Last weekend, I made the 5.5 hour journey from Wisconsin down a pair of interstates to YALSA's YA Lit Symposium in St. Louis. I left early on Thursday morning. Now if you know anything about central Illinois, there is no traffic and there is nothing to look at. It is flat, and with harvest in progress or over, the fields are brown and empty. This is pretty much what the entire drive looked like. Please note I took the photo because there were no other cars around at all:
When I got into St Louis, I had my car valet parked for the first time in my life, which involved a series of really stupid questions to the valet guy and the front desk clerk about where my car would go, how I would get it back and how could I ever find it again?
I settled in for a bit because the drive was draining (it was boring. So boring.). Then Capillya and Adele made their way to my room so we could meet each other and I could get the scoop on what they had been up to. I then went out to dinner with a few friends before reviewing my presentation notes and fretting about what else I needed to include.
Liz got her flight rebooked for Friday morning, so I had the room to myself for the night. This was the view:
Early on Friday, I met up with Angie so we could catch up with each other and talk a bit about YA lit and about our presentation. The first stop was registration for the conference, wherein I got my badge with "speaker" on it. This never, ever stops amazing me:
We wandered down to a restaurant called Rooster, where we had a tough time picking out what to eat. To ease our decision, we chose to split caramelized banana nut pancakes which looked like this:
And then I decided on a black bean, onion, and homemade salsa scramble for myself, which looked like this:
Both were as delicious as they looked. We did not finish either of them, but we made the effort.
As we walked back to the hotel, we made a stop at Left Bank Books and commented upon their entire, well-stocked YA section. Even though it was only two sets of double shelves, we easily talked about every book on there and whether or not it was good. Then we both walked away with a pair of books (because who can walk out of a bookstore without actually buying something?). As we continued our journey to the hotel, we stumbled across this:
I didn't see a need to stop, but we did. It was just an express location, and there wasn't much in terms of books available. But it was nice to see what WAS on the shelves here.
I went back to the hotel room to wait for Liz to show up, and in the mean time, I did a ton of this:
Taking notes on my notes for the presentation. I realized one of the girls I was presenting with was going to be talking raw numbers, and I felt like I should do some research as well. As I was working, I got a tweet from Sarah, who was at a pre-conference session about forthcoming YA trends. It was a photo. Apparently, STACKED was a resource they talked about to keep up with YA lit. This is one of the most mind-blowing things ever.
Then Liz came in, and we were happily reunited. Which involved her taking a shower before we went to the first official event of the Symposium, a networking social. We each partook in a glass of wine and chatted with other attendees. I got the chance to meet a couple of people I knew via Twitter or blogging. It was a good, low-key event and there was no pressure to hang around for too long. Which was great, since both of us were hungry and we decided to hit the hotel restaurant for food and wine.
We then both proceeded to hang out in our hotel room and relax. We also took in a view of what the Arch looked like at night. I love how it glitters:
Saturday morning, we both got up early to prepare for a day full of conferencing. The Lit Symposium was set up so that each hour and a half block of time had either two or three simultaneous presentations at once. I love and loathe this set up: I love how I can choose exactly what it is that interests me, but I loathe when it means I can only choose one thing that interests me. The first 8:30 am session meant choosing between Liz's panel on Fan-created Works (which I missed at ALA Annual since it was at the same time as Jackie and my's presentation) and Adele's presentation on Aussie YA. I chose to attend Liz's.
The YA Literature and Fan-Created Work was a panel with Robin Brenner, Liz Burns, Leslee Friedman (from the Organization of Transformative Works), and Aja Romano (fandom journalist at The Daily Dot and Shipping News columnist at Afterelton.com). The discussion centered around how fan-created work came through the growth of the internet and it was funny hearing that the bulk of those familiar with it are people my age and their first experiences with fan-created art came when they were around 13 or 14. That was certainly my experience.
We got a great series of definitions for different types of fan-work and learned about where the biggest online fandom communities are -- including LiveJournal (more among adults than teens), AO3, Fanfiction.net, and Tumblr. For those participating in fandom, the community is the most important and defining feature. This is because fandom is free, it's on the internet, and it allows people to express their creativity in a lower-pressure aspect than if they were creating art from themselves only.
Fandom isn't new, and it's been around for a long time. Many of the books we read today and many of the authors who have their own books started as people who were into fanfiction or other acts of fan-creation. Some books that are examples of fan art (defined in this context as those pulling from a canonical work) include Bridget Jones's Diary, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, Jane by April Lindner, Tighter by Adele Griffin, You by Charles Benoit, and others. Authors who are known for having participated (and note this isn't necessarily where they got their start but rather, they've been active in communities) include Claudia Grey, Saundra Mitchell, Marissa Meyer, Cassie Clare, Sarah Rees Brennen, Peter David, and more.
Robin shared with us the results of a survey she conducted on fandom, and some of the results are really interesting. Those who participate do so because the escapism is appealing, it's a creative environment that encourages remixing and recreating, there is a lot of high quality material out there, it's inclusive in that so much out there undercuts mainstream society's views of things like homosexuality and more, it's speculative, it's focused on the relationships between characters in the story, and characters matter.
I found the notes that the bulk of fandom is female dominated and that it's a very queer-friendly space worth mentioning, too.
We then saw a video from a couple of Robin's teens about why they like fandom. Having the teens speak for themselves was not only informative, but it really got me thinking about ways I could incorporate fanwork into library programming. I loved the notes that the presentation ended on these notes: 1. there is no barrier to entry in fandom and 2. fandom has shown everyone has the capacity to create.
After the fandom panel, there was a nice break between sessions for breakfast and networking. I grabbed a snack and headed to my next panel -- The Future of Review Guidance -- to park seats for myself and Liz.
I was a little nervous about the session, since I have a Lot of Opinions about reviewing, but I had no reason to worry. Angela Carstensen (editor of YALSA's "Outstanding Books for the College Bound" and librarian in New York City), Francisca Goldsmith (book reviewer for a number of review journals), and Carla Riemer, a school librarian in Oakland, California did a marvelous job talking about the pros and cons of traditional review outlets and new review outlets in terms of discovering new books.
The session began with distinguishing between reviews -- contextualized criticism -- and reader response -- personalized discussions of books that don't commit to critical thinking or contextualization. The panel noted neither one is better or worse than the other; they are simply different.
Both Cartensen and Reimer gave a survey to their students about where they learn about new books. The responses for both were incredibly similar, with the order of importance being from talking with friends, browsing bookstores, from magazines, from the school library, from the newspaper, tumblr, the public library, then finally, Goodreads and blogs. 50% of teens said they read reviews, primarily from magazines, then newspapers, then websites and Amazon. Maybe most interesting is that 92% of those who responded said they do not write reviews themselves, but 90% recommended books to their friends.
Reading is hugely social to teens, and they'll often go into the book stacks together to talk about titles. Aside from friend recommendations, note that interesting covers or books that are on favorite subjects or from authors they like will make a book appealing to teens -- they like the familiarity. Teens require trust when it comes to books, and they respect the opinions of those who they know and who know them. This is no surprise to teen librarians.
Because reading is social, though, teens ARE accessing blogs and social media for book recommendations. These are not foreign nor separate things for them. Those are part of their trust circles, if you will. It's expanding their network of people from whom to learn about books fgrom.
The most important take away of this panel, though, came near the end. The library market is a TERRIBLE way to getting books out. It acts as a gateway, and it can be an incredibly limiting force. Because librarians are doing collection development and readers' advisory, they aren't always the best to focus new and underdiscovered titles upon. Libraries and librarians have limited outlet to the market and we can therefore limit ourselves. It's through using blogs and other outlets beyond the traditional review journal where librarians can learn about new titles. Having more resources allows for richer possibilities, and it gives more layers to the reading world.
The panel noted how important it is to know your reviewers and their editorial leanings and policies, as well as learning what genres the blogger/reviewer may lean toward. Know whether or not the reviewers are getting paid or if there is anything shady going on. That said, the panelists all agreed there is no downside to utilizing blogs and social media to expand your knowledge of the book world. Trade journals are only a small part of the wider world possibile. The only downside is there is so much out there.
My favorite quote to come out of the session was this, and it's something I believe in whole-heartedly: if you are passionate about a book or an author, especially as a librarian, spread the word. There is no harm in it.
At the end of the panel, the audience asked about good resources -- favorite blogs and websites they should know about. Can I say it was utterly surreal to have the past president of YALSA mention my blog? I could have died. Kim and I do this because we love doing it, and we write whatever we want to when we want to. So hearing other people find it valuable is odd and really heart-warming (did I get mushy?)
Jackie and Rachel's session followed lunch, and they spoke on Transmedia -- I didn't take a whole lot of notes because their presentation really had everything valuable on it. Go check it out.
If you're unfamiliar with the term transmedia, you should become familiar with it. Transmedia storytelling has three components: 1. it's across multiple media, 2. it's a single, unified story experience, and 3. it avoids redundancy. Think of books and experiences like Cathy's Book, which began with a components of physical and online clues when the book came out. According to the presentation, it's still got a nice transmedia component.
The thing I noted when listening was how many interesting connections there were between transmedia and fan-created works. Many examples of transmedia storytelling that were given at the beginning were based on works in the public domain, including Alice in Wonderland. It was interesting to see how the storytelling happened in app form, and it got me thinking about it coming about from a source of fandom. And those who find that sort of storytelling valuable and immersive are in some way engaging in fandom, aren't they?
Jackie and Rachel did a great job showcasing not just apps, but also enhanced ebooks and web experiences that were examples of transmedia storytelling. They then provided a list of criteria for evaluating transmedia, including the fact story needs to trump all and the media itself needs to add to the reading experience, rather than detract from it. Transmedia needs to be accessible (both acknowledged the digital divide, noting that 23% of teens own a smart phone -- and it's worth noting, I think, that means 3 out of 4 teenagers do not and those who own ereaders are often inheriting them from parents). Cost needs to be considered too; teens want things that are free. They are turned off by price. The transmedia experience needs to have functionality, and it needs to be relevant, rather than gimmicky or contrived. It also needs to be entertaining to grab a reader's attention.
I dug how this presentation also included videos from teens, as well as a video from Patrick Carmen (whose Skeleton Creek experience is still popular with middle graders), and more. Like I said, their Prezi is fantastic, and filled with information. Spend some time with it.
The very last presentation I went to for the day was Make it Pop: Pop Culture and Libraries. You can check out the presentation and information here.
This presentation was a survey of pop culture today, and it ended with a short discussion of how pop culture can be used in the library. I can't say it charted new territory, but it was entertaining. I thought it was a nice way to end the day, and like earlier sessions, it tapped into fandom and fan culture, which I found to be a really interesting uniting tie to all of the program.
What I did walk away with was a fabulous idea for a teen program, and that was fan art night. Toss out some art supplies and treats, and tell the teens to make fanart to share with one another (and display in the library). I love programs that are that easy because they are often the most popular.
After the last session, I went back to my room with Liz and Jackie to chat for a while before the final event of the day: the YA Book Blitz. Everyone attending the conference got a handful of raffle tickets which could be exchanged for finished copies of books by authors in attendance, who would then sign them. I don't like crowds, and I don't like waiting in lines, so this event was kind of a bust for me. I ended up meeting Beck McDowell and picking up This is Not a Drill, as well as chatting with Antony John and picking up his forthcoming book, Elementals. I then swung by Jo Knowles's table and got a copy of See You at Harry's before deciding I needed to go work on my presentation some more.
And then I went to dinner with Capillya and Adele:
We had a lovely time talking about the conference and about YA lit in general. It wasn't a super long dinner because I was meeting with my group to put final touches on our presentation shortly after.
After the presentation preparation session with the group, I felt a million times more confident, and even though I slept terribly that night, I woke up feeling pretty okay about the session.
Outside of each room at the conference was a board with the programs that'd be going on in the room, as well as a big board and post it notes for attendees to show off what they were currently reading. Of course, I snapped a photo of the board with our program and the board of current reads outside our room:
We got to the room early to set up our Prezi, and then we snagged the poor IT guy there to help us with the Prezi to instead take photos of us. I presented with Angie Manfredi, Drea Sowers, and Katie Salo, as well as Abby Johnson, but she was unable to attend due to a family illness. The four of us, as well as Sarah Thompson, have been talking with one another about the ins and outs of librarianship and ya lit for almost two years now -- you know how you have to have good colleagues to get you through hard times and to help you celebrate the good? That's why we all started our own listserv and why we turn to one another when we need something. So in the course of thinking about the possible topics we could present on at the Symposium, we knew we wanted to present together (Sarah bowing out because she didn't think she could attend) and we realized how much we were all passionate about contemporary lit. So it made sense we'd propose on the topic.
That we got to do it together was seriously a dream.
Before presenting, Capillya took this incredible photo of us, too. I wish I knew what we were laughing at, but I think it's pretty clear despite the slight nerves, we were so thrilled to be there and talk on this topic:
You can access our presentation information and handout here, and you can check out the flow chart to contemporary ya fiction here.
Everyone on the panel chose 10 books to talk to the audience that were current and tackled one of the four issues we were passionate about sharing: diversity (with specific attention to Latino/a stories), desire (romance with specific attention to books that contain romance but aren't necessarily romances), darkness -- my topic -- which covered tough things teens face, and finally, we wrapped up with dead (mysteries). Everyone did an awesome job of talking all of their titles within their 15 minute time frames except me. I only got through a little over half of mine.
What I loved most was the opportunity we had at the end to allow audience questions. The first question was directed at me and it was why I chose to talk about Butter, seeing I have been outspoken about the issue of fatness being portrayed in YA fiction. My answer? Butter never loathes himself for being fat. Instead, he is bulled into believing he's worth nothing. The book isn't a fat issue book but instead transcends it into something even scarier.
And then Angie and I both had the chance to extol the virtues of My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught. Angie also brought up her take on the troublesome portrayal of a fat body in David Levithan's Every Day, which I was able to bring a copy of home to check out for myself.
The next question was about what we thought were issues not yet being covered well in YA contemporary fiction. I said I thought blended families weren't being done too well (there are a lot of dead parents, but not a lot of step parents). Someone brought up the fact there are a lot of kids living in situations where mom or dad has a boyfriend or girlfriend but isn't remarried. On the drive home, I thought of a few examples fitting the need for this, including Kristin-Paige Maldonia's Fingerprints of You, Amy Spalding's 2013 title The Reece Malcolm List, Trish Doller's fall 2013 title All That Was Lost and as Angie pointed out, Kody Keplinger's A Midsummer's Nightmare fits the bill.
Another audience member suggested teen pregnancy books where the teens keeps the baby and must adjust to life with a child (including dating and school) are sadly lacking. This morning, I thought, too, how few titles tackle high school drop outs. So there's still a lot of uncharted territory in contemporary YA. I hope some of these holes get filled.
We were also asked by Adele about feminist-leaning titles, like those of Siobhan Vivian (whose books we did not get to include because of space and they didn't fit as neatly into our categories as we wanted). The only comparable we came up with on the spot was Kody Keplinger's The DUFF, so if there's anything you can think of, share it.
Also worth noting: we made some people sad when we repeatedly noted that books set in the 1980s are historical fiction. THEY ARE, especially to teenagers. Remember: teens today were born in the mid-1990s.
It was thrilling to see we ran out of handouts -- we had 100 -- and I think we had a great audience turnout, considering our panel was up against Scott Westerfeld.
Once we were done, I had to scoot out of the Symposium to check out of the hotel room and make the long drive back before it got dark out. I skipped out on the last set of panels, and I skipped out on the closing keynote with Scott Westerfeld. I didn't feel too bad about it since it was the same exact keynote he gave at Kid Lit Con in Seattle last year.
And while I didn't take a photo, I assure you the drive home was just as thrilling and traffic-filled as the drive there.
Overall, I thought that YALSA's YA Lit Symposium was one of the best conference I've been to in terms of the types of panels and information being shared. This is a professional development opportunity that focuses not just on YA lit, but on how YA lit and our passions about YA lit can help fuel and shape services to teenagers. Likewise, one of the best parts was putting faces to names of people I've been talking to for a while and meeting brand new people. Because in the end, that's what it's all about.