Young at Heart
The Austin Teen Book Festival is coming of age
Walk past the Fiction and Literature section at BookPeople, go up a flight of stairs, and turn right, and you will find yourself in a strange land. Moody, mixtape-wielding high school students vie with lovelorn cyborgs and seriously hot vampires for shelf space on walls adorned with pink, loopy script and cheekbones that could cut glass. You've discovered the Young Adult section, where every misfit, outcast, and loner has a special destiny, whether it's finding teenage love, liberating an oppressed planet, or taking one more small step down the long, lonely road of adolescence.
Only, thanks to the Austin Teen Book Festival, it's not quite as lonely as it used to be. On Saturday, Sept. 28, the free festival, now in its fifth year, is expected to draw 5,000 mostly teenage attendees to the Austin Convention Center for a full day of readings, panels, and book signings by top-selling authors of young adult (YA) literature. Founded in 2009 by Hill Country Middle School librarian Heather Schubert in partnership with BookPeople and currently funded by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, the festival has almost tripled in size since its inception, making it one of the biggest YA festivals in the country.
How big? Well, to start, there will be four keynote speakers: urban fantasy writers Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Boys) and Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown), scribe of pastel coming-of-age novels Sarah Dessen (The Moon and More), and writer/producer Rob Thomas, whose 1996 YA novel Rats Saw God was re-released by Simon & Schuster this past spring, in conjunction with his Kickstarter launch for the Veronica Mars film. Dessen and Thomas will speak at a lunch discussion moderated by yet another bestselling YA author – Lauren Myracle, whose books TTFN and TTYL, written entirely in the form of candid instant messages between high school girls, have been banned from schools for language and content that's a little too authentic for some parents' comfort. And with a total of 42 authors filling out panels with names like "Tales of Tomorrow" and "I Made You a Mixtape" throughout the day, it's a safe bet that the most popular subgenres in YA fiction – urban fantasy, dystopian adventure, teen romance, and realistic fiction – will all be well-represented.
"I think it's really exciting that the Library Foundation can bring writers of this caliber, and this many of them, into the city," commented Cecily Sailer, manager of the library's creative writing programs for children, adults, and teens. At lunchtime during the festival, a book release party for the Badgerdog Creative Writing Summer Camp will feature teens reading from – and signing copies of – the freshly printed Badgerdog anthology Emerge. "I think it's so important for teens to be engaged with books, and to have books to turn to. I think we can sometimes scoff at the trend of vampire writing, or other things that become teens' passions in books, but the important thing is that their imagination is ignited by what they're reading, and that they're consuming books that matter to them."
In addition to the increased number of authors, this year's festival is adding comedy to the proceedings in the form of an improvised Saturday morning showdown between teams of authors from rival publishers HarperTeen and Macmillan. "'Dark Days vs. Fierce Reads' is going to be a campy, snarky, off-the-cuff, game-show-type event," says festival director Jen Bigheart. "It'll be like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, with [BookPeople's kids' outreach coordinator] Topher [Bradfield] as our smarmy, swanky, maybe even velvet-robe-wearing game-show host."
Providing more than just entertainment from afar, the festival gives aspiring young writers the chance to meet the authors they idolize. This can be a transformative experience for some teens, like Willa, a 15-year-old member of BookPeople's Teen Press Corps, a team of local Austin high schoolers who cover events and review YA books for the store's blog. Willa, who wants to write YA fiction professionally, confesses she "fangirls to the max" when she covers the ATBF, gushing, "One time, I even helped Stephanie Perkins find her lost cell phone!"
Sailer, a writer with a master's of fine arts degree from the University of Houston who has worked with high school students through Badgerdog's creative writing programs for four years, points out that the sense of connection teenagers can establish with the authors at the festival may bring about their first realizations that they, too, could make a career out of writing. "It's so rare and so exciting for a young person who's invested in something they're reading to get an opportunity to hear from the person who wrote it, and to see them as an actual person, to hear something about what it takes to create a book, what it's like to do that as a job." She adds, "If I had had a chance to meet Judy Blume when I was 13, I would have melted into a puddle."
She's not the only adult who "fangirls to the max" at the thought of meeting a beloved author. Dessen actually had the opportunity to meet Judy Blume at one point*, and remembers being "basically speechless": "Judy Blume was like a religion for girls my age. ... I acted like an idiot; I couldn't even put words together." Opening keynote Stiefvater, reminiscing about her fantasy-fiction role models, said, "If I had gotten to go to a festival and actually meet Diana Wynne Jones or Susan Cooper face-to-face – who knows what would have happened? I might have fallen over dead."
These days YA has almost as many adult fans as teenage ones, including founder Schubert, who says, "I never actually stopped reading it." As for current director Bigheart, who has volunteered for the festival almost since its inception (she got swine flu and dropped out the first year), you could say that a single YA novel was responsible for the biggest career change of her life. Bigheart initially trained in psychology, but felt a renewed connection to children's literature after having children of her own. "I started volunteering at my kid's book fair when she was in third grade. I remember that little moment when I picked up The Giver [by Lois Lowry] at the book fair, and I took it home and I said, 'I want to be a librarian.'"
Speculating about the enduring appeal of YA, Bigheart uses the word "universal" more than once. "Everybody goes through that first heartbreak. Or not fitting in, or not getting along with your peers and your parents. I mean, there are grownups who are 50 who don't get along with their parents. Some of that stuff just never goes away."
Bigheart's insistence that many adults can relate to issues they read about in young adult fiction raises the uncomfortable possibility that we are all, in fact, just very old children. Can it be that reading YA is comforting precisely because its adolescent protagonists can admit to having the problems we are ashamed of still having? What if Bigheart is right, and the only difference between young adult plots and adult-adult plots is what floor of BookPeople they call home?
Stiefvater, who plans to talk about imagination and fear in her opening keynote Saturday morning, isn't too concerned about it. An artist, musician, and race-car enthusiast as well as a bestselling YA novelist, she freely admits that at the ripe old age of 31, she still doesn't find much to relate to in the adult section. "My relationships aren't reflected in a lot of adult genre literature," she says, and laughs. "I don't want to read about divorce and taxes and things."
*Correction: The print version of this article sent Judy Blume to an untimely death; we're pleased to report the 75-year-old author is alive and tweeting.
Read our complete interviews with Dessen and Thomas on the Books blog. The Austin Teen Book Festival will take place on Saturday, September 28, from 8:30am-5:30pm, at the Austin Convention Center (500 E. Cesar Chavez). All events are free and open to the public. For more information and a complete schedule, visit www.austinteenbookfestival.com.