YAK Fest 2016

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I never met an author until I became one. That’s a strange concept, but one that I believe a fair number of authors my age and older–particularly those writing YA Lit–have experienced. But when I was a teen, there weren’t conventions like this past weekend’s YAK Fest pictured above. The Perks of Being a Wallflower didn’t exist, nor 33 Snowfish. Two books whose authors, Stephen Chbosky and Adam Rapp, respectively, either of whom I would have given my right arm to see. But I read them when I was in college, and still, there were no teen conventions I was aware of.

There’s a great importance in teens having the opportunity to have something like YAK Fest, or locally for me, Teen Reader Con. So many teens who are not athletes or musicians or thespians, will slog through high school without experiencing the joy of a community, of shared experiences over the things in which they love. And in this case, those things are books. When I present on Press Play, this is a topic I touch on. I ask the teen audience to raise their hands if they attended a pep rally for their fall sports teams. Every hand in the room goes up. I then ask them to do the same for the pep rally that was held for the honor students, or the book nerds 🙂 There are no hands for that because there is no pomp and circumstance for teens who like to use their minds and who like to read. Sure, there are academic decathlons and locally, Engineering competitions and Odyssey of the Mind. But I’m talking about events where all you have to do is be part of the team and people cheer for you.

Teen Book conventions fill this void, and that was driven home so distinctly at YAK Fest. That crowd in the picture above is comprised of kids who care about books. Deeply. Sure, some were athletes and musicians and thespians, but on this day, they were book lovers. And aside from them, there were straight up book lovers. And there were librarians and teachers and adults who like YA. There was community. They came to be a part of a moment and I think they got a fantastic one.

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The Contemporary, realistic panel. I have no clue what goofy thing I’m saying in this picture.

I was fortunate enough to be on a panel with authors who are writing stories that pull no punches and discuss teen life in frank and sometimes disturbing ways (from left to right: Meredith Moore, Kelsey Macke, S. E. Green, Julie Murphy, me, and moderator and librarian Rae Cheney).  The conversations we had truly underscored the need for teens to be immersed in the arts. They asked fantastic questions about why we write what we do, what we think about various topics in YA, and especially about the writing process. I still feel as if I’m finding my way through how to write, but I know that these teens gained phenomenal insight listening to our panel discuss how one goes about this writing thing. Again, to be a teen now, interested in books and writing, and to have this kind of access; how awesome.

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One other phenomenal aspect about Book conventions for teens is the underlying message. So much of YA is about struggling through to find out who you are as a person and not allowing someone else to define you–an important message for adults, too. And often, the message isn’t so subtle, as when Julie Murphy gave her keynote speech about inspirational posters. See below:

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As adorable and as super scientific as the slide show was, Julie’s own inspirational poster was the message that resonated with the teens: The Fat Girl Gets the Guy. Like I said, us contemporary, realistic authors don’t hold back. Julie is a self-proclaimed fat girl from Texas who loves Dolly Parton. And her message to the teens was to replace “Fat Girl” with whatever thing in their lives made them feel alone, and replace “the Guy” with whatever goal they desire for themselves. Boom. Instant, create your own inspiration. And inspired they were. I was fortunate enough to share a signing table with Julie at the end of the convention, and teen after teen came up and hugged her and thanked her for her message. Some cried during her speech, some after, with her. There is no more justification needed for why events like YAK Fest should occur. The need for support and validation and respect, which some teens only find in books, and if they are lucky, a real, live author, was overwhelming.

My heartfelt thanks goes out to y’all at YAK Fest. I was glad to be a part of this moment for your community, to be able to support the teens who care so deeply about stories and writing and finding themselves. It’s nice to know that for those who pursue a path in writing, the first sentence of this post will never be true for them.

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