The Minnesota State Fair is nicknamed the Great Minnesota Get-Together for good reason: practically every Minnesotan seems to spend a day or two there during its 12-day run (August 26 to September 6 this year), doing such things as gorging themselves on food-on-a-stick, hanging out at the Mighty Midway, and watching a sculptor carve the head of Princess Kay of the Milky Way out of a 90-pound block of butter. That’s when they’re not checking out the livestock, horticulture, crop art, and other displays.
Author Debra Frasier (On the Day You Were Born) went a step beyond the typical Minnesotan fairgoer: Frasier, the fair’s artist-in-residence this year, spent the entire 12 days of the fair’s run onsite, living and breathing her latest picture book, A Fabulous Fair Alphabet (S&S/Beach Lane), a collection of colorful collages forming words that follow in alphabetical order the arc of a day at the fair, beginning with “Arena” and ending with “Zucchini.”
“It’s like being on The Truman Show: every day at 2:15, a giant cow goes by, and then marching bands. At 3:20, the bubble dance starts,” Frasier explained. It was windy and cold on Day Nine of the fair, as we walking from the Alphabet Forest to her cramped 1974-era trailer parked adjacent to the fairgrounds, about 200 yards away. The Alphabet Forest, a shady area next to the Family Fair Stage and across the street from the 4-H Building, was an oasis in the midst of the fair’s crowds and chaos, where letters hung like fruit from the trees surrounding a cute little log cabin.
“A is for alarm, B is for the breakfast I make every morning,” Frasier joked as we sat in her temporary quarters, about ¼ the size of a typical New York City hotel room. Frasier’s trailer was of the smallest ones in the park, which contained 250 trailers, 75% of them inhabited by fair vendors.
For the first time in the Minnesota State Fair’s 151-year history this year, an area inside the 320-acre fairgrounds was specifically dedicated to promoting literacy. Between 8 am and 8 pm every single day of the fair’s run, Frasier and her team of 200 volunteers assisted the steady stream of children and their families visiting the Alphabet Forest to create crafts inspired by A Fabulous Fair Alphabet.
Young children plucked letters from the trees and drew and colored letters on sheets with a Ferris wheel background, while older children created mini-banners by stringing tiny letters together to form words.
Children of all ages and their parents slid laminated letters onto a tube to form words, and then had their photographs taken to be posted on Frasier’s web site. Anyone who filled out a game card, available at 103 Twin Cities library branches and at the State Fair information booths, by matching the sights, smells, and sounds they encountered while walking around the fair to each letter of the alphabet, received a “Fabulous Fair Alphabet Minnesota State Fair 2010” blue ribbon.
“We didn’t know it’d be so beloved by fairgoers,” said Frasier, who estimated that there were “several thousand” visitors to the Alphabet Forest each day, “But it’s free and it promotes literacy. Families love it. We have kids knocking on our log cabin door before we opened in the mornings, and in the evenings, we’d have families asking us if we can stay open later.”
The only time each day Frasier left the Alphabet Forest during her 12-hour workday was when she walked to the State Fair Foundation’s headquarters near the Space Needle, where the original illustrations from the Fabulous Fair Alphabet Book were on display throughout the fair’s run. Frasier, who signed copies of her book inside that building for two hours between noon and 2 pm each day, estimates she signed an average of 100 books a day; Simon & Schuster had to overnight more books to the Fair to keep Frasier in stock. The Minnesota State Fair Foundation reports a total of 1,250 copies of Fabulous Fair Alphabet sold at the fair.
The day PW visited, Frasier signed 20 copies of the Fabulous Fair Alphabet for “the woman who owns the Giant Slide,” whose attraction is featured under the letter “S” in the book. The vendor was donating the books to local school libraries.
“Everyone’s pulling for us,” Frasier commented, as she related a few of the disasters that have befallen her team during the fair, the worst being the 95-degree scorcher (Day Five) when the tape holding down signs on a table melted in the heat, ruining several books. “I’ve done ALA and IRA,” Frasier commented. “Those are grueling, but it’s only three days. This is like IRA but with dust and much longer.”
Although Frasier isn’t sure she has the stamina to spend 12 days straight at the State Fair next year or ever again, she hopes that the co-sponsors of the Alphabet Forest project -- Target and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation -- will continue to aggressively promote literacy at the Great Minnesota Get-Together by sponsoring projects that revolve around books.
“Minnesota is so rich with children’s authors,” Frasier said. “We’re kind of a living, growing crop. I’d love to see this growing each year.”