With San Antonio Book Festival, Lilly Gonzalez seeks to inspire a love of reading

Lilly Gonzalez points to herself as an example of how a love of reading can pull someone out of difficult circumstances. Her family de ella struggled when she was growing up in Pharr, a town on the southern border near McAllen, but her parents de ella, Mexican immigrants, always made sure she had books.

“They took me to the library a lot. I would go maybe once every two weeks and I would check out as many books as I could,” Gonzalez said. “When I wasn’t reading books, I was devouring the backs of shampoo bottles. I would read anything that you put in front of me.”

She attended Northwestern University, where she earned a bachelor’s in journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. In 2015, she became the first full-time employee of the San Antonio Book Festival as its communications director. In 2019, she was appointed executive director.

The festival grew fast in the years after it was founded in 2012, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation in 2020. Last year, it was a virtual event.

On May 21, the festival will return to its longtime venue at the San Antonio Central Library for the first time in three years, hosting dozens of authors including Sandra Cisneros, Margo Jefferson and local poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

“I cannot wait for the feeling of being at an event,” Gonzalez said. “You have to remember that reading is very lonely. Writing is very lonely. These are things that people do in isolation and then the pandemic plunged us all into deeper isolation. So I think we’ve all really missed the community and the camaraderie that comes from these types of events. That is what I’m most excited about.”

Gonzalez has also written short stories, published in the Texas Observer and elsewhere, often exploring the history and culture of the border.

She recently sat for an interview with the Express-News to discuss San Antonio’s literary culture, the importance of diversity in literature and the value of reading, especially for disadvantaged children. The following has been edited and condensed.

Q: Has your experience grown up along the border informed your writing?

A: Oh, 100 percent. Especially in that grad school program I was very focused on those types of stories.

Q: Do you think those stories aren’t represented enough in our culture?

A: Definitely not in literary culture. I mean, in national media what you get is the stories of people crossing the border, and the horses, the headline that was in the news last year. I think the story of detention is in the media that way, but much less so in literary culture.

Q: Is the nuance lost when it’s portrayed in the media?

A: yeah. I often feel like we need more of our stories told across all the mediums. Across literature, across film, across television — all of it. Especially those visual mediums. That’s really how you get the mass population to understand your story. I feel like a lot of books are written on the subject but unless they’re adapted for film or TV, they don’t reach as wide of an audience.

Q: I read a quote from you somewhere: “There is such value in exposing disadvantaged youth to the power of books; I am living proof of that.”

A: You never know what children are not getting from their parents. I mean, I grew up without a lot of things that I think in America we would consider essential. Like, there wasn’t a lot of “I love you.” My parents just weren’t demonstrative in that fashion. So there were a lot of lessons that maybe other kids were getting from TV shows at that time. But I didn’t really watch TV so all of those things about conflict resolution and learning from your mistakes, I learned all of that through books. I think that sometimes we don’t realize that when you put a book in the hands of a child, you’re not just growing their vocabulary or helping them pass the test, but you’re really giving them life tools.

Q: Which authors did you like?

A: I talked about that in my Pecha Kucha talk — the movements that exist today about diversity in children’s literature and teen’s literature didn’t exist back when I was growing up, so I read a lot of white authors. You know, Ramona Quimby — my parents called me “Ramona” because I was constantly reading Ramona Quimby books. Judy Blume. It wasn’t until college that I discovered Sandra Cisneros, which I think is ridiculous! Like, I had to wait 18 years before I read Sandra Cisneros? That’s insane! And I grew up on the border?

Q: Do you think we’re moving in the right direction?

A: Yeah, but it’s definitely taken a lot of work. Movements like We Need Diverse Books or the whole movement for #OwnVoices, where it’s the importance of somebody of that background, telling that story. All of those things are fairly recent but it’s definitely a needle in the right direction. And you see the impact — I see it through our educational programs. I see the impact on children.

Q: That’s something you’ve been pushing for during your time as director, right? You’ve tried to get into schools to reach kids that way.

A: When I first got here, because I’m not from here, I was very surprised to hear about the illiteracy rate. Just wanting to make an impact in that. I’m not in the business of teaching kids to read but I’m very, very invested in making more kids readers, making sure they grow up without a disdain for books. I do not delude myself into thinking that we’re going to convert every child into an avid reader, but I want them to experience that there is somebody who looks like them, who grew up a lot like they did, and who wrote a book .

Q: Does San Antonio have a strong literary culture?

A: Oh my gosh, yes! That’s one of my favorite things about this city. The literary culture here is so vibrant. Our supporters, people who love us here, they sees it this book festival. It’s been a real asset and a real joy to be able to rely on the literary community here. I’m not even talking about organizations like Gemini Ink, who we have a wonderful relationship with. I’m talking more about those individual writers. They always reach out, and they’re very eager and willing to suggest people. And they’re so talented. I mean, Naomi Nye, she’s just such a treasure! I can’t believe you have this incredible poet living here in San Antonio.

Q: So the authors go to schools and talk about their work?

A: We pick people who are very dynamic speakers. We are interested in the story in the book itself, whether it will resonate with the population of the school. They’ll talk about their writing process. They’ll talk about their own upbringing. They find a way to connect with the kids. That’s when the magic happens — like, the kids get it. You know, they connect. It might be a language thing, it might be something in their upbringing, it might be something in the book that the kids connect with, but it happens. Then you just see it, the children are hooked. Then we give a copy of the book to the kids and that, I think, made all the difference. We didn’t used to do that because children’s books are incredibly expensive. But we had to step back: What are we here to do? We’re here to make an impact. We need books in the hands of children. We’re putting books in children’s homes. Maybe it was a book desert before, and now there’s the book in the home. I mean, they’re flipping the pages, they’re hugging the book, they’re hugging the author. It’s the best day of the year.

Q: Are you doing anything new with the festival this year?

A: There are new things, but they’re in response to COVID. Just authors unwilling or unable to travel, so committing to virtual participation only. Collaborating with other book festival directors I’d learned that you never want to do in-person and virtual at the same time because it’s like a live-virtual event — you’re essentially doing two festivals and it’ll just exhaust the staff. So when we started seeing a lot of requests for virtual participation only, we had to decide what will we be doing? We decided to pre-record, and those are happening now. At the festival, we’ll have a virtual tent where you can just kind of sit, bring your food if you want, it’s outdoors, and watch a pre-recorded session with really high-caliber authors.

Q: With so much competition from social media, streaming services and the like, are fewer people reading these days?

A: During the early days of the pandemic there was a wonderful spike in reading. Everybody suddenly had more time. During the Black Lives Matter movement, with the murder of George Floyd, there was suddenly a lot more books dealing with subjects like that on the bestseller list. And that was a wonderful thing to see, that people were reading more but they weren’t just reading for leisure. They were reading very intentionally, which was great.

I think, as we return to somewhat normalcy, that has subsided a little bit. But should we be doing things to get people to read more? 100 percent. How do you solve that problem? I think that is a question far bigger than me. I always think of, you know, just bring it back to the basics. Behind every book is an idea. It was just somebody’s idea. When I talk about the book festival to people who have never been to the book festival, the first thing I say is, don’t worry about reading the books. You don’t have to read the books to enjoy the book festival. It’s all going to be about the conversations that you hear. So you’re going to sit, you’re going to hear a conversation that is going to inspire you. Maybe it’ll upset you, and that’s a good thing, too. It’ll give you food for thought. It’ll give you something to talk about. Hopefully we’ve done the work of making a book interesting to somebody. Whether they actually feel compelled to read it, or find the time to read it, that’s on them.

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