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One for the Books

A former first lady on her lifelong love of all things bookish.

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Jenna Bush Hager, left, and her mother, former first lady Laura Bush, promoting their new book earlier this year. They will appear at this weekend's Texas Book Festival.
AP Photo/Richard Drew

The first Texas Book Festival, held in 1996, nearly wrecked Laura Bush, then the first lady of Texas. Bush is a co-founder of the festival and remembered walking from the Governor’s Mansion to the Texas Capitol, which was being renovated at the time, to attend the first panel, being held in the Senate chamber. That’s when she was met with the unforgiving noise of a jackhammer going off outside. No one had thought to tell the construction crew not to be there on Saturday morning while authors were doing their readings. Someone went outside and got the workers to stop, but the damage was done.

“By then I had sort of a headache,” Bush said. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is just not going to work at all.’ I rushed back across the street to the Texas Governor’s Mansion and went inside, trying to just avoid it all. And then my friends rushed over and said, ‘It’s going great. Come back!’ So I went back. I was very nervous about how it would go.”

This weekend, Bush will return to the Texas Book Festival, the free annual extravaganza featuring scads of authors from across the nation and across the spectrum, including T.C Boyle, Kelly Clarkson, Ethan Hawke, Padma Lakshmi, and Nick Offerman, in addition to all sorts of ancillary literary arts programming taking over the capitol and other parts of the city, like the nighttime Lit Crawl on Saturday. Jenna Bush Hager, one of Bush’s two daughters, will join her to talk about Our Great Big Backyard, the children’s book they worked on together that was published earlier this year. The last time Bush visited the festival was in 2010, when she presented her autobiography, Spoken From the Heart. This time she is happily removed from politics.

In 1995 Bush conceived of the festival with Mary Margaret Farabee, a tireless arts and education advocate who passed away in 2013. The two were paired together when George W. Bush became governor. Farabee, the wife of former Texas state senator Ray Farabee, had the idea and Bush was looking to bring her devotion to the written word to the forefront. It helped that she was the governor’s wife, but she was also a former librarian who had earned her master’s in library science at the University of Texas and later worked at Dawson Elementary School, in Austin. Bush pursued that career path after earning her undergraduate degree from Southern Methodist University and teaching second grade, where she realized what she liked most was reading—and talking about reading—with kids.

“I remember my mother read Little Women to me before I could have read it,” Bush said. “And we cried when Beth died. I remember those stories that she and I would read together. My mother is a great reader. She still is. She’s ninety-seven. One of my memories is coming home from school and she would have finished with whatever housework she was doing and not started fixing supper yet, and she’d be reading. And I liked that. I was the same way.”

Bush’s love of reading continued with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Bush identified with Wilder because, well, they shared the same first name and hair color for one thing, but also because Wilder was a grade school teacher. Now on Bush’s nightstand is The Midnight Assassin, by Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth. And she highly recommends The Underground Railroad, the National Book Award finalist by Colson Whitehead.

“I have a huge library,” Bush said. “I was just looking at it, thinking I needed to go through it and clean it out. And of course it is in Dewey decimal order. My cat was named Dewey when I was in library school. I’m a nerd.”

It should come as no surprise that libraries play a major role in the Texas Book Festival. The money generated from sales of books, as well as donors and other fundraisers, are disbursed to the state’s public libraries in the form of grants. So the festival has not only been a means for seeing great authors; it also addresses education, which happened to be an initiative George W. Bush ran on in his gubernatorial campaign against Ann Richards. Eventually, the Bushes would move on to the White House, but the festival was kept in capable hands with Farabee, who was at the helm for nearly all of its first decade.

“Mary Margaret was a great organizer,” Bush said. “And she was fun and funny, and fun to be with. A lot of times when you’re working on a big project like this, some people can be grumpy or be hard to work with, but Mary Margaret was never that way. She was always encouraging to everyone and to our writers.”

Upon Bush’s arrival in Washington, D.C., James Billington, then the Librarian of Congress, contacted her. He had seen what she had accomplished with the Texas Book Festival, one of the first of its kind, and he wanted her to replicate it on an even bigger scale. So together they created the National Book Festival. Three days before 9/11, the event made its debut on the National Mall and has been held annually ever since, with Bush serving as honorary chair through 2008.

Bush wasn’t able to bring Our Great Big Backyard to the National Book Festival this year because it conflicted with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a historic institution that her husband had been involved in founding. Which makes her appearance this weekend at the Texas Book Festival even more meaningful.

Bush and her daughter wrote the book to commemorate this year’s centennial celebration of the National Park Service, another passion of Bush’s. They wanted to promote the physical and mental health reaped when one puts away cell phones and the like and immerses him or herself in nature. To some of the youth of today, that’s practically a foreign concept. “There’s research that shows this generation is outside less than at any other time in history,” Bush said.

The book follows a girl named Jane, whose summer of fun on her iPad is upended when her parents announce that the family—the three of them along with her little brother, Sam—will be taking a road trip stretching from the Everglades to Big Bend to the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone to Yosemite.

“My mother said to me a lot to look up,” Bush said. “She loved to look at the stars. She’d put a blanket out in the yard in West Texas when Barbara and Jenna were little and would come visit her, and they’d lie out on the blanket and she could tell them the constellations. And they remember that. They remember that more than other things.”

That upbringing helped inspire Bush to dedicate almost half her life to the great outdoors. For the past thirty or so years, Bush and a handful of her childhood friends from Midland have regularly visited national parks. Their first trip was to the Grand Canyon, where they floated down the Colorado River and camped on sand spits, and then hiked the ten miles up the South Rim. In 2001, Bush’s first year in the White House, the group visited the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite, an opportunity that requires winning a lottery, which they had been trying to do for a couple of years prior. And just a few weeks ago, Bush and her girlfriends hiked part of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.

Like their mother, Barbara and Jenna have made the parks a part of their lives. Barbara was recently in Joshua Tree and Jenna’s husband proposed to her on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. That made writing Our Great Big Backyard a snap. While Jenna actually authored the book, it was conceptualized between daughter and mother. This is the second book they have done together. In 2010 they published the children’s book Read All About It!

“It just seemed like an easy thing to do, to talk about our national parks and then to come up with this story,” Bush said. “And, of course, I guess it was easy for me, because Jenna did it, really.”
Texas Capitol, November 5–6, texasbookfestival.org

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  • Jed

    do you think that vapid smile and sorority head tilt is genetic, or do they have to practice it?