Cincinnati’s storied past

Books By The Banks: a quiet Cincinnati staple for over a decade, where authors and illustrators from all genres rub shoulders and meet fans during a daylong festival celebrating the art of books.


Since 2006, the festival has attracted heavy-hitters in the publishing world, from first-time authors and illustrators to award-winning veterans, including this year’s attendee, Newberry Award winner Jason Reynolds.


As technology has altered the way many readers choose to participate, the love for the event has never wavered; and through all the changes, Books By The Banks has been there to help promote and honor the time-old tradition of storytelling.



The Festival

“Books by the Banks is much more than a one-day event,” says Cari Hillman, head of marketing for Books by the Banks. “This year, we worked with other local organizations to bring five partner events to the area throughout the year.”


These events included two author visits this past September: Keith O’Brien at the Kenton County Library Erlanger Branch and Katie McGarry at the Fairfield Lane Library.


While events throughout the year have helped maintain momentum, the fall festival, where hundreds of authors come and set up booths with their written work, remains the piece de resistance.


“The festival draws a crowd of around 4,000 people,” says Hillman.


From sunup to sundown, authors and illustrators man booths so attendees can shop, get autographed copies, and speak with the artists. Throughout the day, there are panels with authors and discussions about the publishing world.


“I think any non-profit would tell you that funding is always a challenge,” Hillman notes. “Books by the Banks is organized by volunteers and primarily funded by grants and donations. Our team works tirelessly to fundraise to make the festival possible.”


Though it’s ripe with long nights and endless days of planning, the aspect Hillman stresses most is the fun of it all. “We constantly hear from our authors that the festival is one of their favorites and that they hope to return,” she says.



Staying Power

Author Leah Stewart is one of such writer singing the festival’s praises.


“It’s a really great festival,” she says. “A lot of people turn out. They bring in a good slate of writers. When my kids were small, they really enjoyed the kids’ activities that were there. It’s just a very well run event. They really take care of the authors.”


Stewart teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and is the author of six published novels, including this summer’s What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw. She is a frequent festival attendee, and will be there this year with her new book, though she has also come as a panel host, once interviewing Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn.


What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw follows two actors; Charlie, who’s on a hit television show, has recently fallen out of vogue for a derailed interview, and tries to find his Zen by going on a solo vacation to a remote island, only to find himself kidnapped. Josie, Charlie’s ex-girlfriend and star of a cult-hit television show from years ago, is scrambling to find thoughtful work of her own. It’s a satirical, often funny and surprisingly touching novel Stewart wrote exclusively from research — research that even took her to sound stages in Los Angeles — which is a somewhat new writing process for her.


“One thing that’s changed for me,” she says, “is when I’m conceiving a novel, I’m looking out in the world thinking, ‘What fascinates me?’”


An artist’s evolution is a frequent topic of conversation at the Banks. “There’re lots of different kinds of writers there,” says Stewart. “One thing I’ve learned from doing a variety of events where I spend time with writers across the genre spectrum is that we think differently and we conceive stories differently. We’re interested in different things, and that’s what leads to working in different genres.”


“I think it’s really interesting and inspiring talking to people who are working in totally different ways,” she continues. “It helps get outside of the way we think in academia.”


Indeed, a writer learns through experiences and conversations with fellow writers. But equally important are the friendships made along the way.


“I’m looking forward to seeing Alice McDermott,” she says of the fellow author who will be at the festival. “I haven’t seen her in a long time, so it’ll be nice to see her again.”

Books by the Banks features many children's events.


New Names

Illustrator Erin Barker is attending Books By The Banks for the first time with her children’s book What Is Soft? and is anxiously awaiting that very camaraderie.


“I’m excited to meet other book creators, other fans of books,” she says. “I feel like it’s going to be one big room of people I’m automatically going to get along with.”


Barker graduated with a fine arts degree with a focus in painting from Asbury University in 2011. After graduation, she went on to work in graphic design before dabbling in the world of illustration.


“I didn’t take illustrating seriously as an option until I had a desk job that was a bad fit for me,” she says. “I was really creatively starved during that time in my life, so I took on a lot of illustration projects on the side and worked on those in the evenings. Once I realized my day job was something that I really did not want to continue doing, I quit that and went to illustration full time. Illustration has been my focus for the last five years.”


While maintaining a relatively consistent freelance base, Barker took a part-time job as a bookseller at Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore in Oakley.


“I found that it’s the perfect job for me,” she says. “I’m a big people person, and I get to talk to people about books all day, which is another passion of mine. I really love books. And it’s a children’s bookstore. I’ve dreamed of being a children’s book illustrator since I read my first children’s book, basically.”


That dreamed turned to reality quickly. Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore’s sister business, Blue Manatee Press, is a local publishing company specializing in children’s books and children’s literacy. Amy Dean, who runs the press, had coincidentally been aware of Barker’s work for some time, and had wanted to reach out.


“She basically said, ‘Send us some samples. No promises, but we’d love to work with you,’” says Barker of Dean’s interest. “I sent her some stuff and she said, ‘We really like this, we’d love to work with you.’” And so What Is Soft? was born, written by Susan Kantor with Barker’s illustrations.


This will be Barker’s first conference focused on books, though she has been to and participated in many artists’ conferences.


“I haven’t been to Books by the Banks before, but I had an artist booth at Tony Moore’s Cincy Comic Expo a few years ago,” she says. “I’m just so excited. I haven’t met Loren Long yet and I’m very excited to meet him, and Will Hillenbrand.”


“There are a lot of author-illustrators whose books we carry in the bookstore that I’m really excited to meet and chat with,” she continues. “Sarah Cannon, who wrote Oddity, Jenn Bishop, who did 14 Hollow Road. Doug Cenko’s new book My Papa is a Princess is awesome, and I haven’t had a chance to meet him, and I’m really excited to meet him.”



Advice For Others

Stewart, with many writing festivals under her belt, says the best tool in the writer’s arsenal is to engage with possible readers.


“This is a really awkward thing that can happen,” she says. “You’re sitting at a table, you have your books and people come over and they don’t participate. It can feel really awkward when people are walking around and looking at the books, like window-shopping.”


“What I’ve found that makes it less awkward is to talk with them,” she explains. “Meet some other writers, buy some books yourself. Support the other authors.”


Barker agrees, and for novice artists looking to break into the illustrative world, she also notes that making mistakes is simply part of the process.


“I think I set very high expectations that I have to get something right the first time,” she says of her early work on What is Soft? “So it was slightly discouraging that I had to do something over again. It was a really good learning process. You cannot always get things right the first time, and that’s okay. In fact, the more you do it, the second or third one is always going to be better than the first one because you’re solving problems along the way when you do it.”


It’s a well-organized, exciting day for volunteers and attendees both young and old.


“There is nothing like seeing a child meet one of their favorite authors,” says Hillman. “Honestly, it is wonderful to see even the biggest kid of any age meet someone they admire or have been inspired by. A personal highlight for me was getting the opportunity to meet Rainbow Rowell [author of Fangirl] at Books by the Banks 2015. I tried not to ‘fangirl’ but I failed.”


This year’s festival is on Sat., Oct. 20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Duke Energy Convention Center. For more information about the authors and panel subjects, visit Books by the Banks’ website.

Read more articles by Michael Woodson.

Michael Woodson works at Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore and is a freelance writer living in Saint Bernard with his husband and their Chihuahua. His writing credits include Artists Magazine, Pastel Journal, Watercolor Artist and VMSD magazine. See more of his pieces at his website,

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