Durham Book Festival: its regional impact

By Abigail Brierley

Each year the Durham Book Festival invites a range of writers, thinkers and performers to Durham city and events to promote literature from the North and to make it accessible across the region. Culture is at the heart of Durham and the festival allows the County to come together to celebrate the joy of books.

Every year, the prestigious Durham Book Festival returns to county Durham, with a wide array of invited writers, thinkers and performers to appear. With past guests including Phillip Pullman, Bill Bryson and Simon Armitage, the weight of the festival is not to be underestimated.

The festival believes that culture belongs to everyone, and they work with communities throughout County Durham to encourage enjoyment through reading and writing. In light of the recent news that Durham has made it onto the longlist for City of Culture 2025, the importance of this is only amplified.

Community work is an important part of the Durham Book Festival and one of the primary ways they increase engagement with literature in County Durham is through their Big and Little Read programmes. “Each year we choose two books, a novel or memoir and a picture book, and distribute them for free across Durham. This year the Big Read is Lemn Sissay’s incredible memoir My Name is Why”. 

Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why, is a memoir reflecting on Sissay’s own childhood, and focuses on ideas of self-expression and Britishness. Through this, Sissay explores the institutional care system, race, family and the meaning of home. Durham Book Festival is giving away 4,000 copies of the book throughout Durham, to schools, community centres, libraries, prisons and the University. You can pick up your free copy of My Name is Why in the Bill Bryson Library. 

The Durham Book Festival has a programme of community work, beginning with shared reading around My Name is Why and bringing communities to see Lemn (the author) at the Gala Theatre in Durham city. This work will continue throughout the year.

“Every year the festival works with local schools in a number of ways. We run a series of author events for local schools and also offer school-based poetry workshops working in partnership with Durham University and our Festival Laureate – an acclaimed poet, who is invited to produce a new piece of work to be premiered at the festival each year.”

Additionally, to help engage younger audiences across the county, and to spread the joy of literature across the region, they are sending at least one free copy of the 2021 Little Read, Look Up! by Nathan Byron and Dapo Adeola, to every primary school and nursery in County Durham, along with free resources that can be accessed by parents and teachers.

A central part of the Durham Book Festival is amplifying authors and writers from the North East. Northern writers are always a big part of the Durham Book Festival and the 2021 programme celebrates a range of books from the North.

The connection of the Durham Book Festival to the North East, and the surrounding region is also strongly exemplified through the festival’s Gordon Burn Prize. This prize takes place each year at the festival, and it is growing towards becoming one of the UK’s most exciting and up and coming literary prize. The prize is named in honour of the late Gordon Burn, a writer and journalist from the North East, and seeks to “reward writers who embody the spirit of Burn’s own bold and innovative literary methods”.

The festival saw Carnegie Medal-winning writer David Almond coming to the Gala Theatre for a special families’ event, and also brought together schools from around County Durham for a digital event with picture-book maker Richard O’Neill. 

Durham Book Festival is giving away
4,000 copies throughout Durham.

These are some of the top events to look out for from Northern writers – with all digital events still available to watch up to the 31st of October: “[they have] featured Booker Prize-winning author Pat Barker with her new novel The Women of Troy and brilliant debut non-fiction events with both Tawseef Khan and Anita Sethi. We have a whole series of free, digital commissions, curated by local artist Vici Wreford-Sinnott, on the theme of Disability and the Politics of Visibility. If you’re a poetry fan, we have a North-East Poetry Showcase at the Gala Theatre with readings from Jo Clement, John Challis and Jake Campbell”. 

Finally, here are some top recommendations from features in the Durham Book Festival: “There’s honestly been too many to choose this year but if you’re interested in podcasts then check out our new Sleep Stories series, bringing together experts in sleep from around the world and exclusive short stories by Salena Godden, Andrew McMillan and Jenn Ashworth”. 

The Durham Book Festival has done wonders for promoting and spreading accessible literature to all demographics across the region. Be sure to make the most of the incredible festival, and pick up your copy of Lemn Sissay’s incredible memoir My Name is Why, from the Bill Bryson Library.

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