I feel very lucky to have been able to attend YALSA’s YA Literature Symposium in Austin this weekend. It was a great weekend full of thought-provoking panels, amazing author interactions, and just a lovely time talking about YA literature!
One of my favorite panels that I got to attend – and sometimes you had to make some hard choices! – was Sunday morning’s “Keeping it REALLY weird (books for the fringe & reluctant readers).” This had a great lineup hosted by Kelly Milner Halls it also included Chris Barton, Andrew Smith, Lisa Yee, Jonathan Auxier, Bruce Coville, and Laurie Ann Thompson. These authors have a reputation for writing about subjects sort of on the fringe compared to other YA books. Their books involve cryptids, unstoppable giant insects, Star Trek geeks, gamers, oddballs who make change, aliens for teachers, and ghost gardeners among other things. But many readers connect strongly to these stories of outsiders and happenings on the edge of what may be normal or accepted. Not only was this a really informative panel but it was also so much fun. Why? Take a look…
See Lisa Yee in the middle? Jonathan Auxier bet her that she wouldn’t come to the panel dressed like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and said if she did, he would sing all of his answers to the questions to the tune of “Moon River.” So Lisa dressed up and Jonathan had to sing until he brokered a deal with the audience to do yo-yo tricks for a singing reprieve.
That’s the fun stuff, but what did we talk about? The panelists talked about the weird things they did as a child – Lisa Yee used to pretend she had headgear to fit in with her friends; Chris Barton jumped off a second story roof; Jonathan Auxier, after an obsession with Teen Wolf, tried to convince his mother he was a werewolf – and then moved onto to more serious fair.
Asked whether the publishing industry made it harder or easier for so called “weird” books currently Bruce Coville and others noted that publishers often just want to clone hits like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter. They often are trying to catch up to trends instead of create them. Andrew Smith noted that it was really the author’s fear of ‘going there’ that kept the strangeness out of books.
The authors recounted their favorite books – Laurie Ann Thompson’s was the Encyclopedia Britannica which makes sense for a nonfiction writer, and Andrew Smith named Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions as a favorite – then got to talking about the “weird” kids. Many asserted that the kids weren’t really weird, they were just waiting for a book, and friends and peers, to make them feel understood and valued. Bruce Coville said that story is the best way to teach empathy for the odd kids and how to help them out.
Towards the end, Andrew Smith noted that he didn’t really like calling readers “weird” because of the negative connotations and asserted that that reader isn’t weird, “he is one of us.” I think that is the most important take away from the session: have kindness for the teens in your community whose interests and lives might be outside of the typical; we are all a little bit like that and all deserve compassion.
To catch up on what else you missed from the Symposium, stay posted for more dispatches from other attendees and search for #yalit14 on Twitter!
-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater