The 18th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held Saturday, April 20, and Sunday, April 21, on the University of Southern California campus, offered more children’s programming than ever before, with scores of bestselling authors in attendance, kid-centric book signings, and dozens of panels and interviews. “Any increase this year wasn’t intentional at the outset,” said spokesperson John Conroy, “but we had so many terrific children’s and YA authors available to us we couldn’t say no.” The Times estimates that 150,000 people attended the two-day festival.
At the children’s section, festooned with colorful streamers and banners, there were meet-and-greets with cartoon characters and lessons in cartooning on offer. But the main business, of course, was books, with panels and presentations for children and teens scheduled throughout the weekend.
Among the Saturday children’s panels was “Writing for Teens and Tweens: Sagas and Series,” held in the Annenberg auditorium, which was moderated by West Ottawa, Mich., middle-school librarian Lynn Rutan and featured authors Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia (the Beautiful Creatures series), Ridley Pearson (the Kingdom Keepers books), and Jaclyn Moriarty (A Corner of White).
“Fantasy lends itself to series,” Garcia said, when the panelists were asked what initially attracted them to the series format. “I’m also into world building. So is Margaret. But it’s tough to write a series because you have to create an overall arc for all of the books.” Pearson appreciates the way a series allows him to evolve all of the characters in the story. “This is different from writing a standalone, where the emphasis is on growing the plot,” he said. “[But] in both cases it’s the characters that write the books. They tell us what to do.”
Rutan asked the authors several questions about process, as well. The consensus was that research is essential to authenticity. Moriarty also said that writers have to believe in what they’re working on. She set A Corner of White partly in the real world and partly in the magical Kingdom of Cello, which inspired her to buy her own cello and take lessons. For Stohl, the details of a character’s emotional life are what authenticate a book. “This is what explains to the reader why a villain is who he is,” Garcia added.
So, why write YA? Moriarty said that setting stories in schools is “an ideal world.” Appropriately for the L.A. audience, Pearson assigned his work an MPAA film rating, explaining that he writes, “PG books, rather than R-rated. It’s an amazing way to spend the day, in the fantasy world.” The last to respond was Stohl, who elicited laughs when she said of herself and Garcia: “We’re immature. We spend a lot of time with teens. We don’t even know any adults.”
Outside, on the tree-lined grounds of the USC campus, Maureen Palacios – owner of Once Upon a Time bookstore in Montrose, Calif. – was beaming. “We have twice the booth size this year and a great location,” she said. “We have two partners, Scholastic and Simon [& Schuster], and we are really selling books.” Palacios had a large selection of both bilingual and Spanish books for kids in her booth, and was very pleased with sales of them.
On Sunday, Cleveland Public Library librarian Rollie Welch moderated “Middle Grade Fiction: The Beauty in the Everyday.” The panelists were 2013 Newbery Medal winner Katherine Applegate (The One and Only Ivan), Linda Urban (The Center of Everything), Gary Schmidt (Okay for Now), and Kathryn Fitzmaurice (Destiny Rewritten), who spoke in front of a standing room-only auditorium audience that enjoyed their sometimes-cheeky responses.
Among the revelations: Schmidt’s writing process begins and ends on a 1953 Royal typewriter. “It’s so difficult to find ribbons for it,” he said, “that I’ve had to go out and buy old typewriters just for the ribbon.” Urban’s method is a bit more modern. “I think with pencil and paper, and write with a computer,” she said. Applegate had the last word on the subject. “For me, writing is messy, like sausage and legislation,” she said. “You don’t want to know how it’s done!” She did divulge, however, that she works on a Mac.
The authors’ schedules vary, too. “My goal is 500 words a day,” Schmidt said. “When I get to 500, I stop. It keeps me fresh for the next writing day.” Urban looked over at Schmidt and responded, “If I write 500 words, I have cake.” She also writes notes about the day’s work to acknowledge what she accomplished. Fitzmaurice writes every day until noon, and then walks her dog and reads others’ books. Only Applegate declined to get specific, joking that she has “refined the art of procrastination.”
That afternoon, screenwriter and YA author Holly Goldberg Sloan (I’ll Be There) moderated “YA Fiction: Call Me, Maybe?” (Panelist Gayle Forman, author of Just One Day, couldn’t resist playing the panel’s namesake song through her iPhone.) Joining Forman were Sarah Dessen (The Moon and More), Morgan Matson (Second Chance Summer), and Robin Benway (Also Known As).
Sloan led off by asking the authors about the role of romance in young adult books. Dessen said that because first romances are the most profound, they are unforgettable. “Everything about romance is so new at that point, and teenagers enjoy reading about it.” Matson told the audience that romance is the fun part about writing a book, while for Forman it’s “the essential part. It’s not the sole purpose of a book, but it is necessary.”
The audience included many among the authors’ target audience, and Sloan asked the panelists what advice they had for 15-year-olds. “You’re not supposed to have it all figured out,” Dessen said. Matson’s advice was a bit more immediate: “Don’t storm out of your house and scream at your parents every night. Try staying home one night with your family to find out who they are.” In closing, Forman connected being a teenager to being a writer. “I don’t differentiate between myself and you guys. If I’m not in an emotional pinch while I’m writing, then I’m not doing my job.”
Putting together the festival is a team effort, according to Times spokesperson Conroy. “Our presenting sponsor, Target, programs their stage each year,” he said. “All other children’s programming, from our panel conversations to the YA stage, are developed by a committee of Times employees.” Among the many other authors in attendance this year were Kadir Nelson, Oliver Jeffers, Loren Long, Cornelia Funke, Paul Rudnick, Caroline Cooney, and Jon Klassen and Lemony Snicket, who were a pair of festival MVPs.
“Apparently the line for Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen to sign their book, The Dark, was so long that they stayed until eight p.m.,” Conroy said. “Their signing table had to be moved under a streetlight when it got dark, and when they got to the last person in line Handler deadpanned, ‘I’m sorry. We’re all out of time.’ He and Klassen then signed their books.”
To see more photos from the festival, click here.