Next week, the YA lit crowd will take center stage across New York City. From Monday, March 18 through Sunday, March 24, the fifth annual NYC Teen Author Festival is taking place at six public venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, free of charge, and at eight middle and high schools across the five boroughs for a one-day event called the NYC Big Read. More than 90 authors have signed on to read aloud, participate in panel discussions, autograph books, and generally put on a good show.
The seeds of the NYC Teen Author Festival were planted almost by accident 10 years ago when David Levithan, Sarah Mlynowski, and Daniel Ehrenhaft were attending a conference outside of New York. “We always see each other at these [out of town] conferences but we live in New York,” Levithan remembers one of the group saying. “Why don’t we see each other in New York?” So they started a drinks night, and then a monthly reading night, still held on the first Wednesday of every month at the Jefferson Market Library in the West Village. At one of the library events, the idea of a full-on festival was proposed. Levithan’s response? “How hard can that be?”
Turns out, pretty hard. Well, sort of. Since the festival’s inception, Levithan has done most of the brainstorming and scheduling with Christopher Shoemaker of the New York Public Library. Because most of the authors are local, there isn’t the added stress associated with booking hotel rooms, hiring car services, or printing out bus or subway maps. Plus, because the list of attendees volunteered themselves, there’s no pitching involved or out-of-state organizers vying for slots.
Nonetheless, there were a few hiccups that first year, Levithan remembers. “I think all of us were unprepared for the sheer chaos of so many authors at the mega-signing at Books of Wonder,” he says. “I don’t think we had shifts then. We didn’t even have lines. It was pretty chaotic. Good-natured chaos... but definitely chaotic.”
Over the years, the festival’s growing pains have subsided, and this year’s line-up is firmly in place. The inaugural event kicks off Monday evening at the Mulberry Street branch of the NYPL. Called “I’ll Take You There: A Change of Scenery, A Change of Self,” the panel discussion, moderated by Levithan, will address how new environments can usher in new versions of self, and how that tension plays out in the participants’ books. Panelists are Gayle Forman (Just One Day), Kristen-Paige Madonia (Fingerprints of You), Bennett Madison (September Girls), Jennifer E. Smith (This Is What Happy Looks Like), and Melissa Walker (Unbreak My Heart).
Other events include a Tuesday night panel at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn, “The Only Way Out Is Through: Engaging Truth Through YA,” in which authors will explore how pain, mistakes, and the process of recovery are represented in their work; an event called “He Said, She Said,” which takes place during Friday’s symposium at the 42 Street NYPL, the details of which Levithan’s keeping under wraps; and one he’s particularly excited about, “Imagination,” with Holly Black (Doll Bones), Lev Grossman (The Magician King), Michelle Hodkin (the Mara Dyer trilogy), Alaya Dawn Johnson (The Summer Prince), and Robin Wasserman (The Book of Blood and Shadow). “All of the authors on that panel are such imaginative people,” Levithan says. “I’ve been in a private context with them, talking about world building and [the process of] harnessing what’s in their mind and getting it onto the page. I think it’s going to be really interesting to get them talking about it in public.”
Levithan also has high hopes for the annual Reader’s Theater, to be held on Friday night at the Barnes & Noble Union Square, where authors in attendance will act out each other’s books instead of doing a standard reading. There’s always a lot of laughter – and one or two surprises. Two years ago, the YA author band Tiger Beat made a cameo appearance. At the time, the employees were a bit confused by the noise and mayhem. But once they saw how much fun everyone was having, they were all for it. Now whatever happens, Levithan says, they don’t bat an eyelash.
Then, of course, there’s the “No Foolin’ Mega-Signing” at Books of Wonder, closing out the festival on Sunday. With nearly 50 authors – 12 to 15 signing at a time – spread out over four time slots in a mere three hours, “mega” may be an understatement. Does Levithan envision a room full of fans, authors, and general pandemonium? “Thankfully, the people at Books of Wonder have gotten it down to a science,” he says. “Everybody leaves with big bags of books. It’s amazing.”
As with any festival, a lot of time and energy goes into planning this one, which is a labor of love independent of its organizers’ day jobs – Shoemaker is a young adult programming specialist at the NYPL, and Levithan is a prolific author as well as v-p, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic. But Levithan insists it’s worth every frenzied moment of preparation. “I enjoy talking to other writers about writing so much,” Levithan says. “In the four years so far, I don’t think we’ve had a [reading] or panel where I haven’t learned something, either by moderating it or being in the audience.” And the hope, of course, is for attendees to come away from the fest with the same feeling.
For the complete festival schedule, click here.