25 October 2009

YA Lit:: First Annual Austin Teen Book Festival

Yesterday's amazing Austin Teen Book Festival was truly unique. It was the first time I didn't have to pay an exorbitant conference fee to get a hold of multiple YA authors at once. Yup, that's right. It was all deliciously free (well, I did spend over a hundred dollars in books from Book People, who were warm and awesome). More importantly, it gave attendees of all ages a chance to meet both popular authors and up-and-comers.

So this thing was held at Westlake High School, which is more beautiful and high-tech than many colleges. The festival consisted of book-buying, a keynote speech, 3 panels of your choice, and time to get your stuff autographed. There were also bands playing and some middle school volunteers dressed as zombies doing the Thriller. This was pretty much a full day of YA awesomeness shared with good friend Veronica Goldbach.

The speech::
Okay, I've seen Libba Bray speak before, but she truly was in top form. There were laughs and there were almost tears. She has a very peculiar brand of humor that could rub some the wrong way, but the audience seemed to eat it all up. She had us when she forced her Gnome-tourage (dude dressed as a gnome a la Going Bovine cover) to call her a luminous supervixen. When she spoke of the car accident that almost took her life, you could almost hear contained gasps from the audience. She also gave some of the most memorable lines of the day. I'm totally paraphrasing this: "Some people ask me when I'm going to do a 'real' book, one for adults. And I just say, 'You know, I don't know if I can dumb it down enough for adults.' " HA! I got chills. People hollered. Good times.

Panel 1::
Fantasy with Libba Bray, Justine Larbalestier, Lisa McMann, and Rick Yancey
My one complaint about this panel is that it was poorly moderated. I find that the ones with more structure do a lot better. It really was not the fault of the authors. You could tell they were doing their best. They did grace us with a few thought-provoking statements, though.
  • Upon being asked how to best keep writing YA voices through adulthood, Justine Larbalestier said, "Don't grow up." Apparently many YA authors are pretty juvenile!
  • Rick Yancey talked about an experience early on with his writing. He apologized to his reader-to-be about the content, since he wasn't so confident in it. The response from his reader? "Never apologize for something you should be proud of."
  • There was talk about the process of books being turned into movies. I was pretty surprised when Lisa McMann said that only about 5% of books that are optioned actually end up as films. Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series was optioned for 3 years but it fell through due to the expense of filming a period piece. Justine also said not to get too down if your book-turned-movie ends up sucking. It's out of your hands and she considers it a 90-minute ad for the book anyway.
Panel 2::
Real YA Voices with Matt de la Pena, Deb Caletti, and Terra Elan McVoy
This panel was probably my favorite because it felt very intimate. The moderator asked some good questions, and the audience seemed to be perfectly enthralled. Also, much of the conversation was about writing and how to be a good writer. Wonderful stuff here.
  • Deb Caletti affirmed that if being a writer is what you are meant to be, it will happen. Do not be afraid to become what you are.
  • Terra Elan McVoy said she loves teens because they're both living through the most amazing and the suckiest time ever. Tip: Don't just read what you like. If you just read vampire novels, you're just going to learn to write about vampire novels. So read stuff you don't like and analyze why you don't like it. Be an active reader and pay attention. Take it apart to see what works and what doesn't.
  • Matt de la Pena impresses with his good advice and youthfulness (he kinda looks like a high school student). Reading poetry is good for novelists because it can teach you about the sparseness of writing. Don't write books about yourself in the most flattering light. Take the worst version of yourself and run with it. When writing characters, it's not your job to diagnose them. List the symptoms and let the reader take care of the rest. Read a lot but also read the world. Learn from it.
Panel 3::
Local Authors with Jennifer Ziegler, Varian Johnson, Shana Burg, and April Lurie
This panel was conducted in the most labyrinthine part of the school, it seemed. It was not the best layout but it was a wonderfully touching panel nevertheless, and moderated particularly well by a librarian. I knew very little about these authors, and I wanted to take away something new at the end of the festival.
  • April Lurie is the only author from this panel I was familiar with, and I absolutely love what I've read of The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine. She spoke of being so painfully shy that her classmates thought she was snobby. Her first book, Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds, was a re-write of her experience obsessing with a boy. Oh, how hearts fluttered while she described her feelings! And hey, that was as good an ad for writing as any. If you're crushing hard and to no avail, write your own version.
  • Speaking of high school crushes, Shana Burg won some serious cred from the audience when she recounted her memory of giving a passionate love letter to her crush. He was inevitably in love with her gorgeous best friend. I really admired her courage to tell it, because it was so embarrassing and real. She really connected with the numerous teens present. Her book A Thousand Never Evers about the Civil Rights movement sounds good, too.
  • As the only male on the panel, Varian Johnson really was the masculine point of view amidst all this romantic talk. And he used it to call boys stupid. Ha! He really wanted the mainly female audience to get the courage to just talk to the boys they want to be with. They are just as confused as girls are. His book, Life as a Rhombus, was one that he really did not want to write. It's about a high school student who tutors a pregnant classmate. I appreciate him implying that sometimes your best writing is what's most difficult to put on the page.
  • Jennifer Ziegler spoke very fondly of being on the 2009 Lone Star Reading List. She said she used that list as a teacher and now she gets to be on it! She "birthed" her novel, How Not to be Popular, and discussed popularity hierarchies in high school. She felt like she wasn't very popular in real-life, but she comes across people who think she was. The message here could very well be that no matter how you feel about your place in the system, others are looking up at you.
There were 4 panels but only time to do 3, so I skipped out on Zombies vs. Vampires with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Daniel Waters, Carrie Jones, and Heather Brewer. It seemed to have plenty of fans, though, so I'm sure they didn't miss me. After the panels were over, it was time to get books autographed. I had over a dozen books and only one hour, and some lines (like the ones for Libba Bray and Heather Brewer) were quite long. With some stealth maneuvering, and the kindness of Veronica and others, I was able to get all of them taken care of. Woot!

And now I end with the surreal moments of the day:
  • I was wearing a Vladimir Tod shirt I got for free at Hudson News in Chicago. People kept calling me the Heather Brewer fan and asking me where I'd bought it. I mean, I read the first book and liked it, but I'd think there are plenty more HB fans in the audience than I was. I felt totally typecast.
  • Carrie Jones was a sweetheart! She seemed honestly thrilled that I loved Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend. I absolutely loved her dedication to me, too. Most authors of a certain popularity level are polite and nice, but detached. I understand that they have to be. Carrie seemed to transcend that and was wonderfully warm with me, even giving me a way to get in touch with her.
  • I asked a question I shouldn't have asked during one of the panels, but I did it because it scared me to death. I only regret it when I forget that I'd never spoken out loud when I get that nervous.
Yeah, this is probably enough to give you a feel for how the festival went. What I loved to hear was that this is the first festival, so hopefully there are plenty more to come!