Close to 3,000 avid readers, many under the age of 16, filled the halls of the Palmer Events Center on Saturday, September 29 for the fourth annual Austin Teen Book Festival.
The free, all-day event featured individual speakers and six discussion panels, where fans could hear from, and engage with, the authors themselves, on topics ranging from love and loss (“What Would You Do for Love?”), and thrillers (“The Thrill of the Chase”) to fantasy fiction (“We’re Not In Kansas Anymore”).
The festivities got underway at 9:30 a.m. on a bit of a sad note, when it was announced that scheduled keynote speaker Neal Shusterman was not able to attend because his mother was seriously ill. But the tone quickly changed when Libba Bray, whose new novel, The Diviners, came out last month, hit the stage dressed in a cape, wielding a light saber. She proceeded to engage in a Star Wars-like duel before addressing the crowd. “I need a little water. It’s thirsty work spearing people with a light saber,” Bray said. “They don’t show you that in Star Wars, how dehydrated you get.”
Bray organized her speech into 20 bullet points, calling it “the complete history of everything I have ever learned to date, abridged.” She kept the audience laughing for most of the half-hour, with declarations like “number two: whatever the question is, ‘let’s get pizza’ is probably close to the right answer.” In a far more poignant moment, Bray talked about the car accident she was involved in just after graduating from high school in Dallas. “The first adult decision of my life was not whether to take English Lit or Comparative Religion,” Bray told the now silent crowd, “it was not whether to hang The Who or The Clash poster on the wall in my dorm room, it was whether or not to allow doctors to remove my eye, which I did.” She told them that the anguish she was feeling as a result of the crash led her to begin writing in a journal as an outlet. Bray credits writing with saving her life. A pair of girls in the third row turned to each other and one of them exclaimed, “I didn’t know that about her.”
Bray ended her speech with a karaoke rendition of ’80s pop song “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The crowd danced in the aisles and most of the parents in the audience sang along.
The authors and attendees then split off into genre-based discussion panels. One well-attended session was called “Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads,” which brought together authors and fans of fantasy and sci-fi. The panel was moderated by local author Greg Leitich Smith (Chronal Engine) and featured Marissa Meyer, Jeff Hirsh, Dan Krokos, and Rachel Cohn.
Cohn – co-author, along with David Levithan, of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist– said she normally writes about girls who live in New York and wear black; her new book about cloning, Beta, was an attempt to get out of her comfort zone. When asked by an audience member how she came up with her sci-fi world, Cohn admitted that she hadn’t done much research. “If I’m a good student, I will tell you that I did a lot of research on cloning and I read every book about the science behind all of these things. The real answer is, I did exactly none,” Cohn said. “I can’t get away with trying to fake something that I’m not good at, specifically science.
Others on the panel had taken a different approach. Marissa Meyer, author of Cinder, a cyborg retelling of Cinderella, said she did a lot of related research. “I read a lot of editions of Scientific American,” Meyer told the audience. She spent the majority of her time trying to figure out what scientists can do now and what they think they will be able to do in the future: “It became clear to me that my imagination is not big enough to encompass all of the things that scientists are already working on.”
After the first round of panels, most attendees took a quick walk down the street to grab a bite to eat and then filed back into the conference hall for more discussions. John Corey Whaley (Where Things Come Back), a panelist last year on the popular “Real Life is Messy” panel, returned as moderator for this year’s equally well-attended session, renamed “Real Life Happens.” He told attendees that his favorite part of the panels was audience participation, so he didn’t want to take up too much time directing the course of the discussion.
Even so, Whaley was funny and engaging, and kept the discussion light among the panelists: Jesse Andrews, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, E. M. Kokie, and Jessica Lee Anderson. He asked the authors about the challenges of writing for teens, and Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dead Girl) cited their lack of pretense. “The first two books I wrote that didn’t sell anywhere were not for teens,” Andrews explained. “They were just the most unreadable, alienating things. And then some kind, pitying person took me aside and said, ‘maybe you should write something different, maybe for teens.’ And it turned out to be the [best] thing for me as a writer, because when you write for a teenager you’re writing for a pretty demanding reader, someone whose attention and focus needs to be earned.”
After the panel concluded, PW spoke with Whaley about the difference of being on a discussion panel and moderating it. He said he’s learned over the last couple of years that the key to moderating a panel is to engage the audience members, and keep in mind what will and will not interest them. “Teenagers want to get to know authors on a personal level,” Whaley said. “A lot of these teens are aspiring writers, so if they can come see ‘hey, that’s just like me when I grow up,’ I think that can bridge the gap from dreaming about something to actually doing it.
Whaley is based in Dallas, but said Austin and its independent retailers helped his book take off. “Even before last year’s Austin Teen Book Festival, a place like BookPeople was really big about amping up a book like mine,” Whaley said. “My book was a complete underdog story.” He recalled speaking about the book early on with his publisher, who told him, “ ‘This is something we are going to need indie bookstores to fall in love with.’ And I feel like if there’s any place where something like that can happen for a writer, it’s a place like Austin.”
The festival ended with a massive book sale and signing. One young reader, Chris McLain, was in line with his mother getting ready to buy a copy of False Memory, when he spotted the book’s author, Dan Krokos, and told him how much he’d enjoyed his panel discussion. “He just happened to run into us when I was picking up the book, which was really cool,” said McLain, a big sci-fi and fantasy fan. “
Krokos, a debut novelist who’d never participated in a teen-focused festival, was just as excited to personalize the book for McLain, and is looking forward to seeing what festival attendance can do for a first-time author. “It’s an opportunity to talk to so many people that I wouldn’t have talked to if it was just me,” he said, “because there are so many superstars here that draw the crowd in.” But he sounded equal parts author and fan, and relished the opportunity to spend time with his peers. “I met Ally Condie, a superstar, and got to do karaoke with her last night. It’s really weird to have these images of people in your head and then to see that, oh, you’re just a person. ”
The Austin Teen Book Festival was free and open to the public thanks to the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation. Local bookseller BookPeople was the exclusive retailer on site. This year, the festival expanded to allow exhibitors from local cultural organizations the chance to give teens information on how to get involved in the Austin community.
Attendee Chris McLain said he feels like this festival, unlike other book festivals in town, is just for kids like him. “At other events there’s maybe one or two things that I’m interested in. But this is specifically for my age group, so it’s more interesting.”