There need to be more events like the NoVa Teen Book Festival.
Everywhere, and as soon as possible.
This festival was a free, day-long event for book lovers held at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, making it accessible to most of the DC/Maryland/Virginia area (mostly Virginia, but I’m from Maryland, as are the three friends with whom I attended). Thirty authors of Young Adult (YA) literature came to lead Author Panels, Q&A Breakout Sessions and Book Signings. I jotted down several new titles that I now cannot wait to read and have also since been tempted by the likes of OwlCrate (which is much like LootCrate, but for YA Lit).
I cannot say enough good things about this event. It was smoothly organized, there was an abundance of great panels and sessions to attend, and it was encouraging to see such a broad range in the age of attendees, as well as a balance of genders. Not only do I mean to attend again next year, but quite possibly volunteer. I got to see just how alive the literary community still is, and among a genre that still gets underrated all too often; YA Fiction continues to evolve and grow, and is so much bigger than just the Hunger Games and Divergent franchises (which, themselves, are perfectly valid in their own right).
As a relatively new convention-goer and cosplayer, I was expecting this event to be somewhat like that; big crowds, overpriced (but tempting) merchandise and concessions, and significant distance from the authors and speakers. None of that was the case. The whole atmosphere was intimate and accessible. Don’t get me wrong: I love going to the cons and I fully understand why they are set up the way they are. This was just an entirely different world. The authors were walking around just like the guests for most of the day and were open to being approached between panels and events. Especially the third panel I went to, towards the end of the day, the three authors being interviewed – Lisa Maxwell, Randy Ribay and Kelly Zekas – was one of the most fun because it was more like just a group of people hanging out, sharing wisdom rather than a panel and it was great.
Of course, I enjoyed every panel, but probably the biggest takeaway was the message in Holly Black‘s keynote speech. She addressed the general stereotype that is often associated with the Fantasy genre (both in Teen and Adult); that it’s not really important and that it’s something to be ashamed of. Except that it’s not. Many authors have challenged this sentiment, but I’ve never heard it from the perspective that Holly offered. The most surprising thing she argued for that Fantasy is not [always] an escape.
Fantasy is not necessarily a retreat from the world … In realism we say ‘his heart is broken.’ In fantasy, a heart can literally break into a thousand pieces.
In recent years, I have not been able to read nearly as many books as I would like and it’s been like a great homecoming, this experience. I’ve strayed away from it, exploring more straightforward historical fiction, but always leaning towards the magical/fantastical versions of it. In preparation for the event, I picked up Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest, so as to be familiar one of the authors’ recent publications. I enjoyed the book far more than I expected to and it was a welcome return to a genre I have been away from for far too long. In this novel, especially, I can see her points demonstrated.
I think some part of the collective ‘us’ still believes in magic, whether its urban legends or lucky numbers or cracks in the sidewalk or the phrase, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ What does that mean? That’s magic! … That feeling, that stuff is still what fantasy gets at. And its allowed to ask “what if?” questions, right? What if winter lasts for decades? What if we could fly? What if only some of us could fly? What if we lived forever? What if only some of us lived forever? What if we could hear one other’s inner thoughts? What if we could have magic but there was a terrible price? … That speculative nature is part of what contributes to it seeming not so serious because it implies a suspicious plotty-ness, right? Often considered the hallmark of pulpy genre … but it’s vast. Fantasy and speculative fiction allows us to imagine a world that’s suddenly or greatly different form our own and through that, it gives us insight, not just to the world we live in, but the understanding that our world doesn’t have to always have be the way it is … I want to always, no matter what, say that I write Fantasy novels without being ashamed, that I read Fantasy novels without being ashamed.
Going to this book festival has brought me back to a genre that has been incredibly instrumental in shaping who I am as a writer, reader and overall person. I had forgotten that. And I am so, very happy to be back.
I sincerely hope it doesn’t have to be a full year before I can experience something like this again.