Scenes from the Sonoma Valley Authors Festival

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While not many tourists in Sonoma this weekend have been spotted with a book in hand, the town had indeed been overrun by scribes, scholars and biliophiles – thanks to the inaugural Sonoma Valley Authors Festival.

Organizers Ginny and David Freeman successfully lured 37 writers, journalists, scientists, physicians, poets and “thought leaders” to town for their ambitious new literary event.

The speakers included Pulitzer Prize winners, an astronaut, an astrophysicist, a MacArthur genius, a renowned Islamic scholar, and more great minds than you can shake a bookmark at.

And the event sold out. Despite some raised eyebrows about the price tag, according to the Freemans, all of the 550 three-day passes, at $750 a pop, were snapped up weeks ago.

The inspiration for the festival was born when the couple attended the Sun Valley Writers Festival four years ago.

“We loved the stimulation, the diversity of speakers, those we knew and those unknown to us,” said David Freeman. “We’re at the point where we aren’t interested in a vacation drinking margaritas on the beach. We loved the idea of vacation with a purpose.”

In the two years that followed, the couple attended other author festivals, including the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival and the Pebble Beach Author & Ideas Festival.

After retiring to the Valley in 2015, the Freemans liked the idea of contributing something to the town.

“Sonoma really didn’t need another wine or food event, and we thought that this could be a really good fit here,” said David.

Book Passage founder Elaine Petrocelli signed on as their partner, adding her impressive literary connections to the equation.

Opening day, Friday, May 4, was Students Day – a mini-literary festival that included interactive and educational lectures, panels and conversations with 11 authors and speakers. Approximately 2,700 students from Sonoma Valley High School, Adele Harrison and Altimira middle schools, Hanna Boys Center and Sonoma Academy participated and received at least one free book from the 5,100 titles purchased via Book Passage using private donations to the tune of $50,000.

Much of the buzz on Friday surrounded the appearance of novelist R.J. Palacio, whose debut young adult novel, “Wonder,” sold five million copies in 44 languages before being made into a major Hollywood film. Palacio spoke to students from Altimira and Adele Harrison middle schools and Kenwood Elementary School.

“We all got to hear the story of her life and how she based most of her characters off of people in her life,” said Altimira eighth grader Enzo WHAT.

At Sonoma Academy, students attended sessions with a young soldier who overcame Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and gritted his way into the NFL; an immigrant who was abandoned at age 3 but found a way through medical school anyway; an astronomer who’s been the most popular lecturer at UC Berkeley for nine straight years; an Indian woman who cured her husband’s diabetes with food; former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins; and Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, whose most recent work, “Journey into Europe,” examines “Islamic terrorism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the rise of the right wing, and the huge tidal wave of change in Europe.”

Head of School Janet Durgin was ecstatic about the opportunity for her Sonoma Academy students.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘treat,’” she said on Friday. “What a treat. In every respect. That this opportunity was made possible. That we gathered as a school all day long listening to amazing and inspiring writers. That we were tickled and delighted and brought to tears.”

Sonoma Valley High School students shared their campus with 100 students from Hanna Boys Center and heard Lisa Fenn speak about how a story assignment for ESPN ended with her adoption of the disabled boys at the story’s center, as well as the compelling saga of Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals recipient Daniel Rodriguez. Smaller, break-out sessions were also organized across the high school campus.

“It was inspiring to hear famous authors share their failures, successes and stories, and it was knowledge you could never get from a textbook,” said SVHS junior Ava Ronglien.

Local teachers may have been even more excited about these brushes with literary fame than their students. SVHS librarian Janet Hansen said that the English Department was tickled to get a “fan-nerd” picture with poet Billy Collins.

“And when students are knocking on the library door at closing asking if we have ‘One more copy of that speaker’s book,’ that is a librarian’s idea of a great day,” she said.

The festival continued Saturday and Sunday at the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. with 14 presentations in its main tent, seven in the Lodge ballroom, and a half dozen more in small meeting rooms.

With additional reporting by Kate Williams.

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