Publishing in a Pandemic

Book release parties, public readings, book tours—because of COVID-19, authors just don’t do ‘em like we used to do. So how does 826DC continue to celebrate with young authors?

This Matters

Having your writing published is a big deal, and celebrating it is important. That goes double when the authors aren’t people that the world typically gets to hear from.

“We write for all different purposes,” says Andrea Nelson, 826DC’s Director of Education, “both private and for an audience. When we write something that we’d like to share, having it celebrated by the community near and far can be incredibly important, validating, and uplifting.

“It says to the writer, ‘your words matter—not just to you, but to those you know and to those who you might not ever even meet.’”

While 826DC students have the benefit of writing in community with peers and guest teaching artists, with the support of our staff and volunteers, writing can also be a lot of work! Events like book releases are far more than just an opportunity to stir up book sales or to enjoy a slice of cake. They’re a powerful way to recognize everything that went into the writing.

In short, it’s well worth doing—even in a pandemic. We’ve just had to find safe ways to make it work.

Fun in all Formats

826DC has written with and published local students in all stages of the pandemic, from the full lockdown at the start to the slow reopening that we’ve seen over the last few months. To ensure everyone’s safety as conditions have evolved, we’ve continued to switch up the format of how we honor young authors and their newly-released publications.

For the Brookland Middle School authors of “We Matter: Notes from DC’s Generation Z” in May 2020, we put together a release-party-in-a-box.

Party boxes and balloons

Each box contained various treats, the students’ copies of their book, a special bookmark, and an author card featuring their pre-pandemic official author photos.

For the Bridges Public Charter School authors of “Sometimes I Have to be Brave,” we had two celebrations in addition to their party boxes: a virtual event, followed up by a hybrid one once the students had returned to in-person learning.

We Zoomed into their classroom for a distanced book reading, also surprising them with this video from The Washington Post’s Ron Charles!

With the benefit of DC’s impressive vaccination rate and 826DC’s own robust COVID-19 safety protocols, we were also recently able to celebrate in-person with some of the young authors from our After-School Writing Lab! They just published a science fiction and fantasy chapbook, “From the Sun to the Edge of the Woods,” and we met in 826DC’s writing lab for a modified chapbook release party.

While we weren’t able to offer a chocolate fountain (per one student’s request) or invite the whole neighborhood to join us, it was a wonderful time. Each student invited one friend or family member, and we all enjoyed a gallery walk of the young authors’ work.

An 826DC student and family member

Especially, well, special: we invited everyone to write on the back pages about what we really liked about each of the stories. The students left with pages full of meaningful positive feedback from their peers about how they had crafted their work.  

Sharing their Own Stories

826DC has shared a lot about being a student-centered organization. It’s even one of the main focuses of our newest strategic plan. Over the years, we’ve mostly thought about that in terms of how we structure and run our writing programs. It’s really important, however, that student voice and choice also shape how their books get shared, not just how they are written.

“Getting the world excited about stories is one of the great joys of this work,” says Sarah Richman, 826DC’s Senior Manager of Communications and Development. “It also presents critical choices. Who do we want to read and buy these books? Where do we want to make these pieces available? Which aspects of the writing do we want to emphasize?

“Inviting young authors to share in making those decisions,” she continues, “is a way to honor their artistic integrity, to build deeper connections with this community, and to ensure that students guide all aspects of what we do here.”

To make it easier for 826DC authors to continue promoting their work in ways that feel right and safe to them, we’ve started to offer “Promoting your Book” guides. These help with everything from learning where/how to sign a book and taking more author photos to going over best practices for recording a story. They also outline other opportunities for students to write about their writing.

The Next Chapter

826DC might not know where the course of the pandemic will take us over the next few months, but we do know this: No matter what, we will always find a way to write together and to celebrate that writing.

Our current Young Authors’ Book Project (YABP) cohort has already started in on our next anthology, a collection of creative non-fiction memoirs exploring our students’ personal hero’s journeys.

“Through their writing, this year’s YABP students are setting a brilliant example of what a pandemic book release should be—suffused with care, creativity, and good old-fashioned fun,” says Dominique Doonquah, 826DC’s School Residency Manager. “No matter what our celebration looks like, I’m glad our students will be gracing the world with their voices.”

We’ll share more about the festivities as we get closer to releasing the book in the spring.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to help.

826DC is always looking for both in-person and remote volunteers to support our publishing projects, doing everything from editing collections and illustrating chapbooks to taking pictures at release parties and beyond. You can learn more about volunteering here.

Donations from the community also help us keep these projects free and accessible for all DC students ages 6-18 and make these celebrations—in whatever form—as special as possible. If you feel moved to contribute, you can do that here.