Writers share their thoughts at Tucson book festival

School counselor Joni Rubenstein said she believes everyone should be excited the night before their birthday.

“A kid would come to me (at school) and say, ‘Tomorrow’s my birthday.’ I always worked in Title 1 schools, and for some of my kids birthdays might not be so great,’” Rubenstein said. “I would say, ‘Oh, tomorrow’s your birthday?’ and I’d read them the book, and they’d feel really special.”

It didn’t end there.

“I’d say, ‘Come back tomorrow; you might look bigger,’” she added.

What was once a simple family tradition — reading her story to her children the night before their birthdays — is now a book celebrating its own 10th birthday. “The Night Before My Birthday Book” will be available at Tucson Festival of Books 2023. Meet Rubenstein at booth 316 in the children’s area, right across from the psychology building.

Resembling a children’s book, “The Night Before My Birthday Book” ($20) is based on a four-line poem and meant for all members of the family. Local artist Juana Martinez-Neal illustrated the tome.

“It’s that focused love on (the birthday child), and it’s a magical time for them,” Rubenstein said.

Even so, she said she believes that the night before a birthday is still exciting for adults, too.

“I don’t think anyone really outgrows that,” she said. “It just feels different.”

There’s another piece to this book, Rubenstein said, and that’s the tradition. In her family and orbit, the children to whom she read the book are now having children. Those next generation children are getting the birthday eve story read to them.

“I can honestly say my kids will tell you this is the one thing they know we always did every year,” she said. “It was a constant in their lives.”

Rubenstein’s grown children still ask for it, although sometimes these days it’s partners and spouses who read it—but it’s still read.

“That’s what traditions are,” Rubenstein said. “It’s the container that holds us together.”

Meanwhile, back at school, Rubenstein’s students do come back the next day.

“They come in standing up, and I’ll say, ‘Do you feel different?’” she said. “‘Yeah,’ (they say). It’s that anticipation. It’s a magical thing for a kid to say, ‘I’m going to wake up, and I’m going to be older.’”

Complicated relationship

Also at the Tucson Festival of Books 2023 is Tom Zoellner, who grew up in Tucson. He has a complicated relationship with Arizona; he’ll be the first to say that.

To reconcile his divergent views, he took a long walk, all the way from the top of Arizona to the bottom, backpacking the entirety of the Arizona Trail.

Read about what he was thinking in his new book of essays, “Rim to River, Looking into the Heart of Arizona.” It’s a bit of a contemplative read.

“The book came together out of almost half a century of thinking about Arizona and writing about Arizona,” he said. “No one volume can come close to capturing the majesty and frustration of the state, but this is my attempt to try and weave as complete a tapestry as I could in a single volume.”

Even he admitted he was surprised by what he saw.

“Arizona has mountains beyond mountains,” Zoellner said. “There have certainly been times when I thought, ‘OK, I get this state. I’ve been to every town. I’ve driven on every road. There’s nothing here that can surprise me.’ That, of course, is totally untrue. There are portions of it that no one could ever see in a lifetime.”

Doing the Arizona Trail is no small feat. Called by some the backbone of Arizona, the trail begins at the Utah border on the edge of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. About 800 miles on foot later, it ends at the U.S.-Mexico border. It runs through the Grand Canyon, then on through valleys, mountains — lots of mountains, desert, forests and bluffs. Why do it?

“The decision to walk across it was a desire to look at it super close up, literally step by step,” Zoellner said. “But also to see it in a panorama to try and take it all in.”

What he saw was a paradox.

“Because of our essential aridity we’ve manipulated hydrology in such a way that you could, in various places, close your eyes and think you’re in Illinois,” he said. “Underneath it all is a hard but beautiful surface that always looms above us, always is out there regardless of our little plans to try and defeat it.”

In the end, Zoellner said despite the problems Arizona might face, he loves it unreservedly.

“I’ve argued with Arizona all my life,” he said. Still, “I’m always conspiring to find ways to get back; it’s got an incredible hold on me in a way that’s kind of unexpected.”

Zoellner, who now lives in Southern California and teaches at Chapman University, will be among the presenters at the festival. Find him here:

Going Off Grid: Zoellner will be one of a panel talking about how he writes about his reflections about the American West. 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday, March 4, at the Koffler Building, Room 218. A book signing will take place following the presentation at the UA BookStore Tent on the Mall.

Arizona, Up Close and Personal: Zoellner and a panel will explore Arizona’s past and present. From 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at the UA Library/Special Collections. A book signing will follow in the Integrated Learning Center.

Taking it Outside: Zoellner and Susan Lamb will explain why being there is so important to getting to know a place. 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at the Western National Park Association Stage. A book signing will follow.

Meet Buzz Bissinger: Zoellner will talk with Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger, who wrote about the "Friday Night Lights" of Texas to a battlefield in Okinawa. 1 to 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at the UA Bookstore. A book signing will follow.

Tucson Festival of Books

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4, and Sunday, March 5

WHERE: Throughout the University of Arizona

COST: Free

INFO: tucsonfestivalofbooks.org

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