Friday night after work, I drove down to Naperville to meet up with Abby (the) Librarian. After the longest drive on earth, I arrived to Abby relaxing in the hotel room with a little Kiersten White Paranormalcy. We hit up some dinner and then proceeded to discuss, all night, the finer points of blogging and of young adult lit. Two bloggers and readers are never wont for something good to talk about.
Saturday morning, we head to the conference hotel early to scope out the on-site book store Anderson’s set up. When we registered, we picked up a ton of posters (to be used in my teen area) and we got a few final copies of books, including Fablehaven and the first book in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series. Oh, an an ARC each of Nightshade by Andrea Cremer and an ARC of a March 2011 title, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. That one’s got a blurb by both Laurie Halse Anderson and Susan Bartoletti and it’s a WWII historical fiction. Looks interesting. While we perused the books, we ran into another book blogger, DJ. I can’t find the link to his blog, but I gave him my card and hopefully he’ll comment and let me know his address so I can post it! (ETA: Check out DJ’s blog here!).
We grabbed seats at one of the round tables inside the Ballroom. Last year, we were able to see who was sitting at our table with us, but this year, it would be a surprise. We were gunning for a few people to sit with us, and we were given a total surprise and someone we hadn’t heard of: Antony John. He didn’t get to stick around long since his chair got hijacked by another attendee shortly after, but he was a hoot to have at the table. We chatted with him for a little while, and he was so excited to be surrounded by librarians, saying hat he couldn’t live without libraries. His book, The Five Flavors of Dumb, isn’t out yet, and we were among the first to see the finished copies. We had a great conversation about cover art, and John told the story about how the cover he got (pictured at left) was the first one his cover designer sent him. I think it’s fantastic and has real teen appeal; he said he couldn’t have been any happier. It was like winning the lottery. Keep an eye on this guy; I think he’s going to be going places.
Our first two keynote speakers were Blue Balliett and Pam Munoz Ryan. Both talked about their writing processes and how they are inspired to write. Balliett focused on her latest, The Danger Box, and said it was set in a small town called Three Oaks, where she spent a few days wandering and really learning in order to create the most realistic setting. She said when the book came out, since the town doesn’t have a book store, they were selling it in the butcher shop because the townspeople were so excited their town was “famous” now. Ryan’s talk focused a little more on her personal life, but she did talk a lot about the inspiration behind her latest (and baby of many a Mock Newbery list), The Dreamer. I did not know it was about Pablo Neruda, and that story made me a little more interested in reading this one. Those who’ve seen or read the book know it’s printed entirely in green ink; she said this was because in her research, she learned Neruda only wrote his poetry in green pen because he believed it symbolized hope. Very cool!
We had one more keynote before some break out sessions, and it was Kenneth Oppel. His first comments went something like this: “Some reviews have been calling Half Brother a departure and that’s really got me confused. Four of my books are about talking animals, and this one is about an animal that talks. It’s just coming full circle.” If that doesn’t give a flavor for how his talk went, I don’t think I can capture it better. He was energetic and very funny, discussing his thought process for writing Half Brother. He said he was thinking about experiments at universities where psychologists have tried to train chimps to sign, and he thought he’d like to write a novel in only the words one of the chimps learned. Then he realized that 251 words wouldn’t make the best novel ever, and he decided he’d instead use that idea to write a story about love and family. He shared video of his visit to a facility for ages chimps who were no longer useful for experiments, too, talking about how the chimps were angry another male was there during feeding time. I noted on my sheet that he’s a fantastic reader; he read a few passages of his book aloud for us, and it just worked. He captured the voice, I think, of his main character quite well.
After Oppel’s talk were the first two break out sessions. I first attended the Contemporary Edge session, featuring the authors of these fine books:
That’s John Green, David Levithan, Siobhan Vivian, Dana Reinhardt, and Charles Benoit. I was a little frustrated at the beginning of this panel, simply because it became the David and John show (naturally) but they did a better job later on giving the mic over to the other writers. It was interesting to hear they talk about the inspirations for their stories: for Siobhan, it was a conversation with a student class president who was disgusted with what she thought were slutty freshmen girls at her school; for Benoit, it was by total chance he even ended up in the YA genre (he’s an adult mystery writer) and said he didn’t have a lot of experience with the genre and is glad he didn’t (or he’d be totally intimidated by the level of talent that exists); and Reinhardt talked about how she is inspired by the way teens can compartmentalize their experiences and that’s what she loves about the contemporary genre.
They all talked a bit about their writing processes, and then they shared who it is they write for — as in, what audience they have in their mind’s eye when writing. Benoit said he writes for his nephew who doesn’t love to read; Reinhardt says it’s always a challenge since she DOESN’T want to do that, and she doesn’t want to hear the voice of her editor in her heard; Vivian said she writes for a bookseller in California who posted a photo of her first book, A Little Friendly Advice, and said it was her favorite book ever; Green said he writes for his wife and for a girl he knew in high school; and Levithan said he’s able to turn off that consciousness when he’s writing and just go. I loved this question and I loved their answers.
When that panel ended, I headed upstairs to my next panel. In the line, I met Sarah of The Hiding Spot and her friend, the 2011 debut author Courtney Moulton of AngelFire. Oh, then I ran into Siobhan in the elevator. It was a fun way to spend a few dead minutes, of course.
My next panel was a tough choice, but I ended up going to one called “You’re Never Too Young,” featuring Kody Keplinger and Alex Adornetto, ages 19 and 17 respectively. The two of them together was really sweet: they were chatting up the whole thing before the panel officially stated, and when it did start, they were full of jitters and nerves. I loved that — it felt really authentic and made the panel really fun, I think. They talked about how they gave up a lot of their social lives in order to be writers, but neither really regrets it because they love to write so much. The best part of this panel was listening to Adornetto; she is easily the most polished speaking 17-year-old I’ve ever heard, and she has a fantastic Austrailian accent. If you didn’t know, though, she narrates Halo’s audiobook version, and one of the attendees asked her to give us a sample of her reading. Adornetto is able to put on an authentic American accent, and her reading the story was fantastic. She said it took 74 hours to read and narrate the story, and my only comment about her reading ability was “holy cow.” I was extremely impressed. She also shared that there were a lot of changes with the book made its American (vs. Austrailian) debut, including location and terminology changes. What was “going to formal” in the Austrailian edition became “going to prom” in the American.
Keplinger talked a bit about what older writers do that doesn’t feel quite authentic in YA fiction. She mentioned that if ever there was the perfect book for teens, it is Laurie Halse Anderson’s classic Speak. The dialog still stands and the story is spot on perfect, even ten years later. She mentioned that there are times when books written by adults for teens either portray the 17-year-old as too rational or too irrational, and she says that sometimes the dialog and phraseology can feel inauthentic. Oh, and she shared that writing for her professors (she’s a writing major in college) is actually harder than writing for her editor because she is a total commercial writer at heart. I think this was my favorite panel to go to all day.
After that panel, I dropped into the book store and picked up a few books to purchase, including:
And then I headed to some signings. The lines were a little insane for some authors (can you guess who?) but I did go talk to Antony John and then stalked down Siobhan Vivian, who I had earlier bumped into in the elevator. She’s going to be interviewed here in November, and I was able to get a few prizes for our readers (and one for myself). I also got a nice little photo with her:
Our lunch left a little to be desired, except for the incredible keynote by what might be my favorite speaker now: Charles Benoit. You know him from You. He talked about deciding to write because he was tired of reading Clive Cussler and wanted to bring something new to the genre. But to dive into the weighty issues of the value of reading and reading whatever you want to, he shared a few stories about his mother. She was a smoker and a story teller, and they used to share story telling all the time through a box full of photographs. She’d pull one out and tell stories about the people were and what they were doing. When Charles was old enough to read and appreciate stories being read to him, his mom would read him stories from the newspaper. As he aged, he asked his mother why she always read the paper to him and as he was prodding her a bit, he learned that she actually couldn’t see. They’d grown up so poor that his mother couldn’t afford to buy glasses for herself, but she told him it was so important for him and his siblings to see their mother reading, that she did it to be a good model. Could there be a more heart warming story?
After Charles spoke, we had 2 more sets of break out sessions. The first one I went to was about supernatural fiction. It’s not my favorite genre, but I wanted to learn more. Panelists included Kiersten White of Paranormalcy, Claudia Grey of the Evernight series, Sophie Jordan of Firelight, and Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie of a number of paranormal series titles. I’m glad I went. Perhaps the best question the panel was asked was how they stand out in a crowded market and make sure their titles aren’t lost in the shuffle. White suggested it’s important to do something different (and she did by throwing EVERYTHING into the mix and making it humorous), Gray suggested that if you’re doing something well and telling a good story, then there is always room. Jordan said take a few chances and you’ll be fine, and the Viguie/Holder duo said they think they write differently in writing “epic dark fantasies.” It was interesting, too, to hear them talk about their research in lore in order to prep their stories. They use tales from every culture, and in a sense, they all agreed that part of the fun of this genre is being able to just make it up as you go and do your own thing.
And the last panel I went to was another favorite: “In My ‘Hood.” They offered this panel last year, and it’s a feature of the authors in the local area. This year’s panel included Stephanie Hemphill of Wicked Girls, Stacy Kade of The Ghost and the Goth, James Klise of Love Drugged, and Simone Elkeles of Perfect Chemistry, et al. Although all of the panelists were excellent on this one, Elkeles really was a riot and offered a lot of insight. Criticism I’ve had of her books — their lacking in some plot elements and character development — are actually the crux of her writing. She wasn’t a big reader when she was growing up, so she decided she wanted to write books people like her would like. She wants action and not description….and let’s be honest: that’s what a lot of teen readers LOVE. Plus, let’s not knock the steam factor here.
All of the panelists also talked a lot about their covers. Hemphill said contractually, she can have as much say as she wants in her cover, but she loved the one she got for Wicked Girls. The only comment she made was in regards to the color font for the title, which was changed from a light blue to the green it is. Kade said she actually got models for her covers; since it’s a trilogy she’s writing, she got the same people for all three. Klise liked his cover because it will appeal to teens who think the book will be about drugs (it’s not). And Elkeles offered what I thought was a great discussion — she said she’s not a fan of her white covers for the “How to Ruin” series (and unfortunately, I didn’t get to ask her about the repackage!) but she LOVES the cover for Perfect Chemistry since it featured a “hot Latino” on it. She isn’t a fan of stock photos and has been begging for models, but she keeps getting stock photos — and in the case of Rules of Attraction, she was ASKED to write in a scene where the couple kisses in the rain in their cars. She called this a “too dumb to live” moment, but she did it anyway.
The last thing I wanted to bring up about this discussion was that the cover issue with Justine Larbalestier’s Liar emerged, and all of the authors weighed in a bit about people of color on covers. Part of why Elkeles’s cover works so well is that it DOES feature an ethnic character prominently on a cover, and Klise said that when he does see a cover with a person of color on it, he WANTS to buy the book because it catches his attention. Something to think about, publishers. Perhaps people AREN’T as concerned about covers as once believed.
After that panel, there were 2 more keynotes, which I’m sure Abby will talk about. I chose to head out of the conference early to head home since it was my birthday. I knew I had a low back tire and a 2 hour drive ahead of me, so I was going to stop for air in the tire. Unfortunately, my tire didn’t make it to the gas station 2 blocks away, and some guy was kind enough to bring my hub cap to me at the gas station . . . and another guy was kind enough to change my tire for me (and don’t worry — I paid for him to fill up his pick up truck). Leaving early was a good decision!
Overall, this was once again a fantastic event, and I encourage anyone who is in the area to attend. It’s really put the spark back into my wanting to write and engage with other authors who serve the same readers I serve in the library.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).