Over Labor Day weekend, the eighth annual AJC Decatur Book Festival offered 140 events, 18 stages, more than 500 adult and children’s authors, and more children’s programing and panels than ever before. Among the authors in attendance were Susan Cooper, Jerry Pinkney, Adam Rex, Francesca Lia Block, Tom Angleberger, and Betsy Lewin. This year the festival added a Family, Education, and Parenting track, with panels like Common Core Can Be Cool, where Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Homework, Dial) and Kirby Larson (Hattie Ever After, Delacorte) discussed the relevance of historical fiction in the changing classroom. “History is gossip that happened yesterday,” Choldenko told the audience. She and Larson agreed on the importance of balancing facts with an engaging voice, finding facts that will surprise the audience, and staying away from writing chapters that sound too “text-bookish.”
Saturday morning’s packed outdoor panel, Sci Fi Thrills and Chills, featured Rick Yancey (The 5th Wave, Putnam) and D.J. MacHale (SYLO, Razorbill). Kids chosen from the Galley Club program at Little Shop of Stories in Decatur introduced the authors to the 150-person audience. MacHale shared his love of writing drama and adventure for kids before reading from his new book, the first book in an end-of-the-world conspiracy trilogy. After his reading, Yancey was quick to ask, “What is it about young adult fiction today? It’s so dark!” before noting that one of the best parts of his job is getting to think like a diabolical alien. After the discussion, fans lined up to get their books, purchased from the Little Shop of Stories tent, signed. “It was my first visit to the festival and I was very impressed with the turnout and the enthusiasm of young people for books,” Yancey told PW. “It’s very gratifying for an author when his passion for writing is matched by a fan’s passion for reading.”
It was hard to tell who was more excited to be part of the festival, the authors or the readers. During the Time Travel panel on the teen stage Saturday, Myra McEntire (Infinityglass, Egmont) and Michelle Hodkin (The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, Simon & Schuster) gave in to fan pressure and rapped a few verses of Salt-n-Pepa’s “None of Your Business” after sharing with the audience their plans to do a public rap performance one day. On Sunday during the Fierce Reads panel, a fan summoned Leigh Bardugo (Siege and Storm, Holt) to make good on a Twitter promise and dance for the crowd. Bardugo called the girl up front, agreeing to dance only if she’d join her. “When that reader called me out on my promise to happy dance, part of me said, ‘Oh no, do not do this. Have a little dignity!’ Luckily, that part of me lost out to, ‘Let’s do this thing.’ Dignity is highly overrated,” Bardugo said afterward.
Joining her on the panel were Gennifer Albin (Altered, FSG), Anna Banks (Of Triton, Feiwel and Friends), and Marie Rutkoski (The Shadow Society, FSG), who admitted that she’d “fangirled a little bit” when she met Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper at the festival. The authors discussed their story inspirations, what they find most challenging and most rewarding about writing, their work routines, and why they became authors. Albin, who was a stay-at-home mom before her writing career, said that when she started writing and connecting with people it changed her life: “I stopped feeling invisible and found my voice.” All of the authors offered encouraging words for aspiring writers, and reminded the audience not to worry about mistakes, but to just finish the first draft.”
As an afternoon rainstorm trickled to a drizzle, Terra Elan McVoy (Criminal, Simon Pulse), Caprice Crane (Confessions of a Hater, Feiwel and Friends), and Sara Shepard (Pretty Little Liars series, HarperTeen) took the outdoor stage for the When Good Girls Go Bad panel. Exploring everything from stereotypes and sexism to which bad girls from their own novels they’d like to “punch in the face,” the panelists and their audience of some 125 readers refused to let a little rain spoil the fun. “With an outdoor venue, there is always the risk of rain,” said McVoy, a previous DBF program director and a bookseller at Little Shop of Stories. “However, we have a lot of fast-acting people in place to help us deal with that, and ultimately, the show must go on. There’s nothing like cozying up with a book on a rainy day, so why would we let a little rain shut down a book festival?”
The Blogger Panel featuring Leigh Bardugo, Lauren Morrill (Meant to Be, Delacorte), and David Levithan (Two Boys Kissing, Knopf), moderated by two local bloggers, wrapped up the weekend’s activities. Topics included everything from finding balance on social media to the future of YA. The main “do” of blogging was simple: be respectful. The main “don’t” was unanimous: never engage in an argument with reviewers who give you a negative review. “And don’t send the author your mean review,” Bardugo advised bloggers, as she shared her experience of receiving negative reviews via Twitter. The Goodreads format, and frustration with the ratings system, was a hot topic among panelists. Levithan noted it might be time for the reemergence of an Oprah-style book club. “Ultimately, you want people you trust to make the recommendation.” All of the panelists said they choose most of the books they read from referrals of friends or trusted outlets like NPR. When it comes to using social media, Bardugo and Morrill are active users of Twitter and Tumblr, while Levithan is less involved. “The only way to have a career,” he said, “is to write satisfying books – not have a satisfying Twitter.”
Debut author Sara Farizan (If You Could Be Mine, Algonquin Young Readers) summed up the DBF experience when she told PW, "I felt very loved and comfortable, and met many wonderful readers, authors, and volunteers. The festival has given me a lot of good memories and I hope to come back again." Next year's dates: August 29 to August 31, 2014.