Betty and Winston are grizzled veterans. On this, their third visit to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the twin 11-year-olds are ready for action.
Not only are they festival experts; they’re also my kids. Like many parents on the USC campus, I trail them around the festival, from panel to panel, following the light they shine on what interests them.
Studying her marked-up paper schedule, Betty says, “I chose Le Petit Cirque’s performance because I like circuses. And ‘Books: What It Means to Be a Reader’ — I want to see if they have the same views on reading as I.”
She has marked events on writing thrillers, short fiction and musical storytelling. Without ever having seen “The Wonder Years,” she has picked Danica McKellar’s reading from her new work: “Do Not Open This Math Book.”
Like Betty, Win has targeted nine events. There’s plenty of overlap and obstacles, but they’re excited anyway. Win’s selections include “Dystopian Fiction: It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” “Science Fiction: Worlds Beyond Our Own,” and “SPHERES: The Songs of the Cosmos in Virtual Reality.” He has dreams of writing not one book, but three. “I want to write a trilogy — dystopian-science fiction-horror,” he says. “I don’t have ideas about the plot yet, but I’ve always wanted to write one.”
He also earmarked the panel for the author of “Hazards of Time Travel.” He’s in fifth grade, but maybe it’s time to get him into the oeuvre of Joyce Carol Oates.
“Dystopian Fiction” begins right at 10 a.m., and there’s a good chance they’ll make it. Dad notes with pride they’re old pros: The colorful banners and free bookmarks sway them not from our destination. Dad also maybe chokes up just a little bit — maybe — to see them pass blithely by the costumed characters they liked just a few years ago.
Then Win notices a large bookselling tent with graphic novels displayed.
Betty and Win are flush with birthday money and they mean to use it. When Win discovers the trade paperbacks are going for $3 and Betty finds a potential gift for her grandfather in a Sports Illustrated coffee-table book, then it’s down the rabbit hole for a minute or two.
When they finally get to the event, the authors aren’t talking about dystopia anymore, but their characters — they mined not only their own lives, but hard-boiled detective fiction in some cases. The kids can only stay briefly, the Cirque performance is starting nearby.
Betty’s enthralled by the acrobats, but Win jumps out to make the “Worlds” conversation moderated by Times Book Club editor Donna Wares. All three authors — Ashok Banker (who recently published a book dubbed “the Indian ‘Game of Thrones’”), Charlie Jane Anders and Henry Thomas (the actor-turned-author best known as the young Eliot in “E.T.” and the lead of “The Haunting of Hill House” today ) — charm. Win is impressed by the droll Banker: “He was hilarious. I want to read his books. I hope they’re good.”
When we make it to McKellar’s presentation of “Do Not Open This Math Book,” Betty enthuses, “It turns out she’s written other books about math,” she says about the actress who once played Winnie Cooper on “The Wonder Years.” Betty continues: “She was spurred on because a lot of kids don’t like math, and she wants to get them more comfortable with it.”
Then we stop by an interactive game booth by Annapurna — best known as a film studio. And to the approval of his entertainment reporter Dad, Win correctly notes, “They did ‘Vice’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’” In the game, the kids play a Los Angeles sinkhole, swallowing up victims. “I killed a doughnut chicken,” Win proudly declares, then sing-paraphrases the Smiths: “Seems so unfair; he wanted to die.”
Later, Betty puts her foot down when Dad takes a few dance steps to a groovy performance on the USC Stage: “No, Dad. Bad Dad.”
Sitting down for Clinton, Win explains, “She’s the daughter of Hillary Clinton. She’s really smart.” Betty says, “She knows how to deal with conflict.”
Clinton’s conversation with The Times’ Mary McNamara ranges from the conservation themes of her book on endangered species (“Don’t Let Them Disappear”) to online bullying and her life in the spotlight since infancy. She says she included elephants because they’re her favorite animal; McNamara points out the irony of the GOP symbol being her favorite. Clinton says, “I don’t hold [elephants] responsible.”
“She came across as very bright and having a sense of humor,” Betty says. “She was very sincere. And she loves elephants.”
But now Betty’s very hungry.
It’s time for the next chapter: lunch.