How It Started… How It’s Going– The Long (But Destined) Road to the Louisville Book Festival

There’s a trend on social media to compare how something started with how it’s going now. With the 5-year celebration of the Louisville Book Festival coming up, this trend has got me thinking about where we (the Louisville Book Festival) started and where we are today. It’s the story of a dream.

I started my career as a Child Protection Worker. Because of the injustice I saw in Family Court I was inspired to go to law school, but I had to go at night. I was already a mom by that point, and I had help from my family to care for my daughter, but I did not have the flexibility to quit working and go to school full-time. Going to law school was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, however by the time I finished law school I wanted nothing more to do with family court. I understand the necessary function of an attorney, but attorneys must fight, and I decided that was just not how I wanted to spend my life. I wanted to mend, not fight. After graduating from law school, even though I passed the bar exam, I never stepped foot inside a courtroom as an attorney–I became a therapist instead. That was 2004. Twenty years ago, last month, I graduated from the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.

As a therapist I saw the power of using books in therapy as a way to help children feel more empowered. This began in 2003. Long before there was a huge movement to push for more diverse characters in books, I realized something when working with children who looked like me. They were far more motivated to talk and engage in the story when the story contained characters who looked like them or reflected their own experiences. It was truly powerful—especially in a therapeutic setting.

Then I started making my own books and telling my own stories as a way to empower myself. Though I already loved books, I fell in love with what I saw books could do for other people. I gave away so many books that my accountant told me I should form a nonprofit. I did, and I called it It Pays to Read, because I was giving children incentives to read books. (Any way I could get them to read a book I would. You want a Snickers or a fidget spinner? Read that book!)

After a while we had a crowd at the office, and we would read these books together. The first book I gave to a group of teens to read was The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. Every child in our group said they had never even seen a book like that. A book that was real for them and had characters and language that sounded like people in their lives.

100% of the kids in this group said that they had never read a book that they personally selected. They never experienced reading for enjoyment. Reading, for them, was always an assignment, homework, a chore. What role do you think reading would have played in their lives—for the rest of their lives– without this experience? This was 2018.

I started looking for the reasons why the kids I serve (who mostly happened to be Black and brown and below the poverty line) would not have been more invested in books for fun, or as a way to spend leisure time.

I was astonished by what I found.

Bookstores in Louisville in 2019

Louisville is basically a big circle and defined by highways. The Watterson Expressway is a big circle around the city. Right down the middle of our city is a highway that divides us. Literally.

I-65 is a line that runs through the middle of our city and divides Louisville into what Louisvillians call the West End and the East End. When I Googled bookstores in 2018 there was not a single bookstore to the left of that line. In other words, no bookstores in the West End. None. Zero. Not a single one.

No bookstores. This is what we call a book desert.

What do you think this says to an entire population of people about the importance of reading and what it can do for your mind, your motivation, and for your mental health?

Today, in 2024, there are three bookstores to the left of that line. Two fall in what our city calls the South end of Louisville, and one is in the West End.

Please support The Rosewater and Foxing Books. They have both undertaken an important endeavor. And then, this March, at the Kentucky Women’s Book Festival, I met the owner of a brand new bookstore in the West End! Please visit and support Gye Nyame Books. They do not have a website yet and are open some days by appointment only, but this is a gigantic feat to run a bookstore in an area that has not had a bookstore in decades. We celebrate them all. Our city needs each of these spaces and more.

When this problem became clear to me, I wanted to do something to call attention to the fact that in 2018 I could not find a single bookstore to the left of that line that was not affiliated with a university. Even those were right on the dividing line- not in the West or the South areas of town. How can we expect an entire population of people to care about reading and writing when the message is glaring that reading and writing are not things that they should concern themselves with?

This is how the big book party, that is the Louisville Book Festival, was formed. What a better way to sound the alarm than to bring the whole city together to talk about why we love and need books like we need air to breathe and why you should too? A book festival is more than just a place to buy books– it’s a place to see dreams be discussed, thought about, born, and take flight. It’s a space where we can have a free exchange of ideas and problem solve. It’s a space where we can meet some of our favorite authors and be inspired and learn to tell our own story. It’s a space for everyone.

I cannot overstate enough my belief that books save lives. I have seen it!

The road has not been easy. We have had many hiccups along the way, plans and promises that did not come to fruition and a whole pandemic that made it impossible to hold our first two festivals in person. But we stayed the course. We have featured nationally recognized and local authors like Tomi Adeyemi, Jermaine Fowler, Jen Mann, Femi Fadugba, Lauren Thoman, Hannah Drake, Gwenda Bond, and Lindsey Duga, in addition to more than 500 other authors from all over the country back to our first festival in 2020.

These are 500 voices heard– here in our hometown– with even more stories shared. Hundreds of dreams shared. Thousands of hearts, minds, and spirits touched, encouraged, enlightened, expanded. And did I mention friends made? So many friends.

This year we will celebrate FIVE YEARS of the Louisville Book Festival. We need your help spreading the word we are here and why we exist. A book festival is more important than ever as we are in a time when books, and facts, and literacy are under attack with an unprecedented increase in banned books, requests to ban books and rampant misinformation. If you ever wondered why you should attend a book festival, this is the answer.

New York Times Best Seller and Louisville’s own Jermaine Fowler– Author of The Humanity Archive

We believe that literacy is a fundamental human right. That the children we serve in It Pays To Read should be able to read their own prescription bottles, complete a job application, or navigate a bus route, in addition to being able to read a book that makes them laugh out loud, shows them that the world is bigger than their backyard, and gives them HOPE.

Help us make this happen. Consider supporting our programs with a monthly gift, or give one time, or sign up to volunteer. Louisville needs a book festival. And all of us need hope. Put October 18 and 19 on your calendar now and tell everyone you know that the Louisville Book Festival is a party not to be missed.

Thank you for your time and for believing in this dream.

Deedee Cummings

Louisville Book Festival Founder

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