More than 500 librarians and teachers came together to celebrate young adult literature at YALSA’S 2014 Young Adult Literature Symposium on November 14–17 in Austin. The official theme was “Keeping It Real: Finding the True Teen Experience in YA Literature.” The unofficial theme, which came up in nearly every program I attended, was diversity (or the lack thereof) in teen books.
Launched in 2008, the YALSA YA Lit Symposium has taken place every other year in locations across the country (2008: Nashville; 2010: Albuquerque; 2012: St Louis). This has consistently given the event a local flavor and provided people nearby a chance to attend. This year, I met a lot of people from Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere within driving distance. Going forward, the Symposium will take place annually, with the next one taking place in Portland, OR, from November 5–7, 2015. Expanded in scope, it will be called the Young Adult Services Symposium.
Why did I attend this year? And why did I go in 2012, 2010, and 2008, even though I’ve never been close enough to drive? (In fact, the 2012 one occurred right after Super Storm Sandy, making my travel from the Jersey Shore to St. Louis quite the challenge.) No, I don’t go just for the tote bags. Here are my five favorite things about the Symposium and the reasons why you, too, should attend.
Even with a high attendance, the Symposium is an intimate event. Whether taking the shuttle ride to the hotel or standing in line for coffee during the breaks between sessions, you tend to see the same faces, creating an instant community.
Conversations are easy to start, even for introverts like myself, because there’s a shared commonality: YA literature. Asking someone what their favorite book is right now, or what they currently despise, gets the conversation going.
For those active on social media or virtual committees, it’s a chance to meet online friends. Using a recent photo makes it easier for people to connect that Twitter name with the person in front of them.
The people I’ve gotten to know there have become a valuable part of my “personal learning network.” I’ve brainstormed ideas, shared resources, written articles, and planned presentations with them. YALSA provides several opportunities to foster these serendipitous connections.
AUTHORS, AUTHORS, AUTHORS
Three intense days of pre-conferences and programs resulted in many opportunities to hear authors in formal settings such as panels, programs, and lunches, as well as informally, over coffee and pastries or wine and cheese. During the presentation “Talking Bookcovers with Young Adults: Whitewashing, Sexism and More,” Allie Jane Bruce, children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of Education, hosted Malinda Lo (Inheritance; Little Brown, 2013) and Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming; Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2014). “Bridge to Tweenabithia: Reader’s Advisory For the Gap Between Juvenile and Young Adult” included authors K.A. Holt (Rhyme Schemer, Chronicle, 2014) , Steve Sheinkin (Bomb, Roaring Brook, 2012), Kekla Magoon (How It Went Down, Holt, 2014) and P.J. Hoover (Solstice, Tor Teen, 2013) discussing writing for different audiences. R.L. Stine’s speech during the closing luncheon showed that the master of horror and “Goosebumps” (Gareth Stevens) author has a real funny streak, leaving the entire room laughing.
I kept overhearing the same conversation, but with different people: “I just met so-and-so, and they were so nice!” It’s great to chat with people you’ve known through their books, interviews, or social media presence, and find out that they’re as friendly as you’d hoped.
YALSA’s “Book Blitz” author book signing also provided attendees a chance to meet authors. I waited on lines to see authors I’ve read for years and new-to-me authors whom I’d heard speak. The titles I went home with included Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life by P.J. Hoover (Starscape, 2014); Alpha Goddess by Amalie Howard (Sky Pony Press, 2014); Living With Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles (Candlewick Press, 2013); Inheritance by Malinda Lo (Little Brown, 2013); and Bad Houses by Sara Ryan, illustrated by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse, 2013).
Three pre-conferences, 15 programs, luncheons, paper presentations, and poster sessions: there was plenty to do and some hard choices about what to attend. This year, the program that made me rethink some of my long-held assumptions was the first one I went to, “You Are Welcome Here: Helping Conservative Teens to Navigate, Rather than Skip, the YA Section,” presented by Nicole Jenks May, an instructor with the Kolbe Online Academy, a Catholic online school, with a panel of teachers from the Charlotte (NC) Islamic Academy: Zaynab Martin, Dorene Alama, and Rabia Davis. May also received input and assistance from Beth Meister, library media specialist at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, providing a range of perspectives.
One piece of advice: “Avoid ‘tossing out the baby with the bathwater.'” That is, tell the teen who is reading a novel that if a passage offends them, skip it and move on. I’ll confess, that really bothered me at first. The author wanted that passage in the book—you can’t skip things that make up the whole!
But then I thought about my own reading habits and how I believe that teens shouldn’t be held to a different standard than adults. I like murder mysteries and horror but not drawn-out descriptions of murder, torture, or assault. I will read books that I enjoy for plotting, setting, characterization, and skip parts that are too graphic for my taste. Why not tell teens or other readers that it’s OK to read that way too?
EXPLORING BEYOND THE HOTEL
The symposium traditionally takes place in one hotel, and while that helps attendees to connect, it’s also good to get out. Austin is a great walking city. I visited Book People, the largest independent bookstore in Texas; had ice cream at the famous Amy’s Ice Cream; and went to the Bullock Texas State History Museum to see the “Fly Girls of World War II” exhibit, a show enriched by my reading of that teen books with World War II women flyers, such as Flygirl by Sherri Smith (Putnam, 2009) and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Disney Hyperion, 2012).
THE THRILL OF PRESENTING
The Symposium is an excellent opportunity to be a presenter—the one at the front of the room sharing expertise and experience. When I submitted a proposal for the 2008 symposium, I had never presented at the national level. My friend Carlie Webber, a former librarian who is now a literary management agent, and I thought, “Why not?” We were thrilled when our program, “Fandom, Fan Life, and Participatory Culture,” was accepted. Nerves and worrying followed, but it ended up being fun, well received, and professionally valuable.
Worried about filling an hour-and-a-half slot? You don’t have to do it alone. This year, I was part of the panel “Whose Reality Gets Written?” organized by author Blythe Woolston (Black Helicopters, Candlewick, 2013). Also participating were authors Swati Avasthi (Chasing Shadows, Knopf, 2012), Steven Brezenoff (Guy in Real Life, Balzer & Bray, 2014) and E.M. Kokie (Personal Effects, Candlewick, 2012); along with Andrew Karre, editorial director at Lerner Publishing Group.
We panelists first talked about what appears in books versus the reality of teen lives. During the second, very lively half, we asked the audience, What can librarians and teachers do to create change in whose reality appears in books? What’s the right way to promote diverse books to colleagues and students? Almost every audience member had their “teacher voice,” making for an energizing discussion.
I can’t say this strongly enough: submit a proposal to YALSA. Brainstorm ideas with your colleagues, and go for it. The 2015 theme is “Bringing It All Together: Connecting Libraries, Teens & Communities,” and the deadline is December 1. If you think that your expertise is more about programs, outreach, and working with teen volunteers, not literature, that’s excellent. Now that the symposium has expanded its scope to all young adult services, you have no excuse.
Elizabeth Burns (@LizB) is a youth services consultant for a network library of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. She blogs at “A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy.”