Whenever I sit down and think about events like ALA, my mind always organizes things into themes. If I had to think of a theme or two to describe my experience this year at ALA, it would probably be anxiety then relief. Those are two pretty lame things to read about, right? But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what made this ALA so different — and maybe more rewarding — than the others I’ve been to, and I think it’s this: I worked like crazy. That is probably the most enticing way to sell the rest of this post, isn’t it?
On Thursday, I took a late morning flight out to Anaheim, which was in and of itself an adventure. I enjoyed a cup of gelato at 8:30 in the morning before getting to stretch out a bit on the first leg of the flight. As soon as I landed in Denver a few minutes later after knowing I had a 20 minute layover, I had to book it across the airport to make my connection. I did — but just barely. Alas, when I got to Los Angeles, I waited a long time for my luggage, then hopped the shuttle for a TWO HOUR shuttle ride from the airport to Anaheim. That was half the length of my flight from Milwaukee to Los Angeles.
I got to my hotel and pretty much was done at that point. Jackie and Rachel showed up a couple hours later and Jackie and I worked a little bit on our presentation for Sunday. Oh, we also ordered this insanely large salami pizza for $16. It was pretty much one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever had.
Friday, I got up early (because California time is 2 hours different from where I am, it actually felt a lot like sleeping in). We worked a bit on our presentation then headed over to the convention center to pick up our badges and registration information. So here’s the thing: I really dislike Anaheim a lot. I’ve done a convention here before and felt the same way — it’s incredibly spread out if you’re not at one of the hotels right near the convention center. We were quite a way from the convention center, so trips down there had to be well-planned in order to catch the shuttle or walk.
After grabbing our badges, we came back to the room and worked a bit more on our presentation until Sarah came over. She and I have never been able to spend time just the two of us at a convention, so we made it a high priority this time. We grabbed lunch at an Italian place and had a great conversation about books, authors we love, and about how hard it is for her to be unable to talk about anything she’s read this year, since she’s on the Printz committee. It was really nice to catch up since we never get the chance to.
I got back to the hotel room and worked some more on the presentation (this is why I have almost no photos because they’d be of nothing but me sitting at a table in my hotel room weeping right onto my keyboard) before heading to the exhibit hall for opening night. I had the chance to meet up with Kellie at that point. Kellie was on the Cybils with me this last year, and I think she was one of the most enjoyable people to spend time with.
The exhibits were really too much for me to handle on opening night. A bunch of us had made plans to wander them for an hour before going out to dinner, but I was so underwhelmed by behavior and overwhelmed by the mob action that I snuck out after about 15 minutes. I picked up a grand total of 6 books.
A bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards, where I ordered a $7 hotdog. I know. But it was actually really tasty and it was on a really nice bun, so it was worth the cost. The company was pretty nice, too.
Kellie and I grabbed a cab after dinner and made our way to the first official event: the Little Brown dance party at the House of Blues. The theme was the 1920s, based on Libba Bray’s forthcoming The Diviners and she was, of course, the guest of honor. But the twist of the party was that the music was music from the 80s. We all dressed up like we were from the 20s but rocked it many-decades-later style. I was finally able to run into Liz, who I hadn’t seen yet once at the conference. We danced the entire night away, in between being thoroughly entertained by Libba Bray’s antics on the dance floor (she shut the place down in more ways than one). The folks at Little Brown always throw fantastic parties, and this one was no exception to that.
I mentioned thinking about things in themes, and I think the theme of anxiety and stress was most apparent on Saturday. I don’t tend to get worked up about things a lot; I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “Type B” person, but I very much go with the flow. I prefer to sort of wing presentations and making plans because I like to allow alternative avenues. That said, I stress out immensely about little things and when I feel like my attitude impacts other people’s stress levels.
When I got up, I went down to the exhibits for a bit, but because I was so overwhelmed, I only stuck around for half an hour. It was nice to get a chance to talk to a couple of the publishing reps I had been hoping to connect with but I was so stressed about finishing the presentation, I didn’t have the energy to put into staying longer. Jackie and I worked for a couple of hours — wherein I dealt with internet that wouldn’t work at all and required two phone calls the the hotel front desk and two more to the company providing the hotel’s internet — before we got ready to meet Melissa Wiley for lunch. But just as we were getting ready to go, I looked at the time — a bit after noon — and realized that getting to the convention center would take at least 15 minutes and my committee meeting, which started at 1 pm, was 15 minutes in the opposite direction of the convention center. There was no possible way I’d make it. So I had to skip out on lunch plans . . . and enjoyed leftover salami pizza. Cold. Because the microwave in our hotel room didn’t work (it should be noted I think cold pizza is pretty disgusting). During the few minutes I had I scrambled to put more work into the presentation but couldn’t. Because my internet wasn’t working.
Cue MASSIVE stress.
I walked over to my committee meeting early, and when I got all set up in the room, I found I still couldn’t get the internet to cooperate during the meeting. Which meant I still had no chance to work on the presentation.
Cue EVEN MORE massive stress.
The committee meeting was really fascinating. I’m not a voting member, only the administrative assistant, which means during discussion I don’t get to weigh in. Can you imagine how hard it is for someone who loves books not to be able to talk about them for three hours when everyone else is? Either way, listening to the process was really enjoyable, despite the overwhelming urge I had to cry from the anxiety of not having the presentation done. When the meeting was over, I walked back to my hotel and got dressed up for a publisher’s dinner. But . . . I ended up not going. It was so far away from my hotel that there was no conceivable way to make it there on time and really, I was so stressed that I needed that time to stick around in the room and work. And eat another slice of bad, cold salami pizza.
I think stress hit a critical level and I somehow managed to knock out quite a bit of work in a short period of time, and as soon as I could no longer stand looking at our stuff, I decided it was time to walk over to the YA Blogger meetup I was co-hosting with the YA Highway crew. Kirsten had sent me a message about how nice a space the place we were holding it at was, and when I got there with Kellie, I could not have been any more thrilled. She and Stephanie Kuehn introduced me to a ton of the YA authors they were eating with, and then Steph kindly took me to the bar and bought me a drink (and yes, that drink merited a mention here because it was so needed). I got to meet Jessi Kirby, who I had barely missed at the last ALA, along with Gretchen McNeil, Corrine Jackson, and a bunch of others before the crowds poured in. And I mean poured in. I was utterly blown away by the turnout at the meetup, which was easily more than 75 people (the photo to the right was yanked from YA Highway since I got too caught up in talking to take pictures).
I’m not a very good mingler at events, so I’m really thrilled people actually sought me out at the event (that sounds egotistical but by that I mean I’m so glad people I really wanted to meet were kind enough to come introduce themselves). I had the chance to see Liz and Melanie, and one of my favorite librarian Twitterers Anna came to meet me. I spent the bulk of the meetup, though, chatting with Allison, Lali, Michelle, and Kirstin Cronn-Mills (we tried our best to share stories of life in the Midwest around all those Californians). I also got to talk for a while with Whitney, who runs one of my favorite blogs. Of course, we talked about books and reading. But what I loved about this event was not just the huge turn out — seriously, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this — but how much everyone is on the same page about the value of reading and of writing. There aren’t any walls between authors and librarians and bloggers and agents at these things because they’re so casual and laid back (which is my thing, if I haven’t mentioned that yet). Age and experience mean nothing, too. For me, it’s just nice to put a face to a name and at least at this event, it was so nice to meet some of the people I’ve been really eager to talk with in person. It definitely took my stress levels down for a few hours. A huge thank you to the ladies of YA Highway for helping coordinate.
The best $7 I spent at ALA was on the cab ride home from the event, if you were wondering. It would have been a really long walk.
On Sunday morning, I decided I couldn’t even think about proceeding with the day without a decent breakfast. Our hotel didn’t have it continental style, so I debated long and hard about paying the $13 for their restaurant breakfast and then decided to break down and do it. And it was worth every penny. I decided, too, that after breakfast I was going to allow myself to do just one thing for me at ALA, since I had yet to actually see anything not related to working. At Midwinter, I went to the Sterling/St Martin’s Press book battle preview which I enjoyed, so I decided that would be what I went to this year, too. I appreciate how this preview is really fast paced, to the point, and highlights just a few of the titles on their respective lists. When I got there, I tweeted something about being scanned in and waiting for the session to start . . . and then was tracked down and called out by the Macmillan library marketing department. I try to be kind of under the radar at ALA but it didn’t happen this time.
The preview was as good as the one at Midwinter and just as entertaining. In thirty minutes I learned about a ton of new books without feeling overwhelmed and got to laugh at some of the gems coming out (like the one in the picture — it’s a lift the flap book of animal back ends which is hilarious). When the buzz session ended, I wandered down to the exhibits to talk with one of my favorite publicity folks at Walden Pond Press (she and I have a shared fondness for Jersey Shore and her name is also Kellie) before deciding to head back to the hotel and put in just a little more work on the presentation.
I’ve not mentioned my stress because it was unbelievably high to the point I was just shutting it down. But when I walked back in the room, Jackie said she thought it was done, and we had a moment just to celebrate and take a huge deep breath. Both of us had committee meetings, so we rushed to those shortly after and made a plan for the presentation itself, allowing ourselves a huge chunk of panic time before giving it.
Sitting in my committee meeting this time was even more nerve-wrecking than when I didn’t have internet access to work on the presentation. This time, I couldn’t concentrate on reading my notes and preparing. I kept looking at the clock and wishing for it to be 6 pm and for our presentation to be over. But at 2, I left and headed toward the convention center. And stewed. And panicked. And panicked. As soon as Jackie showed up, she started to follow suit, but she took the route of pacing up and down the hallway. I cannot say enough how much it meant to have people cheer us on and send us good wishes and, well, come down to where our presentation was and keep us entertained to avoid thinking about it. While this wasn’t my first presentation at ALA, this was the first time I’ve given a full-out presentation; in the past, they’ve been roundtables to much smaller audiences.
The first people to arrive to our presentation were Kellie and my friend Kathleen, who I went to grad school with and who kept track of time for us. One of them snapped this photo for us before we took on a whole new level of panic as we watched people start to pour into the room. And before the photo where Jackie literally took a swipe at me after I said something I shouldn’t have (but the mic was off). We had a little bit of a technology glitch, but we got it figured out, and when the clock struck 4, we were on.
The room was packed. Nearly every seat was filled, and we had a handful of people who were seated on the floor. For our presentation. It was absolutely mind-boggling to look out and know people were here to listen and learn from us. Rather than give the rundown of the actual presentation — you can see what the Prezi looked like and collect all of the notes from here — I’ll say this: I think it went well. At one point, Jackie became so impassioned about what she was saying, she almost cried. She paused and collected herself but I think it was a really touching moment and proof of how important the work was we did and were doing. We went way under the time we thought and I think we missed talking some of our points. But that’s something only we know. I can count on one hand the number of people who left our presentation while we were giving it, and while at times we wondered if anyone was really listening, when we put up the final section of our presentation with a link and QR code to where attendees could gather more information, we saw an entire room either lifting their phones up or writing something down.
I was so utterly blown away by this, I asked if I could take a picture. But I think the real moment of feeling like we did something came at the very end — after a few audience questions, we got a really nice round of applause. And we took it. It’s sort of a hard feeling to capture in words, but knowing how much time and energy and tears went into making this come together, particularly over the last couple of days, it was really nice to feel like it was a success. None of the flaws that we noticed mattered because only we knew of them. And after people began to leave, we had many others come up to the front of the room and either tell us congrats or give us hugs. Strangers! Giving us hugs! It was incredible. We were also approached by someone at ALA who asked if we’d write an article about our topic and submit it for publication. Whoa.
As soon as the presentation was over, though, we didn’t get a chance to celebrate or decompress. We were off immediately to a dinner with Macmillan. I’ve been to a few publisher dinners before, and they’re all a little bit different. Jackie and I were under the impression this was going to be a nice sized gathering, given that we knew quite a few people who had been invited. But it turns out it was pretty much the opposite of our expectations — there were roughly 15 people who weren’t either affiliated with Macmillan as editors, marketing/publicity folks, or authors. I was really flattered to be invited to such a small affair.
The dinner was assigned seating, and I was seated near Gennifer Albin (author of the forthcoming Crewel), as well as Lisa S, of Macmillan’s editors. It was neat to hear from Gennifer about her book and writing process, and I really enjoyed how energetic she was because, well, I was so exhausted from presenting that I couldn’t hold a conversation to save my soul. Dinner itself was delicious — it started with some seafood appetizers, then a salad, a variety of really nice fish entrees (and chicken for poor people like me who cannot stomach fish), and then a nice sampler of desserts. Between the entree and dessert course, there was a switch up of where authors were sitting, and I ended up getting to talk with Faith Erin Hicks (the author of Friends with Boys who drew me a sketch in my book) and Karen Hesse (author of the forthcoming Safekeeping). To be honest, by this time we’d been at the dinner for three hours and we hadn’t had a second to come down from the presentation anxiety, so Jackie asked if I was ready to go back to our room and enjoy a big glass of wine. I was. Other folks at the dinner included a number of the reps who I talk with regularly (and I loved putting a face with a name!), as well as Leigh Bardugo (author of Shadow and Bone) and Marissa Meyer (author of Cinder). It was a lovely dinner, and I was so grateful to be invited.
As soon as Jackie and I got home, we popped open a bottle of wine — which she picked up on her trip down to Anaheim from Seattle — and we had a nice toast to being done. While we celebrated, we read through the tweets of those who attended and were really blown away by the kind things people said. As much stress and panic as the entire ordeal caused, knowing that people learned something from us and enjoyed what we had to say was worth it.
If I had to pick a favorite day of ALA, though, it would definitely be Monday. I had no obligations, so I indulged in another $13 breakfast, then took a long morning nap. I had talked back and forth a bit with Katie, and decided that I’d head over to the convention center in the afternoon to watch Angie compete in Battle Decks. Battle Decks is a competition where a number of library “personalities” compete to give a coherent presentation on the future of librarianship based on a series of images they do not get to see beforehand. And the images have nothing to do with librarianship or with one another (think of your favorite memes and funny images and string them together incoherently, and that’s what the participant has to use as the basis of their presentation). Angie came in second last year, and we were hoping to see her be victorious this year. She gave a real fight, but ultimately ran out of time and didn’t finish her slides, but no doubt her presentation WAS the most coherent among them.
Immediately afterward, Angie, Katie, and I indulged in hot, cheap pizza across the street before we were off to the crown jewel of ALA: the Printz reception. I didn’t get to go last year, but this year, I splurged and decided I had to go listen to the winners give their speeches. And it was excellent! Not only did everyone give great speeches, the variety of tones and approaches was neat. I’ve read three out of the five books, which made the experience a little more special, I think. The photo on the left there is of Daniel Handler, who had an accordion and wrote and sang a song for the librarians.
I think, though, the most touching thought was the last one from Corey Whaley which was simple. He told everyone to take out their phones and tweet the simple line #SaveALibrary. I don’t really need to say more about his speech because that sort of captured everything.
As soon as the speeches finished, we were welcomed into a reception room, where we could mingle amongst the authors who were honored, as well as many others. This was when I was finally able to spend some time catching up with everyone who I hadn’t had a chance to see at ALA, including Liz. We played a little musical chairs and I was the loser…but she kindly shared hers with me, and thus, we were able to capture the magical moment on the right.
I didn’t stick to sitting though, and I got up and wandered. I got the chance to talk again with Jessi Kirby, and then I walked right up to Corey Whaley and gave him a congrats and got a photo with him. He’s just as genuine in person as he comes across in his speeches and in his social media.
Jackie and I couldn’t stick around as long as we’d have liked to because the shuttles were leaving fairly early and because I had a 4 am wake up call. But in my running around and saying my goodbyes to the people I am so lucky to call not just colleagues but friends, I ran into Martha Mahalick (editor at Greenwillow) and Rae Carson, author of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I didn’t get to chat with them, just got a quick introduction as I was heading out, but I think it was then I got what might be one of the most flattering comments I’ve ever heard. Rae said she’s a reader of STACKED, but she religiously and consistently disagrees with us. It was one of those comments that really stuck with me the more I thought about it because I not only appreciated the honesty (and truly, it does shock me every time someone tells me they read STACKED anyway) but I appreciated that someone who disagrees with our thoughts on books still finds them valuable to read.
After a round of hugs, Jackie and I made it back to our hotel, where we ate creamy cheese, crackers, and polished off a bottle of red wine.
ALA was such a great experience this year, despite being utterly exhausting, stressful, and a ton of work. There’s a lot more I want to talk about, but for now, these thoughts sort of sum up everything. Being so involved this year made those moments of networking and socializing so immensely valuable to me, and as I mentioned already, I cannot express how lucky I am so many of these people are my friends and not just people I know from the library world. They’re smart, savvy, and damn funny people who love to share their love and passion for the same things I do: reading, literacy, spreading the word of good books, and holding the belief that teenagers are a great age group to work with and fight for.
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).