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Teen Author Festival 2018

Bookmarked book cover

In 2008, David Levithan, teen author extraordinare and editor at Scholastic, started the fantastic Teen Author Festival (TAF) as a way to showcase the talents of emerging teen authors. The festival occurs for an entire week every March in a number of venues, including many libraries and bookstores. This year, the 10th anniversary of the festival, I was able to attend for three days at two different libraries.

Year after year, there are queer teen author panels featured (read on for details), and I look forward to seeing even greater cultural diversity in YA literature panels in years to come, with more people of color and a greater variety of ethnic backgrounds among the panelists. In that way, TAF can continue to help celebrate our differences and embrace the knowledge and growth that emerges from different viewpoints—and these teen authors have plenty of viewpoints to share.

March 22, 2018

I was lucky to attend my first panel at the Bronx Library Center. Elisa Garcia, head of the teen department, hosted the event, and authors Tara Crowl and Sarah Darer Littman spoke to a middle grade class. It was a small, intimate, conversational event, with Garcia asking the authors how they became writers.

Becoming a Writer

Littman previously worked on Wall Street, and spent some time on a dairy farm before becoming a writer. She was very unfulfilled and unhappy in the financial industry, and vowed to change her life. She wanted to have a book contract by the time she turned 40, and actually achieved this goal a few months after her birthday.

As a teen, she had always wanted to be a writer. She read from Anything But Okay, her upcoming novel out in October, a book about racism towards Iraqis and Islamophobia. I am definitely going to look out for it this coming fall. 

Growing Up Muslim book cover

Littman has to make time to write. She hates writing first drafts, but loves revising, which is where the magic happens. She was nervous about writing a Muslim character into a novel since she is a white Jewish lady. However, she got help from a sensitivity reader, who provided invaluable feedback and mentioned things she never thought of, even though she was trying to be as diplomatic as possible. It is important to be open and realize you do not know everything. As I said, diverse books are awesome!

Crowl wrote Eden's Wish and Eden's Escape; at the center of these novels is a 12-year-old genie who despises her geniehood. She has no freedom, no fresh air, and no friends. Also, job satisfaction is limited since she cannot stay around long enough to see the ramifications of her wish-granting escapades.

Crowl wanted to work in the movie industry when she was a teen, and ended up reading and critiquing scripts in Hollywood. She loves writing and feels a freedom to create her own worlds in novels that she never felt in the filmmaking industry. 

March 23, 2018

The second day I attended, the program was held at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Caitlyn Colman-McGaw, Teen Programming Coordinator for NYPL, opened the event and then, David Levithan, event organizer, presented a slide show celebrating the 10 years of Teen Author Festival. I have been attending TAF for the past eight or nine years, so I recognized many of the previous panelists and NYPL staff that have made the event a success.

In particular, I'd like to note former Teen Programming Coordinator Chris Shoemaker and Former Head of Youth Programming Jack Martin, who really enhanced teen services at NYPL. Martin was instrumental in convincing the administration to try gaming with kids, and it has since spread throughout our branch locations and is a raving success with kids, teens, and adults alike. The slide show had great pics and was accompanied by a teen song and a bookish song. Congrats to the Teen Author Festival for highlighting great teen literature for the last decade!

Panel: Queer Voices in YA

(Panel: Arvin Ahmadi, Kheryn Callender, Billy Merrell, Sam J. Miller, Sarah Moon, Mark Oshiro, Will Walton)

OMG Queer book cover

Levithan started the panel by mentioning there are many more queer authors in NYC than there were when TAF started in 2008, a terrific evolution of the world. He wanted to talk about how people's queer identities influenced their writings.

Ahmadi came to a YA event in 2015 as an aspiring author who had already written a draft for a novel, and met his agent at the event. Merrell wrote a book of poems in which no straigh people exist, illustrating how he does not operate in a heteronormative manner of thinking. Walton wrote a book to come out to his parents. Miller thinks being gay is a superpower that makes you awesome, and wrote The Art of Starving, about an anorexic boy who has superpowers. Oshiro was disowned by his parents when they discovered his sexual orientation, but was lucky to find a great group of gay friends in college. Moon is a schoolteacher, and has noticed that kids do not struggle with queer issues like adults do. A trans man appears in her novel, but is not the protagonist. 

Levithan asked the panelists which books affected them as teens. Moon liked The Color Purple, then moved on to adult queer lit, even though she was still a teen. Oshiro knew of his attraction to boys when he was four or five years old; as a teen, he found it difficult to find queer characters in teen lit until he discovered Levithan's work. Callender grew up in the Virgin Islands and loved fan fiction. 

Levithan asked the authors how they intersect plots with a gay theme; Ahmadi talked about wanting to be a role model for queer youth; Callender's fans expect all her characters to reflect who she is, but she likes to write in a panoply of voices; Moon strives to write a world in which she would like her wife to live. 

Panel: Evolution of a Writer

(Panel: Jen Calonita, Alison Cherry, Kody Keplinger, Sarah Darer Littman, Alexandra Monir, Matthue Roth, Leila Sales, KM Walton, moderator: Aimee Friedman)

The featured authors all read from their works, including diaries, poetry, and picture books. This is always an entertaining portion of TAF, and entirely reminded me of my diaries and poetry of years gone by. Sales, who attempted to get her work published at the age of 11, read from a book about Jubilation, a student at the New England Girls of Talent. It was impressive writing for a pre-teen. Keplinger wrote about teens before becoming one, and her reading of the emotional turbulence of adolescence from her diaries was quite amusing. Calonita previously worked at Teen People, and read from Secrets of My Hollywood Life. Cherry adores writing about unrequited love because she feels 90% of crushes amount to nothing. It was a great idea to make this TAF session a panel this year because interesting discussion ensued post-readings.

Un Plan de Vita Para Joevens book cover

Panel: Ambitious Girls

(Panel: Katie Bayerl, Kayla Cagan, Sharon Cameron, Maria Headley, Tiffany Jackson, Lauren Spieller, Amy Trueblood, moderator: Melissa Walker)

Walker asked the panelists which books inspired them, Headley relishes penning her own worst nightmares, and Jackson admits it takes work to convince adults that kids will go to extreme lengths to accomplish their goals. The authors also discussed their works, the process of writing, and why and how they write what they do.

Panel: Bookish Romance

(Panel: Jennifer Castle, Mia Garcia, Shani Petroff, Lindsay Ribar, Tiffany Schmidt, Jennifer E. Smith, Stephanie Strohm, moderator: Kieran Scott)

Scott asked the authors to talk about their protagonists and whether or not the romance in their books worked out. One of the authors wanted the romance to work out, another did not. Smith mentioned that there are conventions in certain genres, and writers can choose to follow them or not. Scott wanted to know how the panelists felt about love triangles: Lindsay Ribar said she has not written one, but loves reading them.

Scott also asked how much of a part the setting plays in romance novels. Petroff replied that it depends on the book; a plot set during the holidays would depend a lot on setting, while another may not.

This year was another raving success for the Teen Author Festival. We hope you will join us next year for more fun and information about teen literature!


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