Monday, November 17, 2014

YA Lit Symposium, Austin, TX

Over the weekend, I attended YALSA's Young Adult Literature Symposium in Austin, Texas.  It was my first time attending a YALSA conference and my first time in Texas, and I was very much looking forward to it.  

Plus I had some really good reading material for the flight:

The Blake School had generously and inadvertently paid for me to attend a pre-conference Friday afternoon, despite my not expressing any interest in any such pre-conference or intending to register for a pre-conference.  But hey, a session is a session, so after landing in Austin and getting lunch, I joined the already-in-progress "Practical Ideas to Amp Up Your YA Literature Programming."  Sadly, it was not a great session.  The presenters had apparently had great luck at their libraries with lots of arts and crafts programming inspired by Pinterest and Etsy.  They go through gallons of decoupage at these libraries, and while I'm thrilled for them (crafts are fun; I like crafts), I do not think the students at my school will be interesting in anything like "making" their own bookends:

A sample from a "Make Your Own Bookend" teen library program.

Uninspired, I left the $69 ticketed session hoping for better when the conference proper began Saturday morning.  I also skipped Friday night's opening reception boat cruise, because it was cold in Austin.  I even bought a new coat.  I was that cold.

But the hotel that hosted the conference was lovely--the Hyatt Regency, overlooking Lady Bird Lake (a Colorado River reservoir created by the construction of the Longhorn Dam in 1960) and nestled between the Congress Avenue Bridge (home to the U.S.'s largest urban bat population, whose nightly emergence from under the arches attracts thousands of tourists every summer; alas, the bats have already migrated to Mexico for the winter) and the South First Street Bridge, with easy walking access to downtown Austin and the trendy SoCo (South Congress) neighborhood.  But before I could get out and explore the city, I had to attend at least one more session!

My hotel room view of Lady Bird Lake and downtown Austin.

So I went to the Saturday morning session "YA Realness:  What Makes 'Contemporary Realism' Feel True to Readers?"  The influence of the success of John Green's books (particularly The Fault in Our Stars, of course) and of Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park was fairly obvious, as the panel of authors discussed how they attempt to write authentically about diverse teen experiences.  Sara Zarr, Sara Ryan, Matt de la Pena, Jo Knowles, and Coe Booth all stressed their desire to include details, even mundane details, to create real worlds.  They spoke about intentionally challenging readers through the use of slang or dialectic, and the importance of including complicated relationships with flawed adult characters.  Many of these authors have felt pressured by publishers and editors to include romantic plots, even if their stories are not love stories.  All these authors feel like they've told their stories well when they hear from fans wanting to know, "What happens next?" because that means readers are picturing their characters as real people, alive in the world today.  They also stressed that writing YA means taking teens' needs and wants into consideration (teens are drawn to sadness, despair, and tragedy, they all agreed), despite the often contrary needs and wants of the adults in their lives (who tend to want teens to read "happy books").  Each author also spoke about the fine balance that can occur when they write about a character whose experience is different than their own, and their concerns about doing justice to that experience.  It was a good session, because it was great to hear authors speak so openly and passionately about their commitment to an authentic teen experience!

Then, I went out to play.

Angelina Eberly is my new hero.

They have really great statues in Austin.

Austin also has horses that sing in bands.

I had very good intentions of attending Saturday's 1:00pm session "Where Are the Heroes of Color in Fantasy and Sci Fi?" but my husband and I got lost in downtown Austin and I didn't make it back in time.  But I did eat a really good burrito:

A cayenne tortilla burrito from Freebirds World Burrito.  

I did make it back for the 3:30pm sessions, and attended "Using Multicultural YA Literature to Examine the Impact of Racism on the Lives of Teens of Color."  This lengthy-titled session was something of a disappointment, as the presenters were so concerned with making the session a "safe space" for discussion that, at well over an hour into the session, they had recommended a few books but hadn't actually talked about the real experiences of any teens of color and hadn't imparted any findings that were particularly new.  I ducked out early, and decided to catch the end of another 3:30pm session, "Who Gets to Tell Our Stories?  Authentic Portrayals of Trans* Youth in YA Fiction."  This session was a bit meatier, as two transgender teen authors (Katie Rain Hill and Arin Andrews) made up the panel.  Katie and Arin stressed the importance of libraries as a safe place with important resources, but emphasized a need for both openness (librarians should make sure to be available as allies) and privacy for teens who are still exploring their identities (consider putting resources online, make sure subject headings reflect GLBTQI* content).  The Blake School has an active, passionate community of students focused on issues of gender and sexuality, so it was good to hear confirmation from other trans* teens that we're on the right path.

Saturday evening was the BOOK BLITZ!!!  The highlight of the conference (in my opinion, anyway), the Book Blitz was a chance to get complimentary books, and to get them signed by the authors.  Each librarian was given a tote bag and six tickets; once the hall opened, you traded tickets for books.  Over forty authors awaited us when the doors opened, and if there's one thing librarians love, it's free books--especially if there's an opportunity to meet the authors.  I had no specific authors in mind when I entered the Book Blitz (I would have liked to get the memoirs by Katie Hill and Arin Andrews, but they were gone in the blink of eye), but I ended up quite satisfied with my haul.

Book Blitz
Book Blitz!!!!!

My new books.  I'm so proud.

After the Book Blitz, I took in some more Austin city culture:


The Austin city Museum of the Weird on East Sixth Street is highly educational.  Also, there's a bar called The Library:

You can't expect librarians to resist a bar actually called The Library, can you?

My final session was Sunday morning, "GenreQueer:  Smashing the Closet."  It seemed the closest thing to my missed session "Where Are the Heroes of Color in Sci Fi and Fantasy?" (which is a question we've had multiple students ask).  It did not reveal anything especially earth-shattering about the need for GLBTQI* teens to see themselves represented in books that take place in the past, present, and future, but the panel of authors spoke well about the issues, and author Malinda Lo in particular is a wonderful advocate for diverse YA literature.

I skipped the closing session with R.L. Stine so I could eat tacos and go to bookstores before the flight home.

The mole sauce at Guero's is excellent.

My husband waits impatiently for South Congress Books to open.

We visited South Congress Book and BookPeople.  South Congress Books is a small, independent, well-appointed and very charming little used bookstore, with an impressive selection of beautiful rare and collectible editions.  BookPeople is big and bright with two stories of new books, author events, and helpful booksellers anxious to put as many books as possible into your hands.  Go to Austin and shop at these bookstores.

The most interesting comment I heard about the state of young adult literature today was a brief conversation--and observation, really--that I overheard in the hotel lobby between an unknown author and a fellow librarian.  The author (who I failed to recognize) said to the librarian, "You all say that you want diverse books, but I'm told I can't get published if I don't have white characters."  That brief remark says so much about about the state of the book industry, the struggle that well-intentioned but struggling authors face, and the important role that librarians can play.  But try telling that to one of my favorite students, who's standing here as I type this, asking where are all the authors and characters of color in her favorite books?  

The theme of the 2014 YA Literature Symposium was "Keeping It Real:  Finding the True Teen Experience in YA Literature."  We have a long way to go before that "true teen experience" is truly reflected in the books on our shelves, but we're getting there.  

YALSA sells YALSA shot glasses, because young adult librarians are classy.

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