YA Lit Conference and Why YA Matters

This weekend, I got to meet the likes of Ellen Hopkins and Libba Bray, listen to the stories behind the stories of James Owen and Gennier Choldenko, and share lunch and stories with Michelle Zink. The main theme? How YA literature is really the best written material being published these days, how the writing process works, and why book banners are not only bad but that they seem to be increasing in numbers and in anger.

Perhaps it was best stated that the reason so many teens and adults love ya material now is because it’s a fiction of growth and of choice and of change — something we all, regardless of age, always go through. Sure, we aren’t picking out a college when we’re in our 20s, but we can always be making similar life course choices, so we know exactly what that character is going through. We relate to the situations and issues, and age isn’t the determining factor.

To open the event, Judy Blundell and Ellen Hopkins gave thirty minute talks. Judy discussed going from a writer for hire to a National Book Award winner, while Hopkins gave a very moving and provoking speech about those in Norman, Oklahoma who banned her from giving a talk. She then read her Manifesto, written for this year’s Banned Books Week, and she read these incredible letters from readers who were moved by her work.

After the morning talks, we all could choose two of six panels to attend. I went to a panel about local authors that included Cynthea Liu, Claire Zulkey, Susan Fine, and David Kraus. Cynthea made me pumped to finally check out the Students of the Seven Seas series and I was so excited to see Claire since I was reading her book at that moment (more on that in a minute). Susan’s book really excites me, too, as it sounds like such a fantastic book group book. It sounds like a very contemporary Chocolate War. And finally, David’s current book not only excited me, but his talks about a huge book he just submitted sounds like it’s going to be a hit — it’s about modern grave robbers.

Honestly, I should have chosen another session for the next panel; I attended one on new and upcoming books. I chose it over another panel, and I felt like I got nothing out of that one. Alas!

After that panel, we got to get books signed and eat lunch. It was then I met and had my photo taken with Ellen Hopkins:

And sitting next to Ellen was Claire Zulkey. As I mentioned, I bought her book for our library and was reading it — it’s a cute story and one that covers a very interesting topic (that of choosing NOT to attend college right after high school). Her talk during the panel was interesting because I learned about another local author to read about. But, I went up to her and asked if she’d sign the library’s book to the kids. Not only did she do that, but she said it was her first library book. Woo hoo!

Immediately after lunch, James Owen talked about his work as an author/illustrator. He reminded me of those speakers you do listen to in high school and junior high, filled with wisdom and insight. I loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about what a great speaker he’d be, especially for boys.

We had the opportunity for two more break out sessions, and for the first one, I listened to a panel of fantasy writers, including Michelle Zink, James Owen, Kaza Kingsley, and Libba Bray. I don’t know a lot about the genre nor have I read quite enough, but there was a fascinating discussion of female fantasy readers and female-aimed books. Earlier during lunch, Michelle had been talking with my table mates and I about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and the role of Bella — that she’s an empty vessel for Edward to be a main role, rather than being a main role herself. Needless to say, they were in agreement that the fantasy coming out now really features enviable, strong, empowered females. And most importantly, it is read and enjoyed — Twilight was really an important gateway for these readers who seek stronger, more literary pieces, too.

My final panel session of the day was on contemporary fiction, featuring Jill Wolfson, Ellen Hopkins, and Lisa Yee. Julia Keller was going to come too, but had to pull out for family reasons at the last minute (keep your eye here for a review of her book very soon, btw!). Perhaps what was most interesting about this panel, aside from accumulating a huge to-read list, was that almost all of the panelists came from journalism backgrounds. I think it shows in their writing and in the topics they tackle — talk about contemporary! I’m very excited to read their titles. If Lisa Yee doesn’t sound familiar, you might know her better as the brains behind the “Pass the old El Paso” slogan.

Finally, the day wrapped up with talks by Gennifer and Libba. Gennifer talked about Alcatraz and writing her book, Al Capone Does My Shirts. I didn’t know how much her book was steeped in reality, so it made my love for it just a little bit stronger. She was very funny and the photos and research she did for the books were right up my alley. Libba’s talk centered on her strange brain (her words, not mine!). She was hysterical but powerful. Right after, I ran up to her and got her to sign my copy of Going Bovine.

All of this is to say that YA will be here a while, and I think it’s going to continue being the most popular area writers want to publish in. The readers aren’t just teenagers; adults continue to be a big market because the writing and the topics are so good and relatable. Perhaps more importantly, we’re going to keep hearing about challenges and struggles from audiences seeking to protect teens from reality in these books — and by trying to do so, limit everyone’s access to such powerful writers and stories. We need to keep fighting and keep promoting, as it will only expand the believers. And we need to keep supporting these authors who care SO MUCH about their readers. The love and utter respect and understanding they have for teenagers is what those teenagers need in their lives and what so many may not have.

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