Talk about a meteoric rise. The Tucson Festival of Books is in only its third year yet it's already billed as the fourth-largest event of its kind.

"I think we are building a very strong brand and reputation," said Bill Viner, CEO of Pepper Viner Homes and one of the festival's founders.

Even better - in just two years' time, the volunteer-driven festival has been able to give $350,000 to literacy programs, Viner said.

"The goal is completely unselfish," said Helene Woodhams, co-chair of the festival's author committee and literary-arts librarian for Pima County public Library. "At the end of the day, who profits but literacy agencies in Arizona? I think that's tremendous."

The free, family-friendly event happens March 12-13 on the University of Arizona campus. It offers a chance to meet with authors from different literary genres, attend workshops, enjoy entertainment and food and basically have another excuse to soak up the warm sun.

"It's free, the parking's free - March is terrific in Tucson," Viner said. "It's a nice opportunity to be out and be with family. The festival celebrates everything good about our community."

Last year's festival featured about 400 authors and attracted roughly 80,000 people. Organizers expect the same number of authors and are preparing for 100,000 visitors.

"Our family has grown to love Tucson," said Scott Simon, National Public Radio's Peabody-Award-winning correspondent and host of "Weekend Edition." "It is a wonderful venue for a festival like this."

Simon, the keynote speaker at last year's Author's Table Dinner, said in a phone interview that literature is a force in the lives of Tucsonans. It's clear, he said, that Tucsonans don't read books they are supposed to read to be considered "well-read."

"They are interesting, animated, real people," he said. "Reading for the enjoyment of literature and knowledge is part of everyday lives."

At last year's Author's Dinner, Simon discussed his novel "Pretty Birds," based on his coverage during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, and his political comedy novel, "Windy City."

Since last year's festival, Simon's nonfiction "Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other," was released. In his newest book, Simon shares his and his wife's story of adopting two little girls from China, and vignettes of other adoptions.

The entire family will be coming to Tucson for the book festival and family activities, said Simon. Topping his daughters' agenda: seeing a javelina.

Among the festival's hallmarks are its writing workshops, said Woodhams. There will be even more this year, covering the kinds of topics that writers and readers are interested in from writing basics to getting published.

The author mix is diverse, with some writers such as Elmore Leonard and J.A. Jance making return visits. The festival will sport plenty of new faces, too, like Frank Deford, Douglas Brinkley and Julia Glass.

"We try to keep it fresh, so the thing that we look for is people who have a book that's new within the last few years," Woodhams said. "You don't want to have always the same people, as interesting as they are. You want to give new people a chance and give festival-goers a chance to see new people as well."

This year's festival will have even more exhibitors and pavilions as well as an expanded science pavilion since it was so popular with all ages last year, Viner said. The Flandrau Planetarium and the UA's mirror lab will be open for tours.

In fact, the festival, which in the previous two years ended at Cherry Avenue, will stretch farther east.

Also new is an "e" pavilion, featuring the latest e-readers. People can demo the different devices and can even do some digital downloading, Viner said.

"We're working on a Twitter wall," he added. "People will be able to tweet, and it'll show up on a big screen."

The Western National Parks Association will also have an expanded presence. It's sponsoring a national park showcase featuring 20 parks with rangers, activities, children's events, giveaways, talks, book signings and product sales.

For local fantasy writer Dennis L. McKiernan, the Tucson Festival of Books is a wonderful opportunity to "rub elbows with book lovers."

McKiernan, who also enjoys reading mysteries and suspense thrillers, is popular on the sci fi/fantasy convention circuit. Just like any other avid reader, he enjoys hearing various writers speak and attending different panels.

A best-selling author who was one of four guests of honor at last fall's World Fantasy Convention 36, McKiernan said he loves the equal-opportunity nature of Tucson's event. It gives self-published writers a chance for exposure right alongside best-selling authors. His writers' group refers to those self-published types as "cactus and coyote writers."

"Every now and then, there will be a cactus and coyote writer who makes out quite well," he said in a phone interview. "To me, it's uplifting to see."

From the pages ....

"Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other"

By Scott Simon

Adoption is a miracle. I don't mean just that it's amazing, terrific, and a wonderful thing to do. I mean that it is, as the dictionary says, "a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of divine agency."

My wife and I, not having had children in the traditional, Abraham-and-Sarah-begat manner, have learned to make jokes about the way we've had our family. ("Pregnant! Why would you do that? Those clothes! And you can't drink for months!") Jokes are sometimes the only sensible answer to some of the astoundingly impertinent questions people can ask, right in your children's faces. "How much did they cost? Are they healthy? You know, you hear stories. So why did you go overseas? Not enough kids here?" But we cannot imagine anything more remarkable and marvelous than having a stranger put into your arms who becomes, in minutes, your flesh, your blood: your life.

"Shadows of Doom"

By Dennis L. McKiernan

In this scene we find two Warrows (Halflings) fleeing from a devastating battle in which the "good guys" were crushed.

The next 'Darkday, as they broke camp, Patrel said, "If my reckoning is correct, it is the last day of December, Year's End Day. Tomorrow is Twelfth Yule."

"Ar, I don't think we'll be doing any celebrating tonight," responded Danner, "even though the old year dies and the new one begins." Danner looked about. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever envision spending a Year's End Day like this: weary, hungry, half frozen, and fleeing weaponless from a teeming foe through a dismal murk sent by an evil power living in an iron tower in the Wastes of Gron."

Patrel finished cinching the saddle on his pony and turned to Danner. "Tell me, Danner," said the diminutive buccan, "what are you going to do next year when things really get bad?"

Flabbergasted, his mouth agape, Danner stared at Patrel. Then gales of laughter burst forth long and hard, Patrel whooping and shrieking, Danner doubled over holding his sides, his shouting guffaws ringing out across the plains. The ponies turned their heads back toward the whooping Warrows and cocked an eye and an ear, and this set Danner to laughing even harder, and he pointed and fell backwards in the snow, while Patrel looked and dropped to his knees, tears running down his face.

Long they laughed, gales bursting out anew, and Danner walked on his knees through the snow and threw his arms about Patrel and hugged him and laughed. At last, wiping their eyes with the heels of their hands, they both stood and mounted up and headed southward once more. Each rode with a great smile on his face and now and again would explode into a fit of giggles or great belly laughs to be joined by the other; and weary and hungry and half frozen, they fled weaponless from a teeming foe through a dismal murk sent by an evil power in an iron tower in the Wastes of Gron - and they laughed.

Young Authors Competition winners announced

More than 500 entries were received for the Young Authors' Competition, which challenges preschool and school-age children to write a story. Awards will be announced at the festival.

Winners will each receive $50 gift cards from Bookmans and UA BookStores and have their work published.

If you go

The Tucson Festival of Books will be March 12-13 on the University of Arizona campus. Attendance and parking are free.

In addition to featuring hundreds of well-known authors, the event also offers workshops, children's activities, artists and entertainers and lots of food.

The Tucson Festival of Books is sponsored by the UA and the Arizona Daily Star, and University Medical Center is the presenting sponsor. Net proceeds will promote literacy in Southern Arizona through the Tucson Festival of Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

Bookmark it

Go to tucsonfestivalofbooks.org for more information, to follow the festival through e-mail newsletters, or if you're interested in volunteering at the event or making a tax-deductible donation (under "Become a 'Friend of the Festival' ").

Follow the festival on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tucsonfestivalofbooks and go to www.twitter.com/tfob to follow on Twitter.

Make a Plan

No getting around it - there's homework with the Tucson Festival of Books. With as many authors and panels and workshops scheduled, it's best to set up a gameplan. Check the March 6 Star, which features a pull-out section that details the event and includes a map.

Apps are also available for iPhones and are available on the website.

Facts not fiction

Coming Next Week: Well-crafted nonfiction shapes research, factual information into a good read.

Star copy editor Ann Brown contributed to this story. Contact reporter Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194. Copyright © 2010 by Scott Simon. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.