Dressed in neon-yellow T-shirts proudly proclaiming “Book Nerd,” about 40 teens charged up the steps of the Austin Convention Center for the start of the fifth annual Austin Teen Book Festival on Sept. 28. They’d left in the middle of the night and driven more than 300 miles from the Rio Grande Valley to arrive by 9 a.m., and they had all the enthusiasm of kids about to be let into a concert.
“My parents say I can’t date until I’m 40,” said Carmen Gutierrez, a curly-haired senior from Southwest Early College High School in Pharr. “So I go out with books.”
She followed the crowd into the exhibit hall to hear opening speaker Maggie Stiefvater, the 31-year-old author of multiple fantasy books. Dressed in cargo pants, a tank top and leather wrist cuffs, Stiefvater paced the stage and bellowed into the microphone with authority and humor, telling stories from her own adolescence and urging her listeners to embrace life’s what-ifs.
“Now,” Stiefvater muttered, staring at a crumpled piece of paper. “I see my notes here ‘Talk about emotional scarring…’”
Karen Longoria, also a senior from Pharr, smiled eagerly. “When I found out I was going to get to come see her, I almost cried.” The editor of her school paper, Longoria had interacted with Stiefvater before the festival by asking questions on Stiefvater’s Tumblr. “Authors used to be more enigmatic,” Longoria informed me.
Karens and Carmens were common at the daylong festival: smart girls who write for their school newspapers and know the meaning of the word enigmatic. They’re quirky girls who buy Emily Dickinson necklaces from the exhibit hall’s “literary jewelry” booth and dedicated fangirls who wear their love of cult culture openly. (“I see people who are wearing Doctor Who shirts,” said 14-year-old Simone Haight, of Spring, with the giddy smile of someone who has found her tribe.)
Like many of these girls, I endured high school by mainlining books. As a bright teenage girl in the early ’90s, I edited the school paper and agonized over my chronic lack of popularity and a boyfriend. Told by a so-called friend to stop answering so many questions in class because it annoyed people, I began regular retreats to the local library. I carted home stacks of worn paperback novels I found crammed into a spinning book carousel in a neglected corner. That was the “teen section” back then, made up of masterful novels like Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, multiple works by the inimitable Judy Blume, and escapist brain candy like Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series. Those books were a salve in a way books can only be when you’re 15 and living in your parents’ house, unable to make an escape or even imagine one.
Adolescence can still be brutal, but the landscape of young-adult literature, or YA, has changed radically since then, generating crossover appeal with adult audiences via megahits like The Hunger Games and creating celebrity writers who interact with fans through Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and draw thousands at teen book festivals nationwide. Another T-shirt in wide circulation at the Austin festival features a portrait of Shakespeare in KISS makeup and the motto “Authors Are My Rock Stars.”
The 2013 festival drew the biggest crowd—roughly 4,000—since its founding in 2009 by Heather Schubert, a middle-school librarian in Travis County’s Eanes Independent School District. Organized this year by Jen Bigheart, a librarian with Austin’s Westbank Libraries, the festival featured heavy-hitters Holly Black, Jenny Han, Brandon Sanderson and Rob Thomas, who started writing YA novels as a high-school teacher and went on to create the cult television hit Veronica Mars. Gone are the cheap trade paperbacks of yesteryear—today’s YA authors come out in hardcover first, and those covers contain everything from dystopia to fantasy to realistic fiction (known in YA-speak as “contemporary”) that tackles sex, drug abuse, domestic violence and LGBT issues.
“When I wrote my first novel in 1996 and told people it was young adult, people were like, ‘Oh, is it about a girl getting her period?’” writer Sarah Dessen recalled to a lunchtime crowd alternately clapping for Dessen and tapping their phones. “Back then teens didn’t even have their own section at the bookstore. Now YA is huge. It’s become the thing to write for.”
The convention crowd was overwhelmingly female, reflecting statistics that show the majority of book buyers are women and girls. Attendees well past their teen years were also out in force. Some were teachers and librarians; others represented an active contingent of book bloggers, many of them adult women who run sites with titles like “A Good Addiction” and “Me, My Shelf, & I.” Established YA bloggers regularly help authors organize “cover reveals” of upcoming books to build buzz, and volunteer at events like the festival. They speak of the rush that comes with reading young-adult lit—books that celebrate all the firsts of the teenage years, both joyful and misery-inducing.
“I started a book club whose theme is YA for adults, and the members are surprised every month by the way these books grab their attention,” said Houstonian Kate Sowa, 38, who writes the blog “Ex Libris.” “We were all teenagers. It’s universally relatable.”
But not all adults are fans of the genre. There’s ongoing debate among educators about whether young-adult fiction deserves a place in the classroom alongside the Western canon, and young-adult novels don’t exactly gain regular mention in The New York Review of Books. But don’t tell that to Rebekah Faubion, 28, of Denton.
“I would tell those who are unwilling or unable to see critical merit for YA books that teenagers are less likely to accept bullshit than adults, less inclined to keep reading for mediocre writing.” Faubion is now working on her own young-adult fantasy novel. “We’ve all had dreams of greatness and searched for our identity, we’ve all felt persecuted and misunderstood, and often we are still some or all of those things well into our 20s, 30s, and beyond.”
Between big-name speakers in the exhibit hall, YA fans checked out panel discussions like “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Into Hearts of Darkness.” With the festival taking place on the last day of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, at least one conversation turned to controversial subject matter in teen novels. Lauren Myracle, author of multiple challenged books, read emails from angry parents calling her a “pervert,” then urged adults to trust young readers and understand that they crave literature that doesn’t treat them with kid gloves.
“Guess what?” she announced in a gentle Southern accent. “Girls masturbate!”
Toward the end of the afternoon, a crowd packed into a second-floor conference room to listen to a presentation of young-adult authors called “Fierce Reads.” Teenagers arriving too late to get a seat sat cross-legged on the floor, snapping pictures with candy-colored phones. The authors—whose name tents promoted their Twitter handles—shared anecdotes about reading Stephen King novels as teens and dispensed writing advice. “‘Write what you know’ is not good advice,” argued Marissa Meyer, author of Cinder, which recasts Cinderella as a cyborg. “I’m not a cyborg. I don’t live in the future. So I would tell you to write what you’re curious about.”
Asked to share a book that made an impact on her youthful self, writer Leila Sales mentioned Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s 1990 title, Libby on Wednesday, about a precocious, creative teenage girl who discovers her best self when she joins a writing group.
“I met Zilpha Keatley Snyder years later as an adult at a book signing,” Sales recalled, “and I burst into tears. I told her, ‘Libby on Wednesday is how I made it through the eighth grade!’”
Sales’ latest novel, about a teenage misfit who finds purpose in the world of deejaying, sat propped on display beside her. The title is This Song Will Save Your Life. The implicit promise, of course, is that the book just might too.