Literary fest opens at T.O.'s Queen's Park

Written by Claudia Stoicescu, Contributor

On Sept. 24, a drizzly Sunday morning, the asphalt circle at Queen’s Park turned into Canada’s largest annual outdoor book and magazine festival: The 17th annual Word on the Street.

Aficionados slither through the crowds eyeing those one-dollar Mavis Gallant collections; tots trot over grown feet to grab alphabet books; publishers practice their stern looks but can’t help breaking out into smiles before noon.

Every year since 1989, hundreds of influential exhibitors from the Canadian literary scene pepper up their outdoor tents with rare deals, author readings, book signings, industry panels, children’s activities and music. This year, 260 exhibitors – a record number – strutted their literary stuff down the winding avenue and approximately 300,000 book lovers responded.

“The benefits of the festival are exponential,” said Jennifer Duncan, an award-winning Canadian author based in Toronto and an instructor in the creative writing program at York University. “Book lovers get great bargains, aspiring writers get chances to meet people at small presses and literary magazines, students get an expansive sense of publishing in Canada and everyone gets to hear (a lot) of Canadian writers read.”

This year’s celebration also popped a few cherries. A popular highlight was LongPen, history’s first “long-distance, real-time, real pen and ink autographing device” that allows authors to sign books and meet fans from oceans away. The curious gadget consists of two units connected via the Internet: The author end, consisting of a video conferencing system, a bit pad and a magnetic pen, and the book end, featuring another video-conferencing system, a book holder and an electro-mechanical arm holding a pen. The book is beamed to the bit pad that the author signs by pushing a button to activate the LongPen, which autographs the book exactly how the author has written it. Musing from Edinburgh, Scotland, Margaret Atwood attracted a beefy crowd around her tent while she chatted and signed copies of her newest book, Moral Disorder, for wide-eyed enthusiasts in Toronto.

Among majestic Queen’s Park maples, the festival also hosted the official launch of the Degrassi: Extra Credit magna graphic series, featuring the co-creator and cast members.

Finally, the presence of the literacy issue was propped up. Over the past few years, The Word on the Street has worked harder to promote literacy and support local organizations involved with teaching people how to read.

“The highlight of this year’s festival for me was seeing Michael Redhill and Dionne Brand read and answer questions on the CBC stage,” admitted Duncan, a faithful festival-goer.

“I especially appreciate how the City of Toronto tent honours its award nominees and how the live CBC interviews with authors also focus on Toronto as a literary landscape.”

Every year, Toronto attracts increasingly greater hordes of bookish folks compared to other Canadian cities. The Word on the Street happens simultaneously in Vancouver, Halifax, Calgary and Kitchener. Since its conception 17 years ago by a group of publishing industry executives, attendance has doubled several times, and it has acquired an appetizing Torontonian flavour, topped with the freshest talent to tickle the taste buds.

By six, a fire-eater performed a sizzling act in the pulp-heavy atmosphere and the crowds thinned out. On an olive bench by the Scholastic tent, Carm (he wouldn’t disclose his full name), father of three and husband of an author in the Romance-Fiction tent, browses through a Sandra Sabatini young adult novel bought by his oldest daughter, Julia. Beside him, Sara, a middle-aged aspiring novelist from Pakistan dries her tears after a sobering talk with an editor. And their stacks of books begin a conversation that only they can tame to a whisper. The annual Word on the Street is a success.

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