YALLFest is an annual young adult (YA) book festival that’s hosted in Charleston, South Carolina, sponsored by several YA publishing presses—Penguin Teen, Underlined, Epic Reads, and Riveted, among others—and partnered with the Charleston County Public Library, Music Hall, Library Society and more.
This year’s book festival was a two-day extravaganza which included over seventy authors—some keynote speakers being Angie Thomas of The Hate U Give, Jason Segel of Otherworld, Nightmares!, Marissa Meyer of Renegade, Cassandra Clare of Lord of Shadows, Renee Ahdieh of Flame in the Mist—several panels on craft, genre, and writing; book signings; press tents; booths; and special events.
Being an avid young adult reader (and, ahem, writer), I packed my bags and headed the six hours from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina. Despite being a grad student, teaching composition, and trying to write that dang thesis novel, I knew I couldn’t miss being among a group of people who seemed excited about YA just as much as I am.
On Friday, November 10th, I arrived in Charleston and met up with my friends outside a large white tent standing in the middle of a parking lot next to Blue Bicycle Books, Charleston’s indie bookstore and what seemed to be the main hub of YALLfest. My friends stood in a very long line that started inside the tent, wrapped outside the tent, and continued across the parking lot. In line, hundreds of fans held piles of books, clearly beloved and bruised. Some fans had plastic carts on wheels to roll around their collection of books. Fans of all ages, genders, shapes, colors, and sizes were there. It was kind of amazing to see so many adults running around fan-girling the hell out of this experience with their young adult books clutched to their chests.
The line was for Laini Taylor—author of Strange the Dreamer—who would begin her book signing at 2 p.m. That Friday, the book festival kicked off with YALLCrawl, which featured 13 authors greeting fans and signing books at various locations around downtown Charleston from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. In the Blue Bicycle Books shop, authors sat at tables to sign books in back rooms, the nooks and crannies of the little independent store. At the front of the shop, the YA books were displayed on tables around the center. Huge blue balloons spelling out YALL FEST against the back wall behind the counter welcomed the fest-goers as they entered the bookstore. All the authors’ books were available for purchase. Some of the YA authors included in YALLCrawl were E. Lockhart, Nicola Yoon, Lauren Oliver, Angie Thomas, Soman Chainani and, of course, Laini Taylor.
On the second day of YALLfest—Saturday, November 11th—there were panels starting from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. All panels were free unless a ticketed event. Seating was general admission, first-come, first-serve. There were also various meet-and-greets, breakfasts, press booths, and the opening keynote all before 11 am, some events even starting at 9 a.m. Aside from panels, there were book signings all day from favorite authors set up at various locations. Some of the attending press booths included Penguin Teen, NOVL, Riveted, Underlined, Harlequin Teen, HMH Teen, TOR Teen, I Read YA, Epic Reads, Fierce Reads, and others.
My friends and I arrived at the fest around 11 a.m. to amble around the press booths and tents. The first panel we wanted to go to started at 2 p.m. so we had some time to look at the presses, participate in the free books and totes giveaways and get books signed. The giveaways were wonderful because they promoted advanced readers’ copies of books and some booths allowed for interaction and participation with the festival book-lovers. For example, at the Penguin Teen Genre Machine, you could cast your vote for your favorite genre: contemporary fiction, fantasy, or historical, and receive a book of that genre.
What was so wonderful about YALLfest was that it was like AWP but for Young Adult writers, authors, and readers. There were so many panels offered on the writing processes—some included Romance, Feminism in YA, World-Building, Booktubers (YouTube Book Reviews), Humor in writing, The Timeliness of Story-Telling, the Publishing Industry for YA, Page to Screen Adaptations, Character Relationships of YA, Family Drama, LGBT writing, and Writing through Procrastination. Authors paid particular attention to sharing advice on craft and the process of writing with the audiences. There were Q&As on how to shape storyline after so many books, how to develop character arc, how to see the world through a younger point of view, how to build worlds that deal with magical creatures or objects or lands.
In the panel we went to at 2 p.m., called Genre Wars: Sci-Fi vs. Fantasy, located in the Charleston Music Hall, moderator and author Dhonielle Clayton asked authors Marissa Meyer, Joelle Charbonneau, Marie Rutkoski, Laini Taylor, Brendan Reichs, and Sarah Beth Durst to pick a team: science fiction or fantasy. The response to Fantasy was overwhelming but the responses proved that fantasy without realism, without the intimate real details of the world, would fail as fantasy. Furthermore, genres blend, genres allow for exploration of one another, as Marissa Meyer does in her Lunar Chronicles with both science fiction elements of colonization on the moon to the magical mind bending qualities of the Lunars.
At another panel, Ever-Expanding Universes, moderator and author Leigh Bardugo complimented Cassandra Clare for naming a magical blade before a character could use its magic in Clare’s fantasy series. Bardugo discussed the idea that magic cannot be welded in books without the reality of humans behind it—the intimate detail of the blade-naming creates a realistic world, a world where we name the things we love and desire and want to hold, whether that be our cars, our pets, our beloved. Cassandra Clare extended this notion of realism in fantasy when she spoke about villains in the panel with authors Soman Chainani and Margaret Stohl. Clare stated that while writing her novels, the villain in the first draft was far away from the intimacies and vulnerabilities of the main characters—she needed to make the villain real to them and provide that closeness. Human-touch, the realities of our world, contributes to successful genre-writing and, without it, we wouldn’t have the mass appeal that we do for YA books.
Often among literary circles, there seems to be a stigma against YA, as if it were a lesser-written form, but these authors, writers, and readers came to YALLFest and disproved the myth of YA being anything lesser in terms of literary craft. This festival wasn’t some plaything, but rather an immersive and serious pursuit of what makes YA so appealing to all ages, ethnicities, orientations, and genders. It builds upon the moral disputes, impurities, and radical explorations of YA with authors and fans alike, and reimagines a reality where YA is a dominant form of book-reading-pleasure.
At the end of the Ever-Expanding Universes panel, a girl stood up in the back of the audience to propose a final question for the panelists. She explained how she often had a hard time finishing something she was writing. She would abandon old ideas for new. She asked how to cope with this process of writing, how to stick with one idea and follow through. The panelists attended to her question with the bluntness that only book-writers can: you must continue onward. Leigh Bardugo told the girl in the audience that by being a chronic un-finisher she needed to push aside those shiny new ideas and keep going. As a writer, often we fill ourselves with doubt, we see too many problems in our work and we fail to recognize the good things. Revision and drafts are our friends. Cassandra Clare brought up the example of her villain being wrong in a first draft and how she had to re-work this character in another draft. Without haven’t written the first draft, she could have never gone onto the second, and then gone onto publishing and sharing her work with the world.
The craft of novel-writing is messy and monstrous. Laini Taylor said she surrounded herself with words that resonated with her novel while she was working on it, words that she wanted to remind herself of what her novel was going to be. One of those words was: delicious. The process of novel-writing won’t ever be pretty, but it can be delicious, intoxicating, feverish.
Keep going, Leigh Bardugo repeated into the audience.
Keep going on.
Kelsey Schurer is a second year fiction writer at Virginia Tech. She reads poetry and prose for the minnesota review.