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YALLFest Recap!

This was the first year I was able to get to YALLFest, the biggest YA conference in the U.S., put on by Margaret Stohl and the team at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, South Carolina every fall. The conference is basically the anti-BEA: No booths with stacks of advance copies, no swarms of business suits or endless lines for reality TV stars-turned authors.

Instead, the conference focuses entirely on young readers, with panels focused on the publishing process, the shifting focus on “strong” women in YA lit, and even an interactive middle grade book-writing experience that was like Dr. Suess meets Mad Libs.

The conference was kicked off by a conversation between Sara Zarr and James Dashner. James talked about the seven years he spent toiling as an accountant, writing with every spare moment, before publishing THE MAZE RUNNER. In a story that proves the Utah writing community truly is special, James said he had parted ways with an agent and was pessimistic about THE MAZE RUNNER when Sara introduced him to her agent, Michael Bourret. The rest, as they say, is history.

The next panel featured several of the authors who contributed to MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME, an anthology of Christmas-time love stories edited by Stephanie Perkins. Stephanie said she reached out to contributor Matt de la Pena because his books, which typically deal with a blue-collar teen male perspective on race and class, had romantic plots that she loved. Matt said that, though he enjoys writing love stories, that element is not typically how his books are promoted or perceived, so writing the story for MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME gave him the chance to focus on that element.

Rainbow Rowell and her editor, Sara Goodman at St. Martin’s Press, had a discussion with literary agent Sarah Burnes (full disclosure: she’s my agent!) about ELEANOR & PARK’s at times convoluted road to publication. Rainbow had all but given up on ELEANOR & PARK by the time it was published in the U.S., and Sara’s unique combination of tenacity and patience helped it become the juggernaut launching Rainbow’s YA career.

Rainbow also shared a great perspective on how to handle editor’s notes. Sometimes when an editor asks her to remove an element of the book, Rainbow says she adds more of that element instead. When an editor singles out an element, “They’re just telling you it isn’t working,” she said. Adding can be as effective as deleting, if it makes that element more organic to the book. Rainbow revealed that some of my favorite characters from her debut novel, ATTACHMENTS, were almost left on the cutting room floor when she got notes telling her to axe them. (Thanks for keeping the D&D, Rainbow!)

In what was perhaps the most emotional panel of the festival, a group of women gathered to discuss the mental illnesses they struggle with, and shared how they have learned to cope. Lauren Oliver shared an exercise that has helped her separate her feelings from negative interior voices: by imagining the inner voice as a physical demon, drawing or sculpting an image of the demon, and picturing it as a separate monster that lives within. On the subject of medication, Veronica Roth said when she told her therapist she didn’t want to be on medication forever, her therapist told her, “You won’t live forever. This is your one life and you have to make it as good as it can be.” Margaret Stohl shared the advice she gives to young readers: “It is impossible to suck at everything.”

The "She's Kicking It" panel featured a lot of women who are darn awesome in their own right: Leigh Bardugo, Sarah Fine, Alexandra Bracken, Ryan Graudin, Marie Lu, and Sarah Mlynowski. Most excellent moderator Jocelyn Davies asked a load of interesting questions, and in one of the moments that had all the women nodding their heads, Leigh said she does believe readers are harder on female characters than male characters. She noted one of her own male characters, who destroyed an entire village, was seen as “misunderstood,” whereas a female character who did the same thing would likely be seen very differently. Leigh also said she felt it was noteworthy that there is a lack of female anti-heroes, women as complex and interesting as Breaking Bad’s Walter White or The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano. Stop what you’re doing and go write these women, readers!

The silly hats and wigs were not even close to the most entertaining thing discussed on the YA and Hollywood panel. The writers shared how little they mind physical disparities between their fictional characters and the actors chosen to portray them, so long as the story is being told in the best way possible. Veronica Roth and James Dashner both admitted that, in some cases, the actors cast in their adaptions have replaced their visual of the characters. And Gayle Forman admitted that she kind of had a crush on Adam Wilde as played by Jamie Blackley.

So exciting, too – Ann Brashares said the four girls in the original SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS remain so close to this day that they are rallying to adapt the final book in the series. (Eee!)

The annual YA Smackdown is where the spirit of this festival is most on display: authors playing silly games, involving lucky volunteers from the crowd, and showing just how much fun writers can have when they get out from behind their computer screens. A few brave authors shared poems and other writing from when they were young adults (if you get the chance, ask Scott Westerfeld about “breathless breasts”), an updated version of Hollywood Squares saw Aaron Hartzler using all his acting charm to wrangle giggly authors, and the Taboo! Showdown with Veronica Roth and James Dashner was practically a photo finish.

And it wouldn’t be a YALLFest without a performance by the Beatles of YA, Tiger Beat! Despite the fact that she had laryngitis and had barely been able to speak all day, Libba Bray rose to the occasion and absolutely crushed epic anthems like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Whole Lotta Love. Drummer and vocalist Barney Miller nailed every rhyme in This Is How We Do It, and to top it all off, Tiger Beat brought the entire house to its feet to do the Time Warp (again!).

I wasn’t able to get to all the panels (where is that time turner?!) but I hope this rundown gives you an idea of the fun and excitement of YALLFest. The conference has been so popular, organizer Margaret Stohl announced that a brand new West Coast version – YALLWest – will be staged in Santa Monica, California in April 2015.

Can’t wait to see y’all there!
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  1. I so want to check out YALLwest! My schedule's filling up for next year, that's for sure...

    Thanks for the recap!

  2. So glad to hear about your great experience at YALLFest! We are so lucky to have YALLFest in Charleston every year, and we love being able to participate in such a fabulous event!


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