.'”

“The volunteers at the Tucson Festival of Books kept that campus, I’m a wildcat, keep the U of A campus pristine through the whole thing,” Jance said. “I’m so proud of that.”

While Jance is a great champion of the event, organizers are constantly working to make the festival even better. They have a donor supported $850,000 budget which goes toward everything you see during the two day festival including bringing in the hundreds of authors who participate.

“We always want to grow it, but we grow it by getting the best authors. By getting authors that appeal to Tucsonans and promoting them an exposing kids to being on the university campus. That’s a big part of it,” said co-founder Brenda Winer.

The UArizona’s Eller College estimates the Festival of Books brings in $4.5 million in economic impact each year. The festival has donated more than $2.1 million to local literacy nonprofits.

Brenda Viner says the event can always use more volunteers if you’re looking to help.

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Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. His father, Jack Parris, is a former general manager of the station. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing pat.parris@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram.

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