(Check out part 1 of the “How to Bookfest” series on the LA Times Festival of Books.)
This past weekend marked the end of book festival season with YALLWEST, the only dedicated Young Adult bookfest in southern California. After I got home, my roommate said, “And now you hibernate for another year in preparation for 2017 book festival season.” Which is, I have to say, like 99% accurate.
Early Saturday morning, I drove out to Santa Monica and totally forgot how to get to Santa Monica High School (SAMOHI). Then, magically, I spotted a Saturn on Olympic Blvd. that had a Twilight sticker in her window, so naturally, I tailgated her for two miles until she led me directly to the public parking lot across from SAMOHI campus. Never doubt the commitment of the Twihards.
I then stood in a huge line that would only get huger as the festival prepped to open at 9am.
There were some grumpy grumpies in line behind me, complaining about how long the line was. Meanwhile, I had Hamilton in my headphones in preparation for the YALLWEST-wide singalong that would happen at 3PM (yes, for serious), so I was like, gentle nerds, there are 12,000 of us here trying to fit into a 1,200-seat auditorium. You’re 100th in line. Be calm.
At some point, I also got flash-punched in the arm by Emily (E.R.) Warren as she passed me trying to find the back of the line. Then we lost each other in the throng. Typical.
10AM: MORNING KEYNOTE WITH RAINBOW ROWELL & HOLLY BLACK
Eventually we got in, and I think we all felt a little triumphant. The festival opened with much shouting and waving of arms from the co-directors Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Creatures series, Black Widow: Forever Red) and Melissa de la Cruz (The Au Pairs series, Blue Bloods series, Descendants series), who were presented with Oscars for festival-directing badassery.
Then came the festival MCs, Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me trilogy, Furthermore) and Marie Lu (Legend trilogy, The Young Elites trilogy). And guys, these glitter-clad dystopia queens. Admittedly, when they walked on stage, I sat in my chair and thought about how much I ship them. Apologies to their husbands.
They introduced Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Darkest Part of the Forest, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown), whose very presence made me want to dye my hair various shades of turquoise, and Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Carry On), who has the personality of a basket of kittens.
They started off talking about what Rowell was like in high school, to which she said, “Oh, high school was the worst experience for me.” This caused audience members to cheer in solidarity and Rowell to look startled and confused in the most endearing way possible.
She talked about growing up with a mother who wouldn’t let her watch any movies with kissing in them (“So now, that’s like all I do.”), but letting her read everything she could get her hands on. She worked at a newspaper for 10 years (“It was a way for a writer to make money. Not anymore. But back then, yes.”), before beginning to write fiction in her 30s.
On the ambiguity of her novel endings, she argued, “I feel like in Eleanor & Park I wrapped it up and handed it to you with a big bow around it! Though I told one person once what the three words [at the end] were, at my first event, because she was so lovely. And her face was just like, Oh. So I thought, never again.”
Not really the response you were looking for, Black commented.
Rowell nodded. “She should have wept.”
Finally, after Black’s public confession about her first encounter with Rowell (involving the phrase, “I don’t know you at all but I love you,” and an email in which Black sent Rowell her prom photo), she asked the question we were all thinking but too afraid to half-yell-half-sob: “HOW ARE YOU SO GOOD??”
Rowell again looked startled and confused.
And that is the story of how Rainbow Rowell became queen of YALLWEST.
11AM: MY NAME IS [WRITER] & I AM A BASKET CASE
This panel was my favorite one from last year’s YALLWEST. And FYI, it remains the best thing ever. Where else do you see four bestselling authors having a vulnerable, candid conversation in front of a roomful of people about their experiences with mental illness? You guys, there’s nothing better than the Young Adult book community.
They went down the line introducing themselves and explaining the particular mental illness they each live with. At first nobody knew if we should clap, especially after de la Cruz explained that she’d had a stroke last year because of her health obstacles. But then Veronica Roth added, “A stroke of GENIUS,” and Adam Silvera went, “You guys know it’s okay to applaud, right.”
So we got over ourselves.
I had some metaphor prepared about how even on a panel, YA authors are still giving us permission to find laughter in the dark stuff, but instead I’ll just provide some soundbites.
On how their upbringing and careers informed their journey with mental illness:
De la Cruz: “I grew up in a Catholic, Filipino family that didn’t believe in therapy, because it was an American thing. You know, Filipinos work it out, we’re cheerful people! We handle things by denial and shopping. [laughs] It was hard for me to even think about going to therapy at first. […] There’s so much that’s different about this career. You put your life into books, but there’s also a public side; no other career lets everyone in the world see how well or how badly you’re doing.”
Silvera: “I grew up very, very poor, sleeping in the same bed as my mother, father, and brother in the South Bronx, and I had no opportunity to go to therapy. But in a way, writing is like my therapy; all my books have been driven by a certain fear, a question I needed to answer. […] It wasn’t until recently that I realized I’d been living with undiagnosed OCD for ten years. I knew I wasn’t just quirky.”
Roth: “People who ruminate are much more likely to have a mental illness. Writers ruminate for a living.”
Roth: “Phone calls give me anxiety. It’s such a normal thing, but I hate them. I did cognitive behavioral therapy for my generalized anxiety disorder, and my therapist was like, we’re going to do a certain number of sessions and then you’re not going to go to therapy anymore. It was a treatment plan! Like going to the doctor! […] I felt like a child when I was off medication, but being on it changed my entire life.”
Whaley: “I just started taking medication for the first time in my life, and it’s amazing. I used to wonder how I’d know when I found the one that works. And my therapist said, ‘You will feel like yourself again.’ And now… I feel like myself again. Medication did that for me.”
On the idea that one’s mental illness is integral to creativity:
Silvera: “Don’t suffer just to produce. I had someone tell me once, you’re trying to be a human, but you’ve made being an author your identity. You have to find other ways to be a human, like other hobbies and finding ways to assist other humans.”
Roth: “I was worried about medication, thinking it was a weakness if I had to go on it. And I told my therapist, ‘I don’t want to be on this forever.’ And she said something I’ll never forget. She said, ‘You won’t live forever.’ Like listen, you have a limited number of days, and if there is something out there that will make those days better and more full and more worthwhile, why wouldn’t you do it? You are someone who is worth a better life.”
This. This this this.
As per ushe, there were so many food trucks, but I made a beeline for the only one that truly matters.
How dare you imply a hierarchy of food trucks, you demand. Yeah, well, I challenge you to come up with of anything more glorious than this cheesy mac n’ rib sandwich from the Grilled Cheese Truck. You can’t, can you. You can’t even look away.
After lunch, I wandered for a little while and took a million photos of happy people buying books while I envied them from afar (I had to give myself a no-purchase policy at YALLWEST because of *eh hem* reasons).
1PM: WOMEN OF MARVEL
PANEL (right to left): Marvel’s Director of Content & Character Development Sana Amanat (moderator), producer and photographer Judy Stephens (moderator), costume designer Gigi Ottobre-Melton (Agent Carter), writer Lindsey Allen (Agent Carter), costume designer Ann Foley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), writer Marguerite Bennett (A-Force, Angela’s Assassins, Bombshells), author Shannon Hale (Squirrel Girl novel), Marvel.com’s Lorraine Cink, author Margaret Stohl (Black Widow: Forever Red)
Sana Amanat kicked off the panel as a clearly seasoned moderator (after having just come from giving her own keynote on Ms. Marvel) and opened up the panel by introducing each creative at the table. By the time we’d gone down the line, I felt vastly unworthy to be in their presence. And at the same time, pumped to be sharing the label ‘woman’ with them?
It’s a complicated emotion.
Lindsay Allen, on writing for the T.V. show Agent Carter: “This show is all about what it means to be a powerful woman in a world where it’s so hard to be a powerful woman. […] Writing this was a lot of thinking, ‘What stereotypes annoys us the most as women?’ We wanted to put these [sexist] issues very front and center and say, hey, these things are still things we do to women today.”
Agent Carter‘s costume designer Gigi Ottobre-Melton chimed in, saying, she was so excited when she got to put the main character Peggy in pants for the first time, but clarified, “Peggy’s costumes evolve as she grows, but she was always able to kick butt in a dress and heels, so it wasn’t just about her wearing pants.”
She went on, saying, “We always build Peggy’s costumes in quads and triples. We also have to take into consideration, you know, blood, and ripping, and bullet holes…”
Basically, designers are the biggest bassasses you will ever meet.
On the noveling side, Shannon Hale (my queen) talked about recently joining the Marvel/Disney family with Squirrel Girl, the upcoming novel based on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comics by Ryan North. “Squirrel Girl is the best character ever created by Marvel,” she said, modeling her squirrel ears hat. “I could fight you on that.”
She also went into the differences in the audience for Squirrel Girl and her own books (including titles like Princess Academy, The Books of Bayern, and Austenland). “When I was starting out, writing Princess Academy, I was branded as a for-girls author. When I would speak in schools, the administration would pull the girls out of class to see me, but not the boys, as if I was doing a ‘Your Uterus and You’ talk. […] We want to tell boys, ‘It’s okay to have empathy for girls and women. That’s what makes you a better human being.'”
On her new YA novel about Black Widow, Stohl said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and that’s because I loved it so much. It’s a book about a strong female and not about who she’s dating.”
Brb, off to get #youruterusandyou trending.
— Samantha Chaffin (@thathalfasian) April 30, 2016
For a group of science fiction writers, this panel started shockingly optimistically.
— Samantha Chaffin (@thathalfasian) April 30, 2016
Lu asked about what they thought the future would be like. Cecil Castellucci said, “I think there’s a bright future that’s possible.” MT Anderson said, “I think it’s super that you think that.”
After feeling badly about his own bleak outlook on our future as a species, Jay Kristoff played a cheerful song off of his phone into the microphone, and then found that he couldn’t stop it. (Writers: good at imagining the future of information technology, not so good at actually operating it.)
Kaufman echoed Castellucci, saying, “Humans are adaptable.” Anderson piped up again: “Viruses are also adaptable.”
Kristoff agreed, and proceeded to spout off like 700 random weird facts about the ability of humans to survive under extreme circumstances, including that humans are 90% bacteria. “There are like 100,000,000,000 things living in you right now that are not you.” Then he smiled and we were all afraid.
Castellucci and Mary Pearson gave a joint monologue about how there is no difference between science and art; both are made up of dreamers who wonder what if. Pearson pointed out that Star Trek‘s Lieutenant Uhura inspired real women like Mae Jemison to join NASA.
Meanwhile, Kaufman told an anecdote about how writers can actually get away with much more than scientists, saying she was on a steamboat once and asked an engineer, “So… how would you blow this thing up?” And after she told him she was a writer, he proceeded to give her a step-by-step explanation, which scares me a lot.
This apparently does not scare her Illuminae writing partner Kristoff, who said nonchalantly, “I’m sure we’re all on FBI watch lists.”
3PM: AFTERNOON KEYNOTE WITH JASON REYNOLDS AND MATT DE LA PENA
Actually did not go to the Hamilton sing-along, because of these guys. If you have never had the chance to listen to them talk, this is me telling you to FIND THEM and DO IT. Better: buy their books and hold them and rage and cry because you will never be this eloquent.
Jason Reynolds and Matt de la Pena started off riffing about how they got into writing, and it was clear that they’d done panels together before. “Matt and I are the guys they call when they want to talk about diversity,” Reynolds joked. “There’s another guy in the room? I know it’s Matt.”
He went on, saying that he always thought that Tupac and Shakespeare were doing the same thing. “Crack, HIV, and hip-hop were the touchstones in my childhood, but there were no books about that. So I was like, ‘I’m not reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t KNOW no Atticus Finch.”
De la Pena replied that reluctant readers are the most loyal readers in the world. “You find a home. Reluctant readers need entry points.”
They got into a discussion about how to see yourself as worthy of a story when the world is telling you that you aren’t. “Who is teaching you that you’re not worthy?” De la Pena asked. “Is it the lack of representation [in books]? […] For me, I had to ask, what does it mean that I’m mixed race? My dad was Mexican, my mom was white. What does it mean that I’m light-skinned? Why was I the ‘anointed one’ in my family?”
At the end of their time, Reynolds went on a mini-rant about language, particularly about the way characters speak in his books. “I feel like I live in a constant state of rebellion,” he said. “The way you see it most is in language. I refuse to change the way people speak [in my books]. And most of them speak like me. Sometimes that’s considered to be incorrect, or not good English, but kids are speaking like this all the time and want to know that their language is ‘okay’. In education, we’re constantly telling kids their natural way of speaking is wrong. But language is the cornerstone of culture.”
De la Pena chimed in, “And why isn’t that poetry?”
Reynolds nodded. “Exactly. Why isn’t that poetry.”
4PM: WHERE HAVE ALL THE PARENTS GONE?
This was the last panel of the day, and admittedly, I was fading fast. But the lack of parental figures in YA novels is something I’m interested in, so I rubbed some dirt on it and stuck it out.
Most of these authors admitted at the very beginning that in their books, the parents aren’t always absent, but there’s definitely a difference in the way they’re portrayed overall in YA.
Some interesting soundbites:
Alyson Noël: “Teens often want to live a life different from what the parents want, and that’s how they’re going to define themselves. The thing about parents in YA is that parents are so much more central to the lives of that age group than they are later.”
Ally Condie: “There’s a moment when you’re growing up that you realize your parent is a person. They’re not exactly who you thought they were. […] That world view of ‘the parents will serve the story,’ is also what we feel as kids. They exist to serve our story.”
Noël: “I wrote characters with imperfect parents because someone else out there needed to see that they weren’t the only ones.”
THEN IT WAS OVER.
At least for me. I didn’t go to Day 2 because I was dead inside. Kind of like now. I have to tell you guys, after 3,000 words all at once, I feel sort of hollow… but somehow also rejuvenated? LOL I just had to type the word “rejuvenated” like six times before I could properly spell it, so clearly, it’s time for me to stop.
Until next year.
Did you go to YALLWEST this year? Tell me about your favorite panels! OR tell me about your favorite authors. OR tell me you love the Grilled Cheese Truck. I would be okay with any of these.