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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Explore Kansas City's rich literary history with this guide to the writing and publishing scene

Ernest Hemingway seated at a desk with typewriter during World War II.
Ernest Hemingway Collection
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Ernest Hemingway seated at a desk with typewriter during World War II.

Kansas City is home to novelists and poets, bookstores and publishers, libraries and writer's groups, creating a rich literary landscape. And with the American Association of Writers and Writing Programs — the country's largest literary convention — in town this week, it's a perfect time to see what the region has to offer.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

In 1917, at the age of 18, Ernest Hemingway came to Kansas City to begin his career as a writer at the Kansas City Star. For the next six months, he lived with his Uncle Tyler near Hyde Park as he wrote about our city.

You can still read the articles Hemingway wrote for the paper during his stay. It was here, in fact, that he developed his unique style and voice with help from the Star’s style guide. He never quite left Kansas City behind: In 1928, he returned to the city for the birth of his son Patrick, and then again in 1931 for the birth of daughter Gloria. During this time, Hemingway worked on his book "A Farewell to Arms.”

That’s just one snapshot from Kansas City’s great literary history, which continues to this day.

There are plenty of accomplished writers who called Kansas City home at one point or another. Gillian Flynn, author of "Gone Girl,” is from Kansas City and graduated from the University of Kansas. Jim Butcher, author of the immensely popular series "The Dresden Files” – about a tough wizard detective whose adventures take him all over the world – is from Independence.

Kansas City claims the popular YA author Adib Khorram, whose next book "The Breakup Lists" comes out in April. Also here is best-seller Jen Mann, author of the hilarious "People I Want to Punch in the Throat,” who writes about parenting with wit, passion, and authenticity.

A man stands near a bookshelf full of young adult titles and children's titles.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City author Adib Khorram has published several young adult titles and children's books.

With all that pedigree, it makes perfect sense that Kansas City is hosting this year’s conference for the American Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Begun in 1967, AWP has grown into one of the biggest literary events in the country, and will bring some 8,000 authors, poets and publishers from around the world to learn, network, and support those with literary aspirations.

AWP will be held Feb. 7-10, 2024, at the Kansas City Convention Center, but it also branches out for a score of off-site events that week across the city.

Attend the 11th Annual Rock and Roll Reading at The Brick in the Crossroads, or enjoy a reading of Literary Rule Breakers at the Made in KC Cafe downtown. The Kansas City Central Library will host “Women Aren’t Funny: A Discussion With Funny Women Who Disagree” on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m.

Director of Conferences Colleen Cable told KCUR's Julie Denesha that the conference and book fair is also a chance to highlight the local scene.

“There's a big, healthy literary community in Kansas City, and so we're really excited to come to Kansas City and kind of support all of this literary ecosystem that's taking place," Cable said.

Beyond the conference, the literary spirit is begging to be discovered here in Kansas City. So, grab your favorite book bag, a writing journal, and a good pair of walking shoes to explore what our local scene has to offer. As Gandalf said in “The Fellowship of the Ring,”: “Not all who wander are lost.”

Kansas City's publishing world

Exterior view of The Story Center, a brick house with white columns, with a green field in front and clouded sunset sky in the background.
The Story Center at Mid-Continent Public Library.
The Story Center, in the Woodneath Library Center with Mid-Continent Public Library, helps patrons learn to tell stories through a variety of media.

Whether you've written a zine, a graphic novel or full-length book, Kansas City is home to some great publishers to help you get your book on the shelves.

The biggest publisher in town is Andrews McMeel Publishing, which is behind some of the most famous comics of the last 50 years, including "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side." (Disclosure: KCUR contracts with Andrews McMeel’s Puzzle Society to produce a puzzle for the Early Bird newsletter.)

Andrews McMeel is the publisher of local author Brian Gordon, creator of “Fowl Language,” a cartoonish look at parenting through the eyes of a duck that just can’t seem to figure it all out. Gordon also has begun a new series called “Frankie Fearless,” which is the story of a young kid who continues to stumble into paranormal situations.

The Mid-Continent Public Library system has a publishing arm called Woodneath Press for local authors or authors who have written about the Kansas City area. Once published by Woodneath, your book will hit the shelves of the 32 different branches of the Mid-Continent Library system, as well as help with marketing, cover design, and other benefits of working with an independent publisher. (Woodneath says it is not currently accepting new submissions, but hopes to reopen them in the future.)

The press is part of MCPL’s Story Center, which also offers a storytelling certificate program, classes and writer’s groups. Check out the Story Center’s events calendar to find what they’re offering.

Kansas City is home to other independent presses, which operate outside of what’s normally considered the Big Five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster). Although their budgets aren’t as big, you’ll typically find a more collaborative approach at an indie house.

Locally, you can submit your work to 39 West Press, BeaconPress, and The Flying Ketchup Press. Each specializes in something a little different, so take your time and research each one.

KC Zine Con
Zines strung up at KC Zine Con.

39 West Press seems to focus on books that “promote constructive discourse on key social, cultural, political, and economic issues,” and includes genres like literary fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. "The Virgin of the American Dream: Guadalupe on the Walls of Los Angeles," by best-selling and award-winning author Sam Quinones, is coming out in November. This photojournalist book depicts murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted all throughout LA.

Beacon Press focuses on non-fiction about history, religion, current affairs, LGBTQ and race issues, and a lot more. One of their more influential titles is “The Daddy Shift. How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family” by Jeremy Adam Smith, which helped kick off a national conversation about fathers and caregiving.

Flying Ketchup Press, founded in 2018, is run by two women and focuses on short fiction and poetry. They also have several imprints, including the children’s book publisher Flying Ketchup Kids. They put out “What’s that Sound,” by local author LeAnne Bauman Litka, which takes an artful approach to teaching kids to read.

To get even more indie than that, Kansas City also has a vibrant zine scene.

Every summer, KC Zine Con hosts a massive festival for self- and independently-published zines and comics. If this scrappy style of writing is more your speed, check out Neither-Nor Zine Distro and Astringent Press, both based in town.

Rare books and other hidden treasures

Exeterior view of the store front for Willa's Books & Vinyl.
Shannon Carpenter
KCUR 89.3
Willa's Books & Vinyl, on Troost Avenue, specializes in books by African American authors.

Obviously, Kansas City’s bookstores are some of its greatest resources and cultural institutions.

There’s The Raven in Lawrence, Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Prospero’s on 39th Street and Wise Blood in Westport. Midtown has Bliss Books & Wine, Under the Cover, and BLK + BRWN, Strawberry Hill has Flagship Books, Shawnee has Seven Stories, and the Crossroads now has Turnsol Books.

But those are mostly new or gently used books. There’s something special about an old or antique book – it’s a chance to discover the history of our world.

There’s no better place to start than at the Missouri Valley Room at the downtown Kansas City Public Library. Everyone knows about the Community Bookshelf, the library’s parking garage. The exterior garage features 25-foot-high book spines that contain 42 different titles. You’ll get a chance to see "The Lord of the Rings” title as big as a Balrog along with other classic works.

Now go further in the library system and discover the Missouri Valley Room for something extremely unique. This collection began in 1960 and consists of “the non-circulating local history and genealogy resources of the Kansas City Public Library as well as the library’s archives.

Here is where you can find a copy of "A Journal of the Voyages and Travels” by Patrick Gass, who joined the army in 1792 and fought in campaigns that included the War of 1812. His most notable service, though, came as a private in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

This book, published in 1807, was the first published book on that legendary quest. The official account wouldn’t come out until 1814, so Gass’s book predates it by years. Here you can read a first-hand account about the explorers approaching what would eventually be Kansas City and camping at Kaw Point, as well as the rest of their adventures.

The Missouri Valley Room has also curated other maps and early accounts of our city, and see a reproduction of the peace medal given out by Lewis and Clark to the Native American nations they encountered.

Courtesy of Prospero's Books & Media

It’s not the only place you can hold a rare book in your hands. Glenn Books in Prairie Village has been in business since 1933. Owners Fredric and Carolyn Gilhousen have a wealth of knowledge and books for any level of collector – including "Parrots” by Edward Lear, which sold for $110,000.

Fredric Gilhousen says he’s particularly passionate about a collection of Arthur Conon Doyle books that they have. It’s his personal collection that he has been acquiring for decades.

Churchill goes really fast, usually,” Gilhousen said. Currently, they have in stock several volumes of his speeches and history books, which he does not expect to be on the market long.

All the books that Glenn Books deals with are first editions. You can expect to find a first edition of the King James Bible, the works of Charles Dickens, Civil War manuscripts and materials, and much more.

That’s not to say that all their books are priced for only serious collectors with serious pockets. Their general rare book stock contains many for between $50-100.

Another great rare bookshop to visit is Willa’s Books & Vinyl.

“The books you’ll find in my shop, you won’t find anywhere else,” said owner Willa Robinson, who specializes in African American writers. “This is a cultural bookstore, about the cultural history and literature that is in the Black community.”

Robinson opened her first space in 2007 on 18th and Vine. Eventually, she moved from that location to several others before finding herself at her current storefront at 5547 Troost Avenue.

At Willa’s, you can find books by Langston Hughes, the renowned American poet and author who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, or works by Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Willa also recommends author Walter White, who was the president of the NAACP from 1929-1955 and wrote “The Fire in the Flint,” and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, an American poet whose work offers a remarkable glimpse into African American life at the beginning of the 20th century.

Robinson says that it’s important to her that “we see ourselves in books.” As you walk through the stacks at Willa’s, you’ll do exactly that.

Discover your writing community

A girl and a woman smile at the camera and hold the book "Someone Builds the Dream" together.
Lead to Read
Lead to Read reading mentors volunteer at area schools.

Writing may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Finding the right community can make a huge difference. That’s where The Writers Place can offer support.

The Kansas City nonprofit began in 1992 with a mission to support, promote, and teach those who wish to enter the craft. For many years, they were located in a castle – or rather a home built of stone that looked somewhat like a castle, located in the Valentine neighborhood.

In 2019, the Writers Place moved to the shared Nonprofit Village at 31w31 (off 31st Street), where they have a diverse lineup of activities each month that anyone can enjoy.

Their Riverfront Readings are held the second Friday of the month at 8 p.m. And for the AWP, they’re holding an off-site reading at their space with five different poets.

The third Friday of every month is The Writers Place Reading Series, at 7 p.m., usually featuring local, regional, or emerging writers.

And if you’re around for fourth Mondays, you can attend an open mic welcome to all levels of writers. This reading takes place at the Quaker House at 4405 Gillam Road.

The Writers Place also hosts teen writing camps to engage our youth as well as a program called In Our Own Words that’s focused on under-resourced Kansas City students and kids, where they send professional and published writers into schools.

Check out their event page to discover the next great adventure as well as their KC Literary Arts Calendar to see what else is happening around town.

The Writer’s Place’s neighbor at the Nonprofit Village is Lead to Read, whose mission is to increase literacy rates in Kansas City. Volunteers go out to area schools (they’re currently in 28 schools and 63 different classrooms) and teach children one-on-one. If you want to get involved, this organization is always looking for mentors.

The Writing Workshop KC was begun by Frances Story, who goes by the published pen name Jen Harris, as a way to support and teach fellow creative writers here in the city. As she describes it, the Writing Workshop is a place for people who “don’t have one.”

Every Tuesday, the organization hosts a Zoom meeting for its members where they can participate in a workshop based on a prompt. The idea is to write rather than just talk about writing (but they do that too). Not only does this build comradery with other Kansas City writers, it also improves your writing by getting real-time feedback. Any writer will tell you that this is worth its weight in Shakespearean gold.

For those who want to meet in person, WWKC also meets on Wednesdays at Three Bees Pottery & Coffee. All genres are welcome and there is no word count or length, but it’s a chance to “heal creative wounds” whether you’re a pro or a hobbyist.

There is a fee to attend both the virtual and in-person meetings. You can get a one-time pass for $15 or a $40 monthly subscription to attend everything.

For members, WWKC also puts on other events, such as field trips they call "Artist Dates." Story says the trips are meant to “refill your artistic tank,” from a walk in the woods to visiting an art installation. Gather whatever inspiration the world offers and turn it into art on the page.

Another great way to spend a literary night out is in Kansas City’s slam poetry scene.

Don’t think about it as a bunch of beatniks sitting around snapping their fingers while wearing berets. It’s more of an artistic jamboree, full of energy. “We are competing for the feels,” says Rylan Keeling of the Kansas City Poetry Slam.

While spoken poetry has long roots, slam poetry often traces its origin to Chicago in the 1980s. From there, the movement crisscrossed the country and found a home in Kansas City.

At each Kansas City Poetry Slam event, five random audience members are chosen to be judges. Their only qualification is that they don’t know the performers, and Keeling says that many judges have never been to a slam poetry event. Each performance will be graded on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0 based on originality, performance, and content.

Poets must present an original work, and it can be no longer than three minutes. Performers are not allowed to use costumes, props, or music, but they can use body movements. The contestants range from seniors to teenagers. “Poetry is a conversation between the audience and the poet,” says Keeling.

KC Poetry Slam hosts on the First Wednesday of the month at Blip Roasters in the West Bottoms, with sign-ups beginning at 7:30 p.m. and the live show at 8:00 p.m. The group hosts free workshops before many of the events, and puts on community open mics every other Wednesday. Make sure to stay in touch with them through their Facebook account to keep up to date.

And if you’re more into reading than writing, check out our Adventure! from last year on finding the perfect Kansas City book club.

Shannon Carpenter is the author of The Ultimate Stay-at-Home, and is a nationally known contributor on fatherhood, parenting and at-home parenting.
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