An estimated 2,500 teens, moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, librarians and other avid readers from throughout Texas and beyond, coursed the halls of the Palmer Events Center on Saturday, October 1, for the third annual Austin Teen Book Festival.
Keynote speaker Scott Westerfeld, author of the hugely successful Uglies series, kicked off the festivities at 10 am, in the main hall of the venue. About a thousand chairs were set up ― and occupied. Fans also lined the walls to get a glimpse of the author. His 45-minute speech focused mostly on using illustrations to enhance the reader’s experience, and Westerfeld used much of the time to heap praise upon Keith Thompson, the chief artist of his latest Leviathan series. The author noted that he and Thompson wanted to make the books look like they had been published around the time of the First World War (the time period featured within the novels).
Westerfeld’s approach was easy-going and engaging, speaking to the YA audience in their vernacular (read: lots of "awesomes"). He was flanked on his right by an overhead projector displaying images from Goliath, the third book in the Leviathan trilogy. Westerfeld asserted that there is an intellectual bias against using illustrations in “serious” literature, because it limits the use of one’s own imagination. The author concluded, however, that "just because you put illustrations in a book doesn’t mean you put shackles on your imagination."
After a break, the meat and potatoes of the festival began in the form of genre-based author panels. Of the five hour-long panels, devotees could choose up to three to attend due to time constraints. One of the most highly anticipated panels – originally titled the "Edgy Panel," but later changed to "Real Life Is Messy," was moderated by local author Varian Johnson (Saving Maddie). Featuring authors dedicated to dealing with the difficulties of "real life," the panel was comprised of first-time novelist John Corey Whaley, editor and prolific author David Levithan, Melissa Walker, Coe Booth, and Geoff Herbach.
Herbach – author of Stupid Fast, a coming-of-age, nerd-turned-jock high school football story – explained to the audience of about 50 teens that he initially wrote fiction for adults, but was drawn to writing for teens when his kids were born, and he "wanted to put something into the world that had a sense of hope." David Levithan – widely known for co-authoring (along with Rachel Cohn) the book-turned-movie Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist – explained the conceit behind his latest novel Every You, Every Me: One evening, the author noticed a photograph on a friend’s refrigerator, and thought it would be interesting and difficult to tell a story based on random photos given to him. In this "photographic novel," Levithan wanted to challenge himself to tie these seemingly random events together into a cohesive narrative.
Coe Booth’s latest, Bronxwood, is a continuation of her first novel Tyrell, and deals with child abuse, drug use, and other weighty subjects that she said are deemed by some as inappropriate for young readers. This led to a discussion about what is and isn’t appropriate for YA fiction. Booth answered, "Everything is, and should be, on the table." Levithan (who is also Booth’s editor) chimed in that the author’s “only responsibility is to tell a damn good story.”
Melissa Walker noted that she was sensitive to how her audience would react to her latest novel Small Town Sinners, which centers around an evangelical haunted “house of sin,” set in West Texas. She noted that a pressing concern of hers was that she not belittle the faith of the characters, but rather focus on the human struggle of challenging one’s family upbringing and religious faith. Similarly dealing with small town life is John Corey Whaley’s story Where Things Come Back. He told the audience that his own upbringing in small town Louisiana was the inspiration for this coming-of-age story.
After the panel, moderator Johnson took time to praise the Austin Teen Book Festival. “There’s certainly a different energy to events like this, where there are so many teens, which is great," he told PW. Johnson also noted that Austin itself has a vibrant YA writing scene: “There’s a lot of authors here at a lot of different stages in their careers. What’s so great is that everyone is supportive of each other, whether you’re a newbie just getting into writing for teens and young adults, or you’ve been publishing for ten years.”
Another popular panel, "Pen Fatale." featured all-female speakers. Margo Rabb, author of Cures for Heartbreak, moderated the group, which consisted of Gabrielle Zevin, Alyson Noël, Mary Pearson, and Jessica Brody. Rather than focusing on individual novels, this panel centered on each author’s approach to writing stories and their place in the publishing scene. Noël, author of the Immortals series, joked that it took her 15 years to write her first novel because she “didn’t have a process.” But because she was given a two-book deal, she knew the publishing company was unlikely to give her another 15 years, so she came up with a method. She explained that she plows through the first draft of the story, limiting her revision until the draft is read by her first reader (her husband) and turned in to her agent. Then she begins revising. And, in fact, Noël admits that she has grown to love the revision process, because "you’re getting a trusted person’s input and you get the chance to take the book to the next level."
A young writer in the audience asked the panelists what inspired each of them to begin writing. Jessica Brody playfully answered that she wrote her first book when she was seven. "It was called The Puppy and the Kitty," she explained. "They escaped from home and got the chicken pox, so don’t ever run away from home, because you’ll get the chicken pox!" Another aspiring teen writer wanted to know, essentially, "how do you go about getting a publishing deal?" Gabrielle Zevin, author of All These Things I’ve Done, said that she believed that people "put too much thought into how they’re going to get published. You should write the story because you feel that you absolutely have to write the story. I think publishing is great, but it is not the only goal." Mary Pearson, whose latest novel is The Fox Inheritance, told attendees, "If you really, truly, want to be published, you have to develop a thick skin. You have to understand that rejection is part of this business, but if this is something you really want to do, stick with it."
Without a doubt the panel with the most attendees (and costumes) was the "Alternaworlds" session. Moderated by Rosemary Clement-Moore, author of Texas Gothic, the session featured Scott Westerfeld, along with Brian Yansky, Jonathan Maberry and Maureen Johnson. More than half of the panel time was devoted to questions from the audience (the question "what’s your favorite book?" was asked, in one form or another, four separate times). The most intriguing question of the session, submitted by a teenage boy dressed in steampunk style (green face paint, goggles and torn military-inflected clothes) seemed, on the surface, to be something of a throwaway. He asked, "How do you make alternative worlds not stupid? How do you avoid the ‘cheese factor’?" Brian Yansky, author of Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences,told the audience that the key is to "look at what happens every day. You have to make the ordinary believable and go from there."
One audience member asked about the threat of e-books on the future of the publishing industry. Scott Westerfeld likened the print edition of a book to going to see a movie in the theatre. “You can watch a movie in a billion different ways: you can watch it on your TV, you can download it on your iPad, you can watch it in a plane. But if you really like something, you go see it in a theatre. It becomes a physical event. I think physical books will be something like that. The books that you really like will be like going to a movie theatre.”
One of the more endearing moments of the entire festival came toward the end of the Alternaworlds panel, when a trio of girls stepped up to the microphone to ask , "Can we have a hug from Maureen Johnson?" Johnson, author of this fall’s The Name of The Star, was happy to oblige, and the trio posed for a photo with her before leaving the stage elated.
A mega-book signing with all of the day’s authors concluded the festival. Shelby Counts, a librarian at Burnet Middle School in Austin, was in line for about an hour waiting to get a Heather Brewer book signed for her library collection. She brought ten students who were all in line getting their books signed, too. Counts said she was encouraged with the enthusiasm of the attendees. "The kids who come to something like this, even if they’re not familiar with some of the authors, learn about those authors and those books. Then when they go up and get their books signed, it’s almost like they’re seeing a rock star. It’s life changing. And they keep their books forever." Counts said that she reads the YA books along with her students. "Young adult literature has reached a point where it’s very high quality, it’s very well written and I think I enjoy it as much as adult fiction. I like reading along with them, seeing what they’re into, and being able to recommend books to them."
The Austin Teen Book Festival was offered as a free event open to the public thanks to the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation. Local bookseller BookPeople was the exclusive retailer on site. Preliminary estimates have sales at about 2,000 books and approximately $30,000. But for 16 year-old New York resident, Jordan Brooks – whose mother gave her permission to drive down to this festival if she earned enough money for gas and lodging – it was impossible to put a price tag on the experience. After waiting in line to get her copy of My Life Undecided signed by Jessica Brody, Brooks was asked if it was all worth it. "Without a doubt," she giddily answered, with an ear-to-ear grin.