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7 of the best events at the 2020 Times Festival of Books

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen with his son (and co-author) Ellison in the backyard of their Pasadena home.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Romance. Politics. Crime. Economics. Fables. Pirate chickens. The science of pandemics and the musings of former California governor Jerry Brown. The 25th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Stories and Ideas featured dozens of panels and conversations for quarantined viewers and book lovers of all ages.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s celebration of the written word went virtual. The best thing about that? You can still catch every single one of them. Click here to watch the chats on YouTube. Here are seven of the most memorable events at the festival:

Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver on “Lights, Camera, Danger!”

On Oct. 18, Times staff writer Michael Ordoña hosted writer and film producer Lin Oliver and award-winning actor, comedian and director Henry Winkler for a chat and reading from their second children’s book in the Alien Superstar series, “Lights, Camera, Danger!” Just before the panel, the duo joined Times multiplatform editor Jevon Phillips for a conversation about what it’s like promoting a book during a pandemic.

“Usually, Lin and I, we go into bookstores, we go into schools, we talk to the children, we’re there, we hold their faces,” said Winkler. “This has been so different. And yet it has not slowed our rhythm.”

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Winkler and Oliver said their new mission in a radically changed world is to offer kids the chance to escape.

“One of the things that’s really important to us in our books is to make sure that they’re entertaining,” said Oliver. “If we can bring a little lightness and a little joy, that’s a nice thing. ... It motivates us.”

Crime fiction: The Dark Side

Los Angeles-based crime fiction writers Rachel Howzell Hall, Ivy Pochoda and Attica Locke joined Times crime reporter and author James Queally on Oct. 23 for a wide-ranging conversation about character voice, tropes to avoid, the writing process and fictional portrayals of the police.

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“This isn’t on us to fix,” said Locke, in answer to Queally’s question about how they’re writing about law enforcement during a national reckoning with police brutality.

“Yes, it matters what we’re putting in these books, but I want all of that attention to be focused on the police and the people who can actually enact real change. I feel like it’s a little navel-gazing to suggest that what we’re putting in these books can really shift what’s happening to real people at the hands of police.”

Writers Rachel Howzell Hall, Attica Locke and Ivy Pochoda talked with Times reporter James Queally for a 2020 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books event.

“Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan on the joys of L.A.

During a panel on Oct. 28, “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan joined “The Royal We” co-authors Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan for a discussion of their latest works, with writer Jade Chang moderating. Before the panel, Kwan, whose latest novel, “Sex and Vanity,” was released in June, stopped by for a one-on-one video chat with The Times, touching on life in L.A.

“There really was this East Coast snobbery about New York being the cultural capital of the world, and it was just amazing for me to come out to L.A. and discover the art scene, for example,” said Kwan about moving from the East Coast a couple years ago.

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But some preconceptions have held true, he said. “People do talk about traffic and how to get places in that ‘SNL’ skit kind of way. I find it endlessly amusing.”

“Natalie Portman’s Fables” and “Chicken of the Sea”

Children’s stories dominated on Sunday, Nov. 1, at the Festival of Books. Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman was joined by Times film critic Justin Chang for a reading from “Natalie Portman’s Fables” and a chat about the inspirations behind her debut children’s book. On another panel, Viet Thanh Nguyen, his 7-year-old son, Ellison, illustrator Thi Bui and her son Hien Bui-Stafford discussed their silly 2019 book “Chicken of the Sea,” which was conceptualized by then 5-year-old Ellison.

“I never could have come up with a story about chicken of the sea,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Sympathizer” during the event, moderated by Sumun L. Pendakur from USC’s Race and Equity Center.

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“I would probably have to think about, ‘Oh my God, what about Vietnamese New Year? What about cultural differences and language issues and moon cakes?’ … [Ellison] just went straight to the heart of chickens and pirates and pursuing one’s dreams, even if one happens to be a chicken.”

Presidential politics

On Nov. 2, on the eve of one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern history, three insightful chroniclers of the American political landscape gathered for a virtual conversation about America’s present and future.

Writer and public radio host Kurt Andersen; journalist Jean Guerrero, author of the Stephen Miller biography “Hatemonger”; and former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, cofounder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, were joined by Times Editorial Page editor Sewell Chan to discuss the end of Trumpism and California’s role in it.

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“I think we have two parties inside the Democratic Party,” said Stevens during the panel. “We have a Sanders party and we have a Biden party. And I think the future of major public policy decisions in America is going to be decided between those two elements.” He predicted, “Sen. [Kamala] Harris is going to dominate American politics. I think she’s probably gonna be president for two terms, eventually things will go too far in various ways … and some center-right party will emerge because there’s a market for it.”

As for President Trump, who continues to falsely claim that the election was rigged, Stevens said: “I think it’s the most dangerous situation since the Civil War.”

Kurt Andersen, The Lincoln Project’s Stuart Stevens and Stephen Miller biographer Jean Guerrero talked presidential politics and the future of the GOP in an anxious, sobering panel at the 2020 virtual Times Festival of Books.

Memoirs of the Black experience

On Nov. 4, L.A. Times-Christopher Isherwood Prize winner Emily Bernard, cultural critic Morgan Jerkins and 2020 National Book Award longlist finalist Frank Wilderson joined Times columnist Sandy Banks for a conversation about the Black experience, tackling race, family and society and shining a light on our broken world.

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During the panel, the authors were asked if Black Lives Matter’s essential message was getting through to the masses. Jerkins was reluctant to say yes.

“I’m not sure the antiracism message is getting through, and the reason why I say that is because of the election,” she said. “To be in a country where a man, or our current president, has over 66 million votes” was flabbergasting to her, as was the fact that more white women voted for President Trump this time than in 2016.

Authors Emily Bernard, Morgan Jerkins and Frank Wilderson joined Times columnist Sandy Banks Wednesday night for a virtual Festival of Books event.

Science and medicine: pandemics

“It will end with a whimper and not a bang.”

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That was the very cautiously optimistic prediction of Sonia Shah, journalist and author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond,” during a panel Nov. 13 with science journalist Debora MacKenzie; sociologist, physician and author Nicholas Christakis, and Times healthcare reporter Soumya Karlamangla.

COVID-19 was at the forefront of the conversation among the experts. Shah predicted that the pandemic, currently surging out of control, would ebb through a succession of decreasing surges, diminished by a vaccine and perhaps some herd immunity.

“What I’m hearing from vaccine developers is the first vaccines are very unlikely to stop the virus from infecting people and then being passed on,” said MacKenzie, who believed the vaccine might not be fully distributed next year. In this scenario, “You’ve got enough immunity to defeat an infection if you get one, but you can still be infected, and you can still pass the virus on.”

Friday’s ‘Science and Medicine’ panel featured Nicholas Christakis, Debora MacKenzie and Sonia Shah, with The Times’ Soumya Karlamangla moderating.

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