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Interview: Houston TeenBookCon 2013!

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While some may find the task of reading to be a tedious endeavor, others relish in the infinite possibilities that books hold. Reading is often less about the story and more about the journey - the places, the people, the memories that heighten your senses and expand your imagination with every page turned. That’s why Young Adult literature, better known as YA Lit, has such transformative potential for not just teens, but also for any reader willing to suspend reality a bit and let the words take over. Interestingly enough, Houston is home to a number of YA authors, reviewers, readers, and enthusiasts and there are some really cool events happening around town to highlight this genre of literature. Once such event is the upcoming TeenBookCon taking place on April 20 at Alief Taylor High School. FPH spoke with TBC Co-Chair Lisa Stultz to learn more about the history and vision behind The Greater Houston Teen Book Convention.

When did TeenBookCon begin? What was the inspiration behind the event?

2010 was our first year, so this will be our fourth time holding TeenBookCon. The original inspiration for creating TeenBookCon was when I was introduced to the librarian who would become the TeenBookCon co-chair, Aria Tatelman. We were both at Blue Willow Bookshop to hear Laurie Halse Anderson speak and Cathy Berner, the events coordinator for Blue Willow, introduced us as two librarians who were passionate about our work and author events. Aria had recently been to the national librarians’ conference and heard a presentation about a teen book festival in New York State. She thought it would be a great idea to bring something like that to Houston and had spoken with Cathy about the idea. At the Laurie Halse Anderson visit, Cathy introduced me to Aria and said here’s a lively new librarian that I think would be great at getting something like this going. And from there, Aria and I began talks about everything from structure to cost to how we would get authors and that’s how TeenBookCon got its start.

How were you able to maneuver such a huge undertaking with no budget? How supportive have the community/school district/parents been?

So the biggest contributor to making this happen with almost no budget to speak of was the involvement of Blue Willow Bookshop. Since they are already established in the book industry as being able to hold fantastic author visits, it wasn’t too much of stretch for us to pitch the idea of getting lots of authors together at once for a bigger and better multiple author event. Cathy, Valerie Koehler,the owner, and the rest of the staff at Blue Willow have been invaluable in making TeenBookCon a reality. Our sponsors are a huge reason why we [are able to] make TeenBookCon happen. The community/districts/parents have been absolutely critical to our success, too. We also have a committee of over a dozen librarians and educators (from the public library system, public and private school libraries from around the city, even a professor from UH) who meet once a month or so during the year leading up to TeenBookCon to figure out all the logistics. And then on the day of TeenBookCon, we have another even bigger crew of volunteers—enthusiastic librarians, teachers, parents, and teens—who help with everything.

Who were some of the panelists from last year? Aside from a larger group of authors attending, what will set this year’s event apart from past years?

We have all of our past authors listed near the bottom of the authors page on our website. The “big name” from last year was Orson Scott Card. He is quite the character! Maggie Stiefvater and Ruta Sepetys were the surprise crowd favorites last year (or maybe not that much of a surprise—they are both fantastic writers and captivating speakers). Michael Grant and D.J. MacHale brought in massive crowds of teen boys. And the graphic novelists panel consistently draws great crowds of teens who either just love comics and manga or are possibly aspiring artists themselves.

I think the best thing about each year’s event is how different each author’s story is. And having them grouped into panels where they either all write on a certain theme or style (like the graphic novelists) allows for some fantastic conversations to happen. Many of these authors have been fans of each other over the years and TeenBookCon sometimes represents the first time they’ve met in person or it is a reunion of author friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. The energy of the event is enough to carry me and the rest of our committee, volunteers, and teens who attend through to another year despite how much effort and planning goes into each event.

Since the advent of social networking sites such as Youtube and Twitter, it seems like YA literature has taken a huge leap over the last several years. How do you think the internet has helped (or maybe it hasn’t?) YA literature reach a wider audience?

All of the Web 2.0 sites that have exploded in the last several years have really transformed the face of the YA lit scene. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr and other sites are all places where not only are authors getting to post exclusive content and things as mundane as their daily routines, but all of these sites have allowed fans to talk back to the authors. Those of us from older generations (even 10 years ago or less) never had such an opportunity to get immediate feedback from authors about our favorite books or advice for aspiring writers. Sure, we might have written a letter to an author and maybe gotten a form letter back from an author’s assistant, but to have your tweet seen by the thousands (or in the case of John Green, millions) of followers when they retweet or reply to your tweet—that’s huge! And for some reason, it seems like YA literature is where the cutting edge of the convergence of Web 2.0 and YA lit is happening—whether that’s because teens are the ones who drive the authors to be more connected and that just doesn’t happen as much in adult literature or if it’s the content that authors of YA lit are creating today is the reason that people from every age group are demanding more and more content in the YA lit field—I don’t know. I suspect it’s some of both.

There is much debate in professional and publishing circles about “literature” versus “young adult fiction” and how “the novel” for adults has become this thing that must be hyper-self-aware and has to be so convoluted to be considered “literature,” whereas YA novels are more honest, direct, and cut to the heart of human emotions (think John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). I don’t know if that’s true. I read almost exclusively YA lit because that’s what I love and that’s what my students read and there are just so many amazing stories that are being written “for teens” that are simply amazing stories in their own right and deserve to be read by everyone with a pulse. Read ELEANOR & PARK (by Rainbow Rowell) and tell me that it didn’t bring tears to your eyes and remind you what it was like to be a teenager in both the best and worst ways. The absolute best part about social networking for YA lit (and the rest of reading life in general) has been the ability for that excitement of word-of-mouth recommendations to expand globally. Where you used to have to wait for a friend whose taste was similar to yours to recommend the next great book, you can now go on a ton of different sites and find people who like what you like and discover new and wonderful books and authors that you might never have heard of otherwise. Libraries and librarians are also getting on board—I don’t want to leave us out of the picture. We’ve always been great at giving suggestions as well, but now we can tweet mini-reviews to our teens and connect with other librarians across the country and the world to get our new ideas, too. It’s a great time to be a reader!

How would you like to see TBC grow in the next five years? How can Houstonians help?

I’m not sure how much more TeenBookCon itself can grow, since we have 38 authors coming this year and we are about to outgrow our current facility (we’ve always held TBC at Alief Taylor High School) and the day has had to expand by an hour this year to accommodate so many fantastic authors. We would love to get more teens coming to the festival from more places in and around Houston. We would also love to see more teen book festivals like ours sprout up in other cities around Texas. Since we started TeenBookCon in 2010, we’ve had a spin-off festival created in the fall for tweens called TweensRead by a librarian and reading coach who worked with us on the TBC committee. We’ve also seen the emergence of other teen festivals in Keller and Round Rock as well as the huge expansion of the Austin Teen Book Festival—so much so that they’ve had to move locations into one of the city’s convention centers.

The best way for Houstonians to help TeenBookCon grow is spread the word like crazy. Follow us on Twitter, like the Facebook page, keep an eye out on the website for new postings and tell every teen you know that the best place to be on Saturday, April 20th is at TeenBookCon! Oh, and if any local businesses or generous individuals would like to contribute, there’s more info on our sponsors page.

About BrigitteZ

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