An ear for the written word at festival

High literary season starts tonight in Charlotte.

With “Presumed Innocent” author Scott Turow kicking off the 18th annual Novello Festival of Reading at 7 p.m. at ImaginOn, book lovers prepare for a month of literary luminaries at a festival that's become a beloved Charlotte tradition.

Along with Turow, this year's bigger names include Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”), Armistead Maupin (“Tales of the City”) and, for the younger set, Deborah Gregory and her 16-book Cheetah Girls series.

But there's a wealth of talent among authors whose names may be unfamiliar. If you haven't discovered graphic novels, check out Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”) and Harvey Pekar (“American Splendor”).

Interested in manga? Meet Josh Elder, author of the “Mail Order Ninja” series, at the Novello Book Brunch.

Enjoy the wit and wisdom of librarian Nancy Pearl, author of “Book Lust.” And hear novelist Colson Whitehead before he gets really famous. His “John Henry Days” was a Pulitzer finalist.

When the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County launched Novello in 1991, it was just a week long, but with an impressive lineup that included the late David Halberstam. Back then, “the idea of paying him $7,000 or $8,000 was gut-wrenching,” says Dick Pahle, the library's development director.

With a $30,000 fee, Hosseini is this year's priciest author – but far from Novello's most expensive. That distinction belongs to George and Barbara Bush, whose 1999 talk carried a $100,000 price tag.

This year's festival has a $405,000 budget that comes from ticket sales, sponsorships, library fees and contributions. Some events are free. Others are reasonable – $15 for most tickets. Novello's success has made it a model.

“It's a hell of a literary festival,” Pahle says.