I had the most amazing experience this past weekend! I attended the Teen Book Festival up in Rochester, NY and was blown away by it. Upon arrival, there are 15 or so volunteers in brightly colored t-shirts directing participants where they needed to go. In fact, there were so many volunteers that you never feared getting lost because there was someone to help you every few feet!
The next BIG thing was the grand entrance of the authors. They were lead in by a MARCHING BAND (local high school) and arrived in classic cars and a wonderful 50s era bus. Once they had disembarked, the drum corp lead the way up the red carpet and into the gymnasium, where opening festivities were held. What a hoot it was to watch!!! In the gym, they were lead backstage and the rest of us were entertained first by the amazing drum corp (I do love a great drummer!!!) then a show choir from a local school. The general atmosphere felt like a baseball game, complete with huge mascots (an eagle, a pirate and some sort of bird) tossing prizes into the stands. Speaking of stands…they were filled to the brink with teenagers and a few adults, as well. There were probably 400 people there and more than 1/2 were teens! The festival was really all about the young people. We adults were just along for the ride.
The opening session began with the introduction of the authors, which was very funny. The creator/organizer, Stephanie Squicciarini, opened each intro. with “This author was named most likely to…”. Some of them were very funny, especially if you knew the authors at all. Once the introductions were over, the program moved to Q & A. The Qs came from local teens who turned them in at their public or school libraries. Then the breakout sessions started. All the authors presented three times so that you could get to see your favorite author at least once.
I sat in on the Bullying and Body Image panel where three young female authors spoke about their experiences with bullying. Heather Brewer, author of the Vladimir Tod series, spoke about being bullied mercilessly at school. Heather’s series is about a male vampire who just doesn’t fit in anywhere. Jackie Kessler, author of the Hunger trilogy, spoke about her experience with her family who were constantly telling her that “she’d be so beautiful if only she’d lose 10 lbs”, which caused her to be very insecure and, eventually, she became bulimic. A. S. King is a very confident woman who had some issues with boys who bullied her about sex. A.S. writes contemporary fiction with a very sardonic voice. These ladies were so passionate about this topic and surviving it. They gave some really great resources for kids to use if they knew anyone in crisis and one young girl was in tears because of a friend who had attempted suicide and all three ladies gave her a hug and took her aside later to chat with her about it. I was so touched by their spirits!
The next session I sat in on was with Terry Truman, author of the Michael Printz Award novel Stuck in Neutral about a young boy with sever Cerebral Palsy. Terry is an absolute hoot to watch and listen to! I think he deals with the difficulties in his life with his totally wacky sense of humor. Stuck in Neutral’s central character is stuck inside of a body that doesn’t work properly at all. People have no idea that inside, he has a brilliant mind and great sense of humor…he just can’t communicate at all. Terry’s oldest son suffered a severe brain injury during the birth process. Another of his books deals with suicide, which he experienced first hand when he and another son came home to find that his step-son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, had hanged himself. Even while telling of these horrible things, you got the sense that Terry felt them very deeply and his way of dealing was to find something to laugh about. In most of his books, there are laugh-out-loud parts. You almost feel guilty laughing but Terry said that his main purpose for writing these stories was to give people another perspective on other’s lives. It’s hard not to look differently at someone in a wheel chair after reading about Shawn McDaniel.
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to this festival was to hear Ellen Hopkins speak. One of my students who shall remain nameless (she’s an amazing swimmer, is a rising 8th grader and her first name starts with S) bugged me for a full year to read Ellen’s books. I was hesitant because I knew the subject matter was very intense and serious…drug addiction. It’s not a subject I enjoy reading about because I lived it with my brother but, I finally relented (after S. promised to read 2 books I recommended). I don’t think I’ve ever been so powerfully and profoundly affected by a book in a very long time. Crank was a very thick book but written in free verse (poetry) so it was very easy to read but also incredibly difficult. It probably should be required reading for any at-risk teens because the main character’s experiences were so horrific that no one in his/her right mind would ever think about trying drugs after reading about it. What made it even more powerful is the fact that all of the books are based on Ellen’s own daughter! She is the main character. Ellen’s way of dealing with all of it was to write these books (Crank, Glass, Fallout) so that she could try and process what happened through her daughter’s eyes. It’s not a happy or easy ending, either in the books or in Ellen’s real life but she has a great personality and sense of humor as well as an understanding family to talk to so she’s working through it.
All in all, the festival was well worth the very quick trip and even the VERY late plane (I didn’t get to my house until 1:00 am…weather delayed my plane for 5 hours!!!). If it is at all possible, I highly recommend anyone interested in teenagers and the books they read to attend this festival!