The Word On The Street, Canada Inc., opened its spectacular national book and magazine festival in five Canadian cities Sunday, September 28th. The word has it that bibliophiles numbering an incredible 275,000 took in book browsing events at venues in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Kitchener and Halifax.
WOTS Official Poster
Toronto, celebrating its 14th annual festival in 2003, led the way in attendance with a record crowd of over 170,000 visitors on Queen Street West, between University and Spadina Avenues. Co-ordinator Trish McGrath was jubilant as she spoke of the great success achieved at last year's literary event, held in sunny, crisp autumn weather. Thousands of book lovers, she said, browsed through the 242 exhibitor booths, enjoyed free readings, book signings, musical entertainment and children's activities at event tents and stages featuring 11 different themes. The Oral Traditions Storytelling Tent featured an appearance by storyteller Pina Marchese. The brilliant performer read excerpts from Tales from Gladstone Avenue. The listeners were delighted with Marchese, who spoke of growing up in Toronto's Little Italy, where long summer days were filled with the shouts of Italian immigrant children playing games and waiting for the gypsy who lived in the laneway.
Another Italian Canadian featured at the Toronto book festival was Joe Fiorito, a writer for the Toronto Star. He proved to be a festival crowd pleaser and one who greatly impressed McGrath. "Mr. Fiorito is this year's winner of the prestigious City of Toronto Book Award for his latest book, The Song Beneath the Ice," she stated.
"He enthralled his audience with a reading from his book about a concert pianist's mysterious disappearance. In this story Fiorito takes the reader from downtown Toronto's Vietnamese restaurants and homeless shelters to a seal-skinning contest on Baffin Island and beyond," recalled McGrath.
WOTS Vancouver, which has the unique distinction of featuring readings in languages other than English, highlighted three Italian-Canadian writers this year. Anna Foschi Ciampolini and Nick Ciavarella spoke in Italian while Robert Pepper-Smith, a Canadian of Italian origin, read in English from his book, The Wheel Keeper. Co-producer Bryan Pike stated that in the beginning the non-English segment was presented as a French immersion hour. "We started with that idea the year before we introduced the VanCity Voices programme in 2001," remarked Pike.
Pike's partner and co-producer Liesl Junk also is delighted with the WOTS' Italian connection. "Anna Foschi Ciampolini was really instrumental in making the Italian section happen. She connected us with a number of Italian authors and was right there from the beginning helping to make the multilingual venue a success. Our first effort included Italian, Spanish, German and French writers. This year we had other nationalities represented including Punjabi, Hungarian, Haida, Chinese, Sinhalese and even Gaelic. It changes from year to year. Actually, it has to do with getting the word out to the community that we are looking for authors who write in different languages and about different cultures," Liesl stated. While over 40,000 book-buffs basked in record-breaking temperatures in Vancouver's Library Square and CBC Plaza, Halegonians witnessed their city's worst natural disaster. The uninvited and totally monstrous Hurricane Juan smashed against Pier 20 near the site of the authors' tent. In ricocheting from harbour emplacements, the gale-force winds uprooted scores of huge, historic trees, devastated the Public Gardens and created a frightening situation for those who lingered about the fair route.
According to Heather Gibson, WOTS Halifax director, the hurricane actually hit around 5:00 p.m. Fortunately, the crowd of literacy advocates, estimated at 32,000, got to do their thing before Signor Juan made his dramatic presence felt.
"The waterfront wharves heaved so much that a four metre separation between the pavement and the pier resulted. Boats sank and wharves smashed, but thank God Theodore Tugboat was spared," exclaimed Gibson somewhat whimsically.
The weather in the West, however, was much more amenable. In Calgary, for example, the bookfest, visited by an estimated 25,000 individuals, was held under bright sunny skies. In Ontario, moderate temperatures helped Kitchener record a respectable crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 on the occasion of its second WOTS festival.
It's very sobering indeed to realize that the purpose and objective of the WOTS literacy festivals emanate from some very socially disturbing statistics. For example, Statistics Canada estimates that three million Canadian adults have serious problems with reading and writing. As shocking as it may seem, one in six people - perhaps some within your own extended family - is unable to decipher the meaning of the dosage on a prescription label or to follow simple written instructions on a job application form. Tragically, others are incapable of reading to their children.
Illiteracy extends into problems related to numbers, like making correct change at the grocery store. For those in this category the result is felt in lower wages, periods of greater unemployment and not experiencing the joy of reading for knowledge, entertainment and self-education.
The Word On The Street groups, however, are making a major contribution by promoting literacy. They do this by bringing together adults and children with writers and publishers in a free book and magazine fair once a year. The invited wordsmiths celebrate the day engaged in readings and discussions with the attendees among whom are novice writers looking for tips on how to become published. It is this kind of collaboration that is making a difference in the world of literacy.
Raymond Culos is vice-chair of The Word On The Street, Vancouver Book & Magazine Fair Society.