The fifth annual Austin Teen Book Festival drew an estimated 4,000 readers to the Austin Convention Center on Saturday, September 28. Teens, parents, teachers, librarians, aspiring authors, and adult fans from all over Texas and the U.S. milled through the exhibit hall, packed the meeting rooms, and flocked to the signing lines with fresh stacks of hardcover books purchased from local indie BookPeople, which sold more than 2,700 books at the festival (an increase of 10% over last year). The Austin Public Library-funded festival has almost doubled in size over the past few years, adding more panels and keynote speakers to the lineup, as well as a book release party for a young writers’ anthology and an improvised game show.

Maggie Stiefvater, author of popular urban fantasy series like the Shiver Trilogy and the Raven Cycle, opened the ceremonies at 9 a.m. with a keynote talk on imagination and fear. Steifvater is also an artist, musician, and car enthusiast; her first story, she revealed, began with the words, “It hugged the road.” Earlier this summer she created and scored a time-lapse video of herself spray-painting her car with a giant knife to promote the second book in the Raven Cycle, Dream Thieves, in which main character’s dreams come to life. She then allowed fans on the book tour to add to the graffiti. As she told the audience, “We’re all kind of dream thieves. We can dream a car with a knife painted on the side, and then we can manifest it. We can choose whether to manifest our dreams or our nightmares.”

It is safe to say that on a usual Saturday morning in the single-digit hours, most teenagers are off having dreams and nightmares of their own, not listening to a keynote speech about them; but the teens who crowded the auditorium didn’t look sleepy. Many of them had been up for hours, traveling to Austin in buses or cars, some with parents or teachers in tow. One large group from Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo Independent School District left their border town at 1:30 a.m., driving 300 miles to be at the festival. The 40 high-school and middle-school students in the group were highly visible, sporting neon yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “Book Nerd.”

Nora Galvan, the district library coordinator who organized the PSJA ISD trip, told PW she was thrilled to be able to bring so many kids to the festival. “The most exciting thing is for them to be able to meet so many authors,” she said. “That’s really special for them.”

The three yellow-shirted teenage girls she was standing with nodded impatiently at PW’s questions for a split second – yes, yes, excited to be here – before rushing off to join classmates gathered around The Girl of Fire and Thorns author Rae Carson, who was just stepping off the podium.

After the morning panel, the festival kicked into high gear with a showdown between the author panels Dark Days and Fierce Reads, from the HarperTeen and Macmillan Children’s Books imprints respectively. Host Topher Bradfield donned a natty suit and doled out arbitrary points, waving a light saber as the audience hissed for the “Slytherin” HarperTeen authors and roared for the Macmillan “Gryffindors.” The game quickly dissolved into lighthearted chaos as the authors produced irrelevant answers, inside jokes, and snarky comments aimed at the comically exasperated host; at the end of the first round, Fierce Reads had 15 points while Dark Days had “purple.”

In a lightning round where contestants described images on a giant projection screen to their teammates, Pictionary-style, the Dark Days team proved clueless on Cthulhu and Adventure Time, but nailed Taylor Swift (“Really pretty blond woman with big eyes”), Princess Leia (“She wears a bikini next to a big sand monster”), and anything Dr. Who-related. Improvisational storytelling games finished out the show, and by the time Bradfield wrapped it up, the audience was too entertained to care who won.

After these antics, it was easy to see why the “Dark Days” panel room was filled to capacity. Author Mindy McGinnis (Not a Drop to Drink), who enthusiastically guessed “uni-whale!” in response to the clue “whale that looks like a unicorn,” related her love of young adult literature to her youthful personality. “As a teen, everything you react to, you react to [times] a hundred. I still do, and I always will. I’m 35, and every time I start my car I’m like, ‘I’m driving! How cool is that!’ ”

Asked by moderator Amy Tintera (Reboot) where they get ideas for their dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction, authors McGinnis, Madeline Roux, Sherry Thomas, Michelle Gagnon, and Rae Carson presented a united front of sass. Roux, author of the horror novel Asylum, described a scene of ritual animal sacrifice – “I tenderly yet firmly slit its throat, and then I bathe in its blood” – while Thomas, a romance writer who recently made her first foray into YA, The Burning Sky, quipped, “Costco sells them by bulk. Mine was actually a free sample.” Carson described the origin of her Fire and Thorns series as “break-up revenge”: “I was dating this guy, and he was a douche-nozzle, and he was obsessed with my weight in a really creepy way, like, ‘Are you sure you want to eat that? How many miles did you run today?’ I wanted to write about a character who never lost those last five pounds.” The room burst into applause and cheers.

“Teen readers are way smarter than adult readers,” Carson said, when asked why she writes YA. “They are smart, they’re intuitive, they understand subtext. Teen readers are not afraid to ask you the right questions.” And they are definitely not afraid of the word “douche-nozzle.”

By contrast, lunch speakers Sarah Dessen and Rob Thomas seemed almost staid. When moderator Lauren Myracle, whose novels are known for racy content and authentic teen slang, asked them to share their favorite swear-words, they laughed and shook their heads. Thomas and Dessen’s debut novels, Rats Saw God and That Summer respectively, first appeared in 1996, just before the Harry Potter craze hit, when few bookstores had young adult sections. Dessen has since written 11 novels; Thomas, whose novel became a cult classic and has recently been re-released by Simon and Schuster, will soon return to fiction after a long hiatus as he co-writes spinoff mystery novels about Veronica Mars, the star of his TV show and upcoming film.

The two authors bonded over the joys and challenges of fan interactions, especially when it comes to a fan’s favorite love story. Thomas said, “Right now I’m wrestling with the question of how long can Veronica and Logan survive as a couple? Do they become like Barbie and Ken? How many times can you break up and put them back together – how do you keep refreshing that story?” Dessen, whose novels typically conclude with the main characters coupled up, spoke of fan resistance to endings that don’t involve happily ever-afters. For instance, in her 2000 book Dreamland, the protagonist, Caitlin, is in a relationship that becomes abusive. “I had a girl come up to me at a signing and say, ‘Please just tell me that there’s a chance that Caitlin and Rogerson will get together again sometime.’ I was so horrified, I wanted to call a therapist right then.”

Domestic violence and other serious issues were a theme of the realistic fiction panels Thomas and Dessen participated in during the rest of the sessions. Nevertheless, in the Truth and Consequences panel, the authors testified that they did not think of their books as “issue” books. Bill Konigsberg, whose Openly Straight is about a gay teen who is sick of being perceived only through his sexual identity, spoke about the importance of character over the issues. Thomas agreed, saying that although his character Steve York is stoned through much of Rats Saw God, he did not intend to write the book as an indictment of marijuana use. Sean Beaudoin, author of Wise Young Fool, summed up what many seemed to feel: “If you came up to me when I was a teenager and said, ‘One book has a lot of issues in it, and the other has a magic rabbit,’ I’d go with the rabbit pretty much any time.”

With the festival taking place on the last day of National Banned Books Week, censorship was a hot topic, especially among authors who explicitly write about sexuality, drugs, violence, and risky teenage behavior. While Thomas joked that bans and challenges only increase book sales, Konigsberg pointed out that many books about LGBT teens never get banned because they never make it into school libraries in the first place. Jo Knowles, author of Living with Jackie Chan, won applause by saying that YA is only considered controversial because it “tells the truth,” and bemoaned the collective amnesia of parents who want to keep their kids from even reading about the kinds of experiences they had when they were young.

Besides, they all agreed that sex – or at least, romance – was a big part of being young. “A make-out session can fix almost everything for five minutes,” said Siobhan Vivian. Vivian’s Burn for Burn series, co-written with Jenny Han, takes place in a thinly veiled version of Martha’s Vineyard. During a discussion on realistic world-building, Han and Vivian recounted hanging around teens on the island, trying to scam their way into a high school party by chatting up “a cute boy.” The room exploded with laughter as Han recalled asking him if there were any “cool teen clubs” in town.

Other popular panels included Powers Strange and Perilous, and Tales of Tomorrow, which featured recent Hugo Award-winner Brandon Sanderson and other science-fiction heavy-hitters. On the dark fantasy panel Into Hearts of Darkness, panelists passed a pair of devil horns snagged from the photo booth in the green room from person to person, crowning whoever said the “darkest” thing.

Closing keynoter Holly Black was a frequent devil-horn honoree. In her speech, the author of the Curse Workers series and co-author of the Spiderwick Chronicles returned to themes of fear and the imagination. The warm, offbeat Black, whose dyed-blue topknots made her easy to pick out of the crowd all day, told stories of growing up in a creepy old Victorian mansion in New Jersey. After reading a poem she wrote about vampires in eighth grade (“Let me love you in my own way! Forgive me, let me drink you!”), Black discussed her early fears of becoming a writer, and, more recently, of entering the vampire genre with The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Casting a glance over to the other side of the hall, where hundreds of fans were already lining up in anticipation of the book signings, Black talked about a theme of the new book, acknowledging the monster within all of us. “If there was a vampire feasting on someone on the other side of this room right now, would I take a picture with my phone? Would I upload it to Instagram? Would I tint it first?” She paused. “Would I tweet it?”

Now that’s dark. The clouds rolled in, and a Texas downpour suddenly began.

All photos property of the Austin Teen Book Festival.